Over the last few years, we have raised many many monarch butterflies from egg to butterfly. Monarch butterflies are one of the most interesting butterflies. Their life cycle is so very interesting!
A single monarch butterfly will go through four stages during their life - egg, larvae or caterpillar, pupa or chrysalis, and adult butterfly. They start out as a wee itty bitty egg that is about the size of a pinhead. Female monarchs only lay their eggs on the milkweed plant.
After they hatch from the egg, they enjoy their first meal - the egg shell.
Then they feast on their favorite (and only) food - the milkweed plant.
Monarch caterpillars grow at an alarming rate! They molt, or shed their skin 4 or 5 times during their caterpillar stage. Each time, they emerge bigger.
It takes about 2 weeks for the caterpillar to reach it's full size, which is about 2 inches. When it's ready, it will attach itself to the underside of a leaf. If it's in captivity, it will attach itself to anything sturdy it can find...
like the shelf of our hutch.
They hang in this "J" formation until they are ready to form their chrysalis.
If you are lucky enough to actually catch them in the act of forming the chrysalis, you should watch it!!! It is fascinating! Don't bother trying to run for your camera, you will never make it back in time. It's better to just watch and enjoy. This is what the chrysalis looks like right after the caterpillar has wriggled off it's skin, but before the chrysalis has had a chance to harden into it's beautiful jeweled loveliness.
Now after it has hardened.
You can just make out the jeweled parts of the chrysalis in this photo. It does not do it justice at all.
After about 2 weeks, the chrysalis starts to change.
It's thinning out and becoming transparent. You can just see the butterflies wing. It gets more and more translucent as time goes by.
Until it starts to split down the side.
The butterfly pumps it's wings full of the fluid it's been storing until they are fully expanded. It takes several hours for the wings to completely harden. After a couple hours, the butterfly will not mind being gently held. This is a good time to let your children (if they are careful) hold the butterfly. We have just as much fun releasing the butterfly as we do watching the life cycle changes.
They will sit for a long time out on a flower before they are capable of flying away.
Here is a picture of a female monarch.
And, here is one of a male. Notice the 2 dark spots on the backs of each wing. These are glands that only the males have.
Raising monarchs has been such an enjoyable task for us and for our children. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend it. You need a constant fresh supply of milkweed plants at your disposal. And you will want a nice safe place for them to munch and grow. Here's our basic setup - a large couple gallon glass container with a screen fitted on top. Inside we have a jar with water where we put fresh milkweed leaves.
Monarchs are special because they migrate each winter. The species goes through 4 different generations each year. The first, born in March and April, are the offspring of the fourth. The second generation butterflies are born in May and June, and the third in July and August. Each of these generations lives only as long as it takes to lay eggs - 2 to 6 weeks. The fourth generation, born in September and October, will migrate to the warm climates of Mexico or California. They will live for 6 to 8 months, and begin their journey back to the place of their forefathers.
You can learn more about monarch butterflies at these sites: