Want to help the endangered monarch? Here’s why you need to plant milkweed in your garden. Along with a how-to guide for raising monarch butterflies.
I met Jess while living in Ireland. Though she arrived a few months ahead of us, we were on pretty much the same path. Our husbands were working at the National University of Ireland. We both had toddlers and lots of free time because we didn’t have work visas. And we both ended up returning to Canada at the same time (though she’s on the opposite coast).
Jess always has interesting projects going on… and one project, in particular, piqued my interest. Raising monarch butterflies! So I reached out and she agreed to tell me all about it.
When did you get interested in monarch butterflies?
I saw monarch caterpillars in person for the first time the summer we moved to New Brunswick. I was so excited because I’d been seeing photos of them throughout my life but I’d never met one. They seem magical, and I love that they can only eat milkweed, which makes milkweed seem kind of magical too!
Two summers later I bought a swamp milkweed plant. We found a few little monarch caterpillars on it that summer after it bloomed but no chrysalises. The following summer, we had caterpillars on it throughout the summer. I checked it every day but I didn’t ever see a chrysalis.
We went to a local greenhouse where they were raising monarchs, and the woman working there let me know that monarchs don’t tend to build their chrysalises on the milkweed itself, they just like to eat it. To put this to the test, I cut some milkweed and put it in a tall glass vase, added some tall sticks, and brought some larger caterpillars in. I loved the idea of helping them out, even if it was just a few of them. I think I was even more excited than the kids.
I loved these little guys so much. It was such a privilege to watch them grow and transform.
Probably the best and simplest way to help endangered monarch butterflies is to plant milkweed in your garden. It is so essential to the monarch’s lifecycle.
- The monarch lays its eggs on milkweed.
- When the caterpillars hatch, they eat the milkweed leaves.
- And the butterflies drink the nectar of the milkweed plant.
There are 100s of different varieties of milkweed. When deciding what type to plant, I recommend choosing a local species. No matter where you live in North America, there is a local variety.
If you’re not sure what to buy, Swamp Milkweed and Butterflyweed are widely available, quite pretty, and grow well in most regions.
Four Generations of Monarchs
Monarch butterflies go through 4 generations each summer before flying back South for the winter.
- February/March: The monarch comes out of hibernation and flies north.
- March/April: The first generation of eggs are laid on a milkweed plant. From that point, it takes between 2 and 6 weeks for the monarch to complete a lifecycle (caterpillar, pupa, butterfly, lay eggs, and die).
- May/June: The second-generation eggs are laid.
- July/Aug: The third-generation eggs are laid.
- Sept/Oct: The fourth generation of eggs are laid and hatched. However, instead of laying another round of eggs, these butterflies live for 6 to 8 months. They migrate south for the winter, then head back north in the spring to start the process again.
Raising Monarch Butterflies
As I mentioned above, the best way to help endangered monarch butterflies is to plant milkweed in your garden. Once you have a thriving milkweed plant in your garden, raising monarch butterflies is a fun way to learn about their lifecycles!
Here are the steps to raising monarch butterflies:
- Prepare a large enclosure by lining the bottom with moist paper towels. Add a few tall sticks for the caterpillars to build their pupae on. Caterpillars are escape artists, so make sure the enclosure seals well. Jess recommends using a mesh enclosure to prevent a build-up of humidity.
- Feel free to start with eggs or already hatched caterpillars. If you start with eggs, it will take 3-4 days for them to hatch. You can find eggs and caterpillars on your milkweed plant.
- Once the eggs have hatched you will need to provide fresh milkweed on a daily basis.
- It’s important to keep the enclosure clean to prevent bacterial diseases. So remove dead leaves, and change the paper towel every day.
- You can stop feeding and cleaning the enclosure once the caterpillars form a chrysalis.
- It takes about 10 to 15 days before the monarch butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.
- They are ready to be released about 4 hours after hatching!
- There’s no need to touch the caterpillars or butterflies. It’s especially important to avoid touching the monarch’s wings as they are easily damaged by the oil on our skin.
I’m so glad that Jess shared her experience with raising monarch butterflies. I’m definitely going to plant milkweed in my garden this summer!