Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rearing Monarchs—more than child’s play (but that’s a good reason)

In the wild, a monarch egg stands very little chance of becoming a butterfly.  Less than ten percent of monarch eggs and larvae survive to adulthood.

Eggs and larvae succumb to predators, disease, parasites, pesticides and weather among other things. Freezing temperatures and extreme dry conditions damage milkweed—and by extension monarchs.

Dylan Nemecek raises monarchs
with his mom, Mary, at their home near
Kansas City
Rearing monarch butterflies under protected conditions can significantly increase the percentage of eggs that make it to adult butterflies.  Plus, it’s a terrific way to engage children in learning about nature.

It turns out that we have many “monarch foster parents” among Missourians for Monarchs partners.  A few of these “crazy cat(erpillar) people” spoke about WHY they do it and provided some good hints about HOW to raise monarchs.

“Watching a monarch caterpillar go through the instars, pupate and emerge as a butterfly is captivating,” said Joyce Oberle, a Master Naturalist with the Miramiguoa Chapter.  “It’s a miracle of nature that makes you eager to witness it again and again, and it’s an experience you want to share with others.”

Joyce has reared monarchs for more than five years at her home in Sullivan, Missouri. Her home sits on 14 acres where Joyce has various spots of milkweed and native plants. Joyce’s home has been a Monarch Waystation for most if not all of the time she has reared monarchs.

Joyce Oberle 
 “My first sighting for 2015 was April 22nd,” said Joyce. “The next day, I saw what I believe was the same butterfly. She had to be from Mexico, looking quite pale and frail. I checked my native milkweed plants that were up and growing, and there were several eggs that I was ultimately able to rear to live butterflies.”  Thus far in 2015, Joyce has raised 18 monarchs, has 12 more in stages of development, and is still on the lookout for eggs and larva.

Joyce is also a sought-after presenter about monarchs—three presentations in August alone.  If your group wants a monarch presenter, contact Joyce at

Mary Nemecek, a Master Naturalist with the Osage Trails chapter near Kansas City, has raised monarchs for four years—starting it as a fun project to do with her then two-year-old son, Dylan.  “Then I encouraged his school to raise Monarchs, and now they have a monarch waystation,” said Mary.

 Mary likes to start with monarch eggs so predation and parasitism is less of a problem, but she also brings in larva of any size. Last year Mary and Dylan raised just over 100 and tagged 75.

Jean Ackley is a member of the Greene County Master Gardeners.  She and her granddaughters raised more than 60 monarchs last year, and so for this year have reared and released 37 with another 15 “in one stage or another.”  

Jean also raises varieties of milkweed, which she donates to her chapter’s plant sale every year.  This year Jean added another butterfly garden that measures 18 x 10  “If you’re going to bring in caterpillars, having a good supply of milkweed is important,” said Jean.

Kirksville Master Gardener, Dan Getman, PhD., has raised butterflies for three years and has engaged the neighborhood kids to help.  “You can choose the number of monarch caterpillars you want to rear and release depending on the level of your commitment and interest,” said Dan. “ You can start small and later increase the number of caterpillars as you become more confident and better understand what’s necessary.  The neighborhood kids have helped find monarch caterpillars and eggs, and then have tagged and released the adult butterflies.” Last year Dan and the children tagged and released 25 monarchs and this year expect to at least double that number.  They have also raised and released various swallowtail butterflies.
Dan Getman and his neighborhood helpers have raised monarchs at Dan's home in Kirksville, Missouri, for three years.  Rearing monarchs is a great way to engage children in nature.

How to Raise Monarchs

Rearing monarchs in captivity—even if one raises and releases hundreds each season—is not the answer to stemming the population’s decline.  In fact, raising monarchs indoor can actually cause harm if proper procedures are not followed because larva reared in close proximity to one another are susceptible to disease transmission.

Basically, you collect monarch eggs or caterpillars by taking the entire leaf on which you find them and place it in a slotted plastic container or netted cage with paper towels on the bottom.  Provide fresh daily milkweed, replace the paper towel and clean the container of caterpillar frass (excrement) every day.  Make sure you have a plentiful supply of milkweed.

Caterpillars are eating and pooping machines, so keeping containers clean of frass and disinfecting them with a mild bleach solution between “batches” is important.

“As the caterpillars get bigger and eat more, the frass is wetter and they invariably are exposed to it,” said Dan.  “It is very important to clean the containers daily.”  

Dan is experimenting with a bowed 1/2 inch mesh atop paper towels to make container cleaning easier and keep caterpillars away from the frass.

When fully grown, caterpillars will crawl to the top of the container, attach to the top with a silk web and form their chrysalis.  After 10-14 days, the chrysalis will darken and the monarch butterfly will emerge.

Jean Ackley's "paint bucket" setup works fine, too.
After hanging for a few hours to dry their wings, the monarch can be tagged if you wish and released.

Pictured below is Dan's indoor monarch-rearing setup. A small investment in containers, a ready supply of milkweed and a willingness to devote time to maintaining enclosures is all it takes to get started rearing monarchs:

Dan suggested these options for containers:

6in x 6in x 7in plastic food containers.  You can obtain these from any store for ~ $1 apiece.  Simply slit the top to allow airflow, but do not create any holes that allow the caterpillars to crawl out.  These can hold 2 caterpillars per container.

10in x 12in x 14in plastic container with little handles that serve as a latch for the top.  These cost around $5-10 apiece.  Slit the top for airflow.  Dan said he typically adds 4-6 caterpillars per container of this size.

2ft x2ft x 4ft netted cage.  These can be obtained from various suppliers, or you can use a netted laundry bag, as long as it has a zipper that allows you close it. This allows you to place a pot of milkweed inside the cage and transfer caterpillars to the growing plant. Dan will raise 10-12 caterpillars in these cages. 

Mary Nemecek prefers to use netted cubes. “I think the air flow helps their health and the cubes collapse for easy storage,” said Mary, who noted that she has also used aquariums successfully as well.  

It's convenient to place a paper towel on the bottom of the container and tape a piece of it along the side to give the emerged butterfly something to hang onto. 

Cubes like this can be obtained from
science equipment vendors.  Mary uses
fresh milkweed cuttings.
Caterpillars can be placed in the container at any stage or size.  Using larger caterpillars allows them to feed on your outside plants longer, but while doing so, they are susceptible to predators.  Using smaller caterpillars requires feeding them for a longer period of time.  You can start with larger ones, and then decide whether you want to raise them from an earlier stage of growth.

Good sites to learn about rearing monarchs include: at the University of Kansas at the University of Minnesota

The FaceBook Group, The Beautiful Monarch, is a great source of information and sharing for those who raise monarchs. The Beautiful Monarch

Carol Pasternak’s book, “How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A step-by-step guide for kids is another great resource.

Tagging Monarchs for Science

The main benefits of rearing monarchs, beyond the mesmerizing joy of witnessing metamorphosis up close, include education and citizen science.  Tagging monarchs released from captivity can provide data to help answer questions about the fall migration, and a good way to introduce children and students to science.

Dylan Nemecek nets monarchs for fall tagging
“I usually start tagging around Sept 5,” said Mary Nemecek.  Mary also participates in the Monarch Health project administered at the University of Georgia. “I test many of my wild-caught monarchs and the monarchs I rear from the larval stage also get tested for OE, and I get a report later in the winter about the health of the migratory monarchs passing through my yard.”  OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) is a protozoan parasite that infects monarch and queen butterflies.

Jean Ackley's granddaughter releasing a monarch.
When the wild asters are in bloom, the monarchs are probably migrating, and that’s a good time to tag. In Missouri, peak migration will occur in September. 

To learn more about tagging, go to Monarch Watch Tagging
To learn more about Citizen Science Research, go to Monarch Lab Citizen Science