How to raise monarchs for beginners | experiment part one
I’m pretending like I know how to raise monarchs for beginners when I’m really just a beginner myself. This is my first year *attempting* to raise monarchs and it happened purely by accident. I just happened to be outside ID’ing wild blackberries when I noticed a monarch mama flying around erratically. I immediately thought two things: one, it is way too early to be seeing monarchs in Missouri, and two, why is she flying so weird?
I moved closer (to obvs get a photo with my phone) and noticed that she was very faded. Guys, this is not a distressed filter/overlay/whatever, that is just how worn her wings are…were. Are. Not sure where she is or if she’s alive still. Because she was dumping eggs like she was about to die. Anyway, when I moved closer to get a photo, I saw that she was leaving little white dots (EGGS) and then I about cried.
Typically, a monarch will only lay one egg per plant to make sure the caterpillar has enough food to eat…because if it doesn’t it will either starve (and die) or possibly eat the other caterpillars (and they die). “If you find a whole bunch of monarch eggs together that have been laid on a milkweed it means that something is wrong with the female. She’s either sick or very, very old and can’t hold back. Or, she has been flying along for a long time and several eggs have matured and she lays all of them at once (source).”
I don’t know a thing about raising monarchs (or really raising anything besides babies and chickens), but there is this magical tool called ‘the Google’, so I assumed I could figure at least a few things out to keep them alive. Same way I’ve kept my kids and chicks alive too.
How to Raise Monarchs for beginners
Here is what you need to raise monarchs:
- Eggs. Obvs. I’m part of “The Beautiful Monarch” group on Facebook (such an excellent resource), but there is a lot of talk about bleaching the eggs. Guys, I’m not about it. I’ll bleach animal bones for sure, but the things are like, dead already, and that’s the only thing I use bleach for. They say bleaching doesn’t hurt the monarch but kills other potential bacteria, virus, etc., but I’m over here like, no thanks. I accidentally sprayed some vinegar on my milkweed, so maybe that helped.
- Milkweed. This is the host plant for the egg and the ONLY thing monarch caterpillars eat. Really. They only eat milkweed. Nothing else. A lot of experienced caterpillar farmers (? not sure what to call them) will only take stem/leaf cuttings. I’m new and I just took the whole bloody plant.
- A container to keep your caterpillar/milkweed in (people have used those plastic condiment containers, jars with air holes, Tupperware, basically anything that will keep a tiny caterpillar contained for a bit)
- A mesh cage or something similar for when your caterpillars get bigger. I ended up building a little house out of an old glass window/window frames from our first house and old window screens from the windows we replaced in this house. I cover the top with cheesecloth, for now, but will probably make a lid for when the caterpillars get bigger and start crawling around everywhere.
- Spray bottle to water your milkweed so it stays mostly alive and so your caterpillars don’t dehydrate. I just spray above my plants and let it “rain” on them.
I originally kept my milkweed in this covered with cheese cloth until I found more milkweed and realized it wouldn’t all fit.
So I built this little butterfly/caterpillar house. The first photo shows my first few milkweeds and caterpillars, plus a few extra milkweed/eggs in the second photo:
Collecting Monarch Eggs
Guys, this is seriously so fun, because it’s like a little earth-made scavenger hunt! First, you have to spot the milkweed–if you don’t know what milkweed looks like, have a Google or check out this post that lists twelve native milkweeds for monarchs (it only shows the blossoms, so you might have to Google what the whole plant looks like). I know we have common milkweed, antelope milkweed, and butterfly weed that grow on our property, but for now, I just think the common is popping up.
(can you spy the egg on that last photo?)
You can place your milkweed stem in water and it should keep it fresh–kind of like keeping flowers alive 😉 I also tried putting some in pots, just because I like the look, but was also curious if they would root or not. I haven’t checked yet because the caterpillars are so tiny I don’t want to squish them.
Hatching the eggs
Fun fact: nature knows what it’s doing. Like, out of the 40 acres we own, that little monarch mama somehow managed to find milkweed that was only an inch tall because she knew it was the only plant suitable for her babies. So when it comes to hatching monarch eggs, guess what? You don’t really need to do anything but wait. And that is for real the hardest part, even though they hatch in like 3-5 days.
After three to five days the eggs will start to darken on top–this is the head of the caterpillar. If the egg goes completely dark monitor it for 48 hrs and if nothing happens, squish it because it’s likely a Trichogramma Wasp that lays its eggs inside the monarch egg. Terrifying and disgusting. (see here).
After your eggs hatch
As of writing this, I’m still in this “after your eggs hatch” phase (bottom right photo). There are actual holes in my milkweed! yay! They’re eating! Those little black dots in the bottom right photo are caterpillar poop, also known as frass. Just keep watering your milkweed with the spray bottle and if all goes well, in two weeks the caterpillars will form a chrysalis and there will be a part two (fingers crossed).
Send me good love.