Nothing brings more delight than a child’s fascination as they release a butterfly they have reared themselves. Observing the life cycle of a butterfly can be such a wonderful educational experience. It can be intimidating, however if you’ve never done it before. Here are 10 tips to get you started in setting up an observation center in your classroom.
Start with your host plant
You want to make sure that you have enough for your little catties to eat. If you’ve found some caterpillars on a plant, you’ll likely know already if you have enough. For instance if black swallowtail caterpillars are eating your parley or fennel, you likely have enough to feed them. If you are rearing monarchs, you’ll want to make sure you have enough milkweed. I recently read that a single monarch caterpillar can defoliate an entire plant in its lifetime. I’ve not noticed that mine eat *that* much, but it’s a good measure to work within. You certainly don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you don’t have enough food.
If you are purchasing your host plant from a nursery, be sure to ask them if they are using pesticides. If they are, pass on those plants and find another source. Another good question to ask is if the nursery mitigates for EO parasites on their milkweed if you’ve chosen to rear monarchs.
Set up your observation container.
There are a number of things you can use to observed the life cycle of your butterfly of choice. I prefer a 10 gallon aquarium with a screened top, but there are also the butterfly netting kits that you can use or even a plastic or glass container. It’s important that there is plenty of room, plenty of air flow, and at least one full side needs to be screening. You can even create your own with a cardboard box and some screen. You also need an easy way to get in and out of your container without disturbing the chrysalis. A side opening is ideal.
It’s easy, especially if you find many, to bring in a lot a caterpillars at once, but it’s probably best to start with only two or three. It will be easier to feed, clean, and keep up with this amount. As you go through raising one, you’ll be more familiar with what is involved and can branch out. My family have now started looking for specific host plants to lead us to our caterpillars of choice, and have even reared a few moth species as well. They all are beautiful, but the moths have an especially long life cycle and requires quite a bit of patience. It’s best if your first time around is a more simple one.
Acquire your caterpillars
The easiest way to obtain caterpillars, unless you have noticed them in your garden, is to buy them with a host plant at your local nursery. Most nurseries are more than happy to give away their caterpillars. Make sure to ask about pesticides and ask about EO if you are purchasing milkweed. Another way to find caterpillars is to find information about your local butterfly species and a list of their host plants, and go looking in the spring for the caterpillars on the host plants.
Use cuttings of your plant.
I have read some books and websites that suggest using leaves of a host plant to feed to the caterpillars. I find these dry out too quickly and can cause dehydration. I suggest using cuttings of your host plant. Take a little to-go plastic condiment container or another container with a lid and poke a couple of holes in the lid where the plant can go. Then fill the container with water. Go to your host plant and cut a sprig off the plant. Wash your cuttings thoroughly with water, and pat dry. Then cut an additional diagonal cut of the tip of your plant to allow more surface area for water flow and place the sprig into the whole of the container. You’ll want to make sure that you place the cutting into the container quickly after cutting it. Like our bodies have mechanisms to cut down on blood loss, plants have similar ones that prevent them from losing too much liquid. Cuttings will allow you longer between cleanings and to disturb your caterpillars less while keeping them better hydrated. If you are feeding monarchs with Mexican Milkweed, you may wish to rinse your cuttings in a bleach solution for a few seconds, and then do a fresh water rinse from the tap for good measure.
Keep your observation container clean
Line your observation container with a paper towel or light fabric that can be changed out ever few days. This will allow all the frass and any waste material to be collected and easily removed with minimal disturbance. You will also need to switch out your plant cuttings every couple of days, three days maximum. Pull out your cutting containers so that you can remove your old cuttings. Clean your containers, fill with clean, unchlorinated water, and place the lid back on. Place your new cuttings into your containers, remembering to snip a last diagonal cut before putting them in the water. Transfer your caterpillars by placing any leaves or stems the caterpillars are on in or around the new cuttings. Place the containers of cuttings back into your observation area lined with a clean cloth/paper towel. Really search during the transfer if you have a lot of caterpillars. They are masters at hiding.
Research your caterpillars life cycle
I encourage you to do a little research and find out the life cycle of your caterpillar. This will give you peace of mind that things are going as they should. For instance the monarch life cycle takes roughly a month from egg to metamorphosis. The caterpillar eats steadily for about two weeks, then craws up the glass or container to make a chrysalis. They begin by hanging as a “J” and can take up to 48 hours to complete their chrysalis. Then they wriggle and wiggle releasing their skip, leaving a beautiful gold bejeweled green home for the next two weeks. As this phase ends, the chrysalis becomes slowly darker until almost black with the hint of stunning orange wings hiding inside. When it reaches this color, it’s likely the next morning that it will eclose. It emerges an orange wrinkled mess that makes you wonder what exactly you did wrong, but no worries. It just needs time to pump blood into its wings
Release your butterfly
The wings need several hours to dry. When your butterfly moves from its spot intentionally or begins opening and closing its wings, it is ready to be released. Some species do not eat for the first day, so if weather is not ideal or other reasons inhibit you from releasing your butterfly that day, you can easily wait a day
Give yourself some grace
Fortunately for us this year was the first for us to have major mortality. We’ve been lucky because there are a number of butterfly predators and ailments. If you run into problems, you can disinfect your observation container by following the suggestions in this article. Know that nature is not always kind to caterpillars, and the survival strategy for butterflies is in numbers. Don’t let a failed attempt hold you back from this experience. Try to learn from it, and try again. I hope you enjoy your journey.
Ideas to accompany your observations
- Illustrate or create the butterfly life cycle
- Keep an observation journal with the date, a narration of what your child sees, and a drawing
- create a phenology wheel to record your observations (you will need to research the life cycle of your butterfly to know approximately how many spaces you will need.
Our Favorite Butterfly Books
Butterflies are Patient
Handle with Care
Gotta Go! Gotta Go!
National Geographic Readers: Caterpillars to Butterflies
How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids
From Caterpillar to Butterfly (Let’s Read and Find out Science)
Are You a Butterfly?
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science
Caterpillars, Bugs and Butterflies: Take-Along Guide
Hurry and the Monarch
Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons
Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert