As a kid, I remember searching for monarch caterpillars and eggs with my mom. I enjoyed watching them grow through their stages. Several months ago, on a nature walk, I was reading one of the information plaques about the local park we were at. I noticed the park was proud of the milkweed they have growing in the fields during the summer. I decided it was time to start raising Monarchs with my children. We spent several months going for nature walks and checking the milkweed for signs of Monarch caterpillars and eggs.
I believe the butterflies were here later this year, but in mid September I came across adult Monarch butterflies flying around the milkweed. This is a sign they are laying eggs. Most Monarch eggs are found on the underside of the milkweed leaf. This is because Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed.
When I inspected the leaves, I was able to identify chew marks, and caterpillar poop. We found two eggs, and twelve Monarch caterpillars, all in different stages.
While we were looking for caterpillars, we noticed many were already in spider webs and being eaten by spiders. I used this as a learning experience to teach the children about nature, however the kids were a little sad.
We brought the caterpillars home. Luckily my neighbor is growing milk weed in her yard, so we had access to fresh milkweed whenever we needed it. We had a lot of fun setting up a habitat for them. We filled several vases and jars with water, and cut a piece of milkweed. We created their habitat under a window so they would have sun. We used big containers with newspaper layering the bottom to keep the dropping cleanup simple. Every day we watched as they grew bigger and bigger! The kids were amazed by the daily changes.
As we watched, we noticed that once the caterpillar was very large, it would attach itself with silk to the bottom of a leaf, or stick. It would look like a hook, or a J. Once this happened it would be hours before a chrysalis would appear. Several mornings sounded like Christmas when the kids awoke to a newly formed chrysalis where the caterpillar had been hanging the night before.
We saw two transform into a Chrysalis, which was an amazing experience for the kids. We learned to watch for the caterpillars to look like their skin was rippling upwards. Then quickly the bottom of the skin would rip in half, and slowly the green chrysalis would emerge. At the end, the caterpillar would spin around until the skin fell off.
After ten to thirteen days, we could see the orange wings through the green chrysalis. This meant it was the day before the butterfly would emerge.
The next day we would see it was clear, and could see the wings in great detail.
We started researching and found that butterflies normally emerge early in the morning to mid-day, however we did have two emerge before dawn. We enjoyed watching three monarchs emerge from their chrysalis. This normally took about three minutes. When the butterfly first emerges, their wings are very small, and their abdomen is swollen with fluid the butterfly would use to pump out its wings.
The wings seemed to be full size within fifteen minutes. We saw this process so many times we would see a new butterfly and know if we had just missed it emerge within minutes, or it had been a little while since it had emerged. It was fun to listen to my kids teaching their friends about the stages their monarch were in.
They would hang from their chrysalis for several hours. We noticed they would drip some fluid. After a little research, we found they would release the excess fluid from the abdomen once their wings were full size.
When they would start to pump their wings slowly we knew they were ready to take flight. If the Monarch did not immediately fly away, as many did, but seemed to wander around on the table, we would carefully let them walk onto our hand, and carefully let them climb off onto a butterfly bush. Most days we could watch them fly around the yard, or butterfly bush for several hours before they flew away.
During all this excitement, we loved google search to answer all our questions! We found many informative websites on how to raise Monarchs. My mom brought over a documentary about butterflies for us to watch together. We learned that our Monarchs would fly to Mexico, to a very specific mountain with high metal content. There is high metal content in the wings of the butterfly that draws them to this place. They gather in huge numbers, and hibernate together. After several months they begin their flight back along the path they took to get to Mexico. Interestingly enough, these butterflies will lay eggs and die shortly after starting their flight back. The next generation will only live several weeks, lay eggs and die, and this continues for four generations. The fourth generation has six extra genetic markers that cause it to be able to live nine months, and make the flight to Mexico.
We also learned how important milkweed is to these butterflies. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. Their moms can smell it for miles, and lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves. Milkweed is poisonous to most animals and people. The caterpillar and butterfly are also poisonous to anything that eats them. Throughout this experiment, we washed our hands often.
This experience taught our family so much about Gods amazing design. It offered us family discussion, and many opportunities to research and learn together. My children learned how patience could give them many amazing moments.