Homeschool: Raising Monarch Butterflies with Free Printables
Updated: Jul 23
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According to National Geographic, as of today, the Monarch Butterfly has been added to the endangered species list.
I started writing this post about a week ago. It's taken a while for me to get the sketches done for the printables etc. and I had planned to post it next week. But after reading today's news, I felt like this had to go out today.
Our daughter and I raise Monarch butterflies each year as part of our homeschool summer activities. It's fascinating to watch the miracle transition that these amazing creatures go through. We love to observe and document the changes we see each day. Raising butterflies is the perfect science activity for kids, especially young ones, because the changes happen rapidly. There's always something new to see and it holds their interest.
Click below for a free PDF of 8 printables to help you document your Monarch experience!
Not only is it a great homeschool activity, but it also helps increase Monarch numbers in the wild.
The egg and larva (or caterpillar) stage of the Butterfly is the most vulnerable to predators. only 10% of the eggs that are laid make it to adulthood. Caterpillars are rather slow moving, defenseless creatures, and they're perfect prey for hungry birds and other predators. By collecting caterpillars or eggs (if you can find them) and raising them indoors, you protect the Monarch until it can be released as an adult.
Materials you will need:
Plastic container (for collecting eggs)
A plentiful, easily accessible supply of Milkweed leaves
Where to find Monarch eggs and Caterpillars
Each butterfly species has a host plant. This is a plant that that particular butterfly relies on to feed it's young. Some butterfly species have several host plants they can use, but the Monarch caterpillar only eats the Milkweed plant.
How to Identify Milkweed
Milkweed is such a fascinating plant. It boasts beautiful globes of sweet smelling, pink flowers in the summer, which then turn into other-worldly looking green pods. Eventually, in autumn, the pods dry and open to reveal a scale-like cluster of dark brown seeds, each connected to an umbrella of fluff which carries it away in the wind to be planted somewhere else. They like to grow in fields, meadows and on the sides of roads.
We are lucky to have two large milkweed patches on our property. One by our Bluebird trail and one at the corner of our hay field. We are very careful to mow around these beautiful plants when we hay and mow the lawn. Each year our milkweed patches get a little larger, and I notice more and more monarch activity each year. It's exciting to see nature thriving and knowing that you had a hand in that success.
Collecting caterpillars or Eggs
The best way to find monarch eggs or caterpillars is to check the Milkweed each day.
Monarch's lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaf. It is a small pale green/yellow egg that almost looks like a miniature gumdrop. If you find an egg, pick the whole leaf. Place the leaves in a sealed plastic container with slightly damp paper towel. Do not store in direct sunlight. Open the container each day to allow air circulation and to check for mold until the egg hatches.
Caterpillars are easier to find. I often find them on the flower buds just as they're starting to open, but they can be anywhere on the plant. As the caterpillars grow larger, I've noticed that if you find a leaf that has been chewed, there is a good chance that there is a larger caterpillar on that plant.
Small caterpillars should be collected with the leaf they are on. And can be brought inside and put in a butterfly enclosure. We have the Butterfly Pavilion from Insect Lore, but if I had to buy one again, I'd purchase the Butterfly Habitat from Amazon. I like how the screen opens from the side, so you can open the habitat once the caterpillars have moved to the top to form chrysalis.
You can also make one using a plastic container and some vinyl screen. Just make sure you can open the container each day.
Caring for Caterpillars
In the bottom of your butterfly enclosure lay some damp taper towels. This will help to keep your milkweed from drying out. Lay fresh milkweed leaves on the paper towel twice per day.
You will also need to clean the cage each day. Caterpillars poop a lot! Just remove the soiled paper towel and replace with fresh damp paper towel and new milkweed leaves.
Before you begin, make sure you are committed to gathering milkweed for your caterpillars. Having a Milkweed supply close-by your home will make this easier. Each caterpillar will need 1-2 leaves per day. Not only do the caterpillars eat quickly, but the milkweed withers in about 10-12 hours. Plan on 2 leaves per caterpillar, twice a day (more as they grow). You can pick milkweed leaves, lay them on a damp paper towel in a large zipper bag and refrigerate them for up to 4 days.
After your caterpillars have gone through 5 instars (periods of growing between molting their outer skin), they will make their way to the top of the enclosure. They will hang in a "J" shape and spread tiny fibers (like a spider's web) to secure themselves to the top of the enclosure.
They will then transform into the chrysalis.
The chrysalis stage lasts 8-15 days depending on light, temperature and humidity.
Toward the end, the once green chrysalis will turn transparent and you will be able to see the orange and black of the Monarch's wings.
Once the Monarch emerges, it will stay on the empty chrysalis skin until it's wings are dry. Once it leaves the chrysalis (2-3 hours) it's time to let the butterfly go in the wild.
Monarchs will go through 3-4 generations before the last group begins to migrate south. So you have several opportunities throughout the summer to collect Monarch's and watch them grow.
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