Humans have always been fascinated by the magical metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly, from awkward chubby caterpillar to beautiful, brightly colored butterfly. However, over the past several years the monarch population has been severely declining, due to habitat loss, increased use of pesticides, and overall changes in climate. This decline of the monarch population has captured public attention – which has led to an increased desire to raise monarchs.
More and more individuals are raising monarchs in captivity – purchasing eggs, moving caterpillars into basement enclosures, and shielding the youngest butterflies from the elements. Is this human intervention really helping the monarch population – or is it doing more harm than good? Without proper knowledge and experience, monarchs raised in captivity tend to be underdeveloped, with shorter wings, less strength, and diminished fat reserves required to make their essential migratory travel to Mexico for the winter. Monarchs raised in less than ideal indoor conditions may end up with parasites and diseases that can be brought back to the larger population during migration.
Monarchs do need our help – but the best way to help grow this population in a natural and healthy way is to create a welcoming environment in your yard to foster their growth and development. With a carefully maintained and pesticide free garden, cultivated with appropriate plants such as milkweed and nectar producing flowers, you can invite a healthy monarch colony that will thrive in late summer. Creating ideal conditions in your garden and then allowing nature to take is course is the best solution to restoring the monarch population back to healthy numbers.
July 24. Adult monarchs seek out milkweed to lay their eggs, knowing it is the only food source for the caterpillars. Once the eggs hatch, they grow through five different stages into 3” long caterpillars.
August 30. Caterpillars overrun the milkweed, eating the leaves all the way to the ground. The milkweed provides the nourishment needed to perform their transformation into butterflies.
September 3. Once they reach maturity, the caterpillars find a place to hang upside-down in a j-hook position. This position signals the beginning of their metamorphosis.
September 5. The caterpillar is completely self-sustaining, forming the chrysalis from its own body. Starting from the head and over the course of several hours, the chrysalis begins to take shape. During this stage, the chrysalis is particularly vulnerable to parasites, due to its very thin shell. The shell hardens over time.
September 6. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar completely liquefies. This ‘caterpillar soup’ then reorganizes its cells into the body parts which will ultimately become a monarch butterfly.
September 15. At the very end of this stage, the chrysalis becomes completely transparent. The entire form of the caterpillar is visible, including the colorful, tightly wrapped wings.
September 16. Approximately 24-48 hours after turning translucent, the monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. First, a crack appears in the very top of the chrysalis. Next, the head of the butterfly breaks through the very bottom, slowly releasing its body from the shell.
September 16. In this video, watch as the monarch emerges from the chrysalis after forming for approximately two weeks.
September 16. The butterfly as it emerges appears very small, with short and crumbled wings. This is a critical phase for the butterfly – failure to properly emerge and unfurl its body can result in misshapen wings that make it impossible to fly.
September 16. The newly emerged butterfly has an enormous body filled with fluid. It pumps this fluid into its wings to make them longer, and the body itself shrinks down to its normal size. The butterfly must hang from the chrysalis during this stage – one wrong move and the wings will fail to properly form.
September 17. The butterfly hangs from its chrysalis for 1-2 days, drying its wings and becoming familiar with its new form. The butterfly will often open and close its wings in order to fully dry them.
September 26. Flowers with nectar provide a food source for butterflies, who drink through a straw that unfurls from their body, called a proboscis. This nectar and sunlight will provide them with the energy they need to make the long journey to Mexico for the winter.
September 28. Monarchs require ideal conditions to feed, grow, and transform into beautiful and strong butterflies capable of traveling the long distance required for their migration. Unfortunately, even in the best conditions, not all butterflies survive. Many believe the survival rate of monarchs, from egg to full butterfly, is only around 10%.
Monarch butterflies are amazing creatures, performing an impressive metamorphosis unmatched in the animal kingdom. However their magic is at risk from many of the adverse effects of modern living. Humans have contributed to the decline of the monarch population – but they can also help to improve it. Creating a chemical-free garden, full of milkweed and plenty of nectar flowers, will invite monarchs into your yard and help them grow into strong and beautiful butterflies.
Brackney, S. (2016). Are we loving monarchs to death? Discover Magazine.
Jabr, F. (2012). How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. Scientific American.
Monarch Lab. (2018). Monarch lifecycle. University of Minnesota.