Do I have to buy special materials to raise Monarch caterpillars? What is the best container to use to rear their larvae? Is it going to cost a lot of money?
These are questions that are asked ALL the time. There are no right or wrong answers. In fact, if you were to Google the questions, chances are, there are lots of products available for purchase! But, guess what…you can easily MAKE or use recycled materials, and chances are you have lots of things already in your own home*.
Then, what tools do I need? You need to gather up some 'basics' which are probably already in your home.
The 'Monarch' basics would include:
- small bowl
- tissues or paper towels
- Clorox wipes
- clean paint brush (fine-tipped and wide-tipped)
- tweezers (optional)
- rearing container (more on this below…)
- round coffee filters or toilet tissue
- tape (I prefer packaging tape)
- a plastic measuring cup
*The kitchen, bathroom, and child's room is where you will find many items. For example, a one- or two-cup measuring cup is perfect for collecting caterpillars as well as eggs and leaves! You can use the handle to 'hook' into your pants (hook it into your pocket or right into your waistband). This leave you with both of your hands free.
When butterfly larvae are really young it is best to NOT over-handle them. This is why you need that fine-tipped brush! Super-young caterpillars are at their most vulnerable when they first hatch. Too much handling is almost like manhandling (sorry for the pun!) and damage can result. Just let the caterpillar climb onto the brush or a leaf instead of actually poking or prodding it. IF a caterpillar is going to die (and many do when they are in their early instars) then don't add to the numbers because of your manhandling!
Leaving the larva on the leaf and simply moving that leaf into a container is a simple and safe way to 'handle' the baby. You can then just take that leaf and put it into a container. You can use the tweezers to move the leaf.
The larger brush is useful for cleaning out frass (caterpillar poop) and the bowl that is pictured is what I empty the frass and leaves into when cleaning out containers. It is the 'hold all' so that I don't accidentally throw out any of the babies!
Since cleanliness is next to godliness and is IMPERATIVE when raising Monarchs, invest in Clorox wipes or some similar antibacterial cleansing agent. Cleaning the area you are working on before and after will help to eliminate the potential bacteria and virus issues that plague the Monarch caterpillars. Wipe your tools with the Clorox wipes as well and be sure to RINSE AFTERWARDS with water! Be sure that everything is dried before caterpillars are handled. Monarchs are notorious for being sensitive to viral and bacterial infections. EVERYTHING is cleaned EVERY TIME. It may seem excessive but, trust me. All it takes is one sick caterpillar to ruin your entire group! So, just remember that whenever you use ANY type of cleaner, ALWAYS RINSE WITH WATER after so there is no residue that could be left on the container/tool to harm your caterpillars and that all your materials are DRY!
Next, you need a rearing container for the caterpillars. It isn't necessary to go out and purchase an expensive habitat or terrarium for this. There are probably many things that can be recycled that will suffice (and this will also be good for the environment as well!).
For example, many people buy Gladware containers to store goodies to take to school or work for lunch. These little plastic storage containers make excellent caterpillar homes in the early stages.
Just be sure to poke/punch holes in the lids using a needle or corkscrew and do so from the INSIDE of the lid (don't use a nail as the diameter of the hole will be too large and the caterpillar WILL crawl out!). Air circulation is EXTREMELY important (moisture is very bad news!) so those 'air holes' are necessary if you use a rearing container that seals well. If you notice any condensation (moisture build-up) inside the container, open the lid and air it out immediately! I'd also wipe out the container.
IMPORTANT NOTE: It is better to have fewer larvae in a container than too many when raising Monarchs. This particular butterfly seems to be more prone to disease than any other butterfly. If you have too many larvae crowded in a container, and one gets sick, chances are it will infect ALL the others! Having too many in one container raises the risk. The size of the container is NOT the issue here.
Inexpensive shoeboxes from the 'dollar store' are perfect because, again, they often don't form an airtight seal PLUS are tall enough for a Monarch to spread its wings once it ecloses (comes out of its chrysalis). It isn't necessary to make air holes in many of these containers because 1) they don't form an airtight seal, 2) there's just enough air that is contained within the container, and 3) you can easily poke holes (just do it from the INSIDE so that any burrs from the holes are on the OUTSIDE and not on the inside).
Daily frass (poop) removal and container cleaning is ESSENTIAL. Leaving frass in the rearing container adds to the possibility of moisture build-up which means mold and fungus (and guess what one of the problems Monarchs have? Fungal disease!). So, throw out the poop EVERY day (I do it several times a day.) The same goes for the food. Throw out the old leaves and replace it with fresh. Never feed your babies dried-up leaves. Never feed them leaves that are moldy, have rust, or are just plain nasty! Think of it this way: if the LEAF is sick then you caterpillar could get sick!
If you use a large container, you can place a paper towel at the bottom. This will make clean-up easier and aids in moisture absorption. Heat is also bad (so don't put the containers where sunlight can get in). Heat and moisture can contribute to bacteria and virus growth; just like humans can get sick from a 'bad' bacteria/virus, so can caterpillars! If you see water droplets forming on the inside of your caterpillar's container, remember to air and dry it out!
VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: How can you tell if your caterpillar is sick?
- Runny, diarrhea-like scree (poop)
- the body has turned black
- the body starts to elongate
- the fleshy filaments (there are two pairs on a Monarch) are misshapen
- vomiting (Monarchs should NOT vomit!)
Okay, back to more positive stuff. Hopefully, none of the horrid things have occurred. But knowing in advance what could happen is important!
As your larvae nears the 2-week mark you will notice they have grown substantially in size. What once were teeny little things are now humongous! Soon it will be time for pupating (if it is outdoors, it will migrate away from the host plant, sometimes FAR away!).
For those larvae that are in a rearing container you will need to provide places for them to pupate. IF your container is large enough, you don't have to do anything more than place a paper towel or coffee filter or toilet tissue across the TOP of your container.
Monarchs pupate by hanging upside-down in a 'J' position.
The paper towel/coffee filter provides a medium for the caterpillar to pupate upon AND it serves as another purpose: you can easily transfer the pupa to another container once the chrysalis has hardened!
Although it isn't necessary to go and buy fancy butterfly pop-ups, Insectlore sells inexpensive mesh 'habitats' on-line for under $20. The shorter one is called the Butterfly Garden and comes as part of a 'kit' which includes five Painted Lady larvae. The taller one is the Pavilion and can be purchased as part of a kit or by itself. To purchase either of these items, click on the
Insectlore Butterfly Kit link.
Once the pupa has hardened and the head capsule has been 'popped' off if you want to move the chrysalis, you can do so safely. This is where the tape comes in. Simply roll some packaging tape into a loop, then tape the pupa (chrysalis) onto another rearing container. Make sure the new container (IF you are moving the pupa) has enough space for an adult butterfly to spread its wings. If the container has smooth walls, then be sure to provide a stick so the butterfly has something to climb onto.)
You just want to be sure that no matter what you do use that the butterfly can safely eclose (come out of the chrysalis) and be able to SPREAD its wings without being forced to have crumpled up wings. Having something to hold on to will also keep the butterfly from drowning in its meconium (waste fluids, often a reddish-brownish liquid) that you may see after it ecloses.
Now, all you have to do is wait for the butterfly to harden its wings (larger butterflies need more time), then you can release it when the outdoor temperatures are around 70-degrees. Whew! A piece of cake!