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How to Raise a Native Butterfly from a Caterpillar in your Backyard

May 15, 2019 4 min read

Hi-ya peeps! It's Blaine and Tracey back to share another fantastic science activity in our new Elemental Science home!!

Well, really, we are not the ones sharing this - we are bringing everybody's favorite local expert back to share the deets. Please join us in welcoming Summer as she comes to share a perfect activity for summer...how you can help your local butterfly population by raising wild caterpillars.

How to Raise a Native Butterfly from a Caterpillar in your Backyard

Thanks, Blaine and Tracey!

And to my dear friends, if you remember a few summers back, I shared how to raise a butterfly from a caterpillar that you had purchased. Today, we are going to head outside and learn how to raise a few native butterflies from the caterpillars in your backyard!

Step 1: Plant the right plants.

The first step is to get some native plants that will attract the butterflies and provide food for the caterpillars. For example, if you want to raise monarchs, plant the milkweed that is native to your area. Your local plant nursery will be able to help you identify which one you should get. 

If you want to attract other types of native butterflies, here's how you can find out what their caterpillars eat. Start by googling "butterflies in (your area)" to see your options. Pick the species you want to raise and then google "(butterfly name) caterpillar food" to find out the plants they like to eat.

Once you have your plants in the ground, water them to keep them alive. Then, keep an eye out for the butterflies you are trying to attract.

Watch to see if they land on the plants and - well, there just is not a good way to say this one - watch to see if the butterfly touches the tip of its backsides to the leaf. If it does, it is most likely laying an egg. Note the leaves it touches and wait till it flies off to check for eggs. Look really close with a magnifying glass as butterfly eggs are tiny!

Step 2: Look out for caterpillars!

After you have found a few eggs, start counting down the days. You should see caterpillars appearing around 5 days after the butterfly laid the eggs. Keep an eye on your caterpillars and watch them grow.

It will take them about two weeks to mature and be ready for the next phase of life. I like to wait until they get good and fat before we bring them inside to our butterfly habitat. But if we notice that the caterpillars are disappearing before that, we'll bring them in earlier to keep them safe from predators. 

We use the same habitat that we got from Insect Lore when you raised our painted lady butterflies, but you can get just the butterfly habitats on Amazon.

Step 3: Observe the transformation.

Once the fatty caterpillars are in the habitat, we keep feeding them fresh leaves every day until they transform into a chrysalis. Hopefully, this happens within a day or two of bringing them inside.

We will add a stick into the habitat for the caterpillars, but they typically just attach to the top of the cage. Either way, when you see them drop down into a "J-shape" start watching the habitat very closely as your caterpillars will be changing drastically within the next 24 hours!

After they all change, we clean the remaining debris out the bottom of the habitat and wait for the butterflies to emerge. 

Step 4: Release the butterflies back into the wild.

After the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, it will emerge as a butterfly in about 10 to 14 days. Before this happens, the chrysalis will get a bit more transparent and you will be able to see a glimpse of the butterfly inside.

Once your butterflies emerge, they will need to hang upside down for a bit to let their wings expand and dry out. Their bodies will also lengthen and shrink down a bit when they release a reddish liquid, which is totally normal. It is the release of meconium, which is the metabolic waste that built up while the transformation was occurring.

A few hours after the butterfly emerges, once its wings have completely unfurled and it is trying to flit around, we take the habitat outside to release the butterfly and start the cycle all over again!!

A quick note...

If you raise butterflies for any length of time, you will learn that some loss is inevitable. Sometimes the caterpillars never complete the transformation into a chrysalis, sometimes they die before emerging. If that happens, just put on a pair of gloves and remove what is left being careful not to touch the other in the habitat.

Wrapping it up

Thanks, Summer! It's great to know that we can help our native butterflies to reproduce and carry on. If you try this out, take a picture, share it on Instagram or Facebook and tag us so we can join in on the butterfly watch, too!


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