Mid-July, I noticed a female monarch butterfly laying her eggs on some milkweed, so I collected a few, well more than a few, 35 eggs to be exact, to raise at home.
Even though I have observed butterflies for most of my life, I have never raised one from an egg before, so I quickly searched online to find out what I needed and how I should care for my soon to be emerging caterpillars.
I found out that I had a matter of a few days before I would need to start providing a continuous supply of fresh milkweed leaves for them to eat. And as they got bigger, they would need more and more.
I ordered all the necessary supplies, read a book on raising monarchs, and started to scope out the places near my house where I could harvest milkweed for my little caterpillars.
The very next day, I noticed that one of the caterpillars had emerged from the egg. This was only one day after I collected it and was my first surprise in my wonder-filled experience of raising monarchs.
Thankfully, when they first hatch, the tinies, what I call the day old to one week old caterpillars, will only need one leaf to eat as long as it stays fresh. But how do you keep it fresh? The main way is to cut the leaf stem or petiole diagonally across, put a wet cotton ball or paper towel piece around the cut stem and wrap that in aluminum foil. Add water every couple of days and the leaf amazingly stays fresh.
In the days to come, many of the eggs hatched into tiny little caterpillars and I quickly began to run out of space for all of them to be on their own leaf, so I had to try a different strategy to feed them. I cut some sapling milkweed plants from where I collected the eggs, washed all the leave off with running water and used small tupperware containers with a hole poked in the top to hold them upright. The tupperwares were filled with some rocks for stability and water. Then, I transferred many tinies to one sapling.
When the cage I ordered arrived, I transferred each sapling inside. The saplings lasted for about a week before I needed to get more and change them out. As the caterpillars grew each day, so did their appetites, so more runs to the milkweed patch were in order. I learned that my tinies would increase in size by about 2000% over the two weeks they are caterpillars! Near the end of their caterpillar stage, I was changing saplings every 2-3 days.
Each time I collected more milkweed, I looked for the brothers and sisters of my caterpillars, but could only find a few of them. I did see some newly laid eggs though. I wanted to collect them so much, but I already had as many as I could handle for the time being. A single female monarch can lay up to 500 eggs in her lifetime and she lays them one at a time! 500 eggs in the hopes that 1 or 2 will survive to adulthood.
When the first large caterpillar started to roam about the cage and climb the side of the wall to the ceiling, I knew my time as a caterpillar mom was coming to an end. I was excited to see what the next stage would hold for it, so I watched if for hours at a time. Doing everything I could nearby and checking on it every few minutes. I stayed up later than usual, but nothing had changed, so with a sigh, I headed to bed.
The next morning, I jumped out of bed and ran in to take a look. I saw more caterpillars on the ceiling exploring the space and then, noticed one that was hanging upside down by some silk threads with its head curled up making it look like a "J". Otherwise, it looked like all the other caterpillars. I wondered when and how it might turn into a chrysalis. I spent as much time as I could watching it, but had to go to work. I hated to leave and possibly miss the transformation.
When I came home from work, there were more caterpillars in the "J" form hanging from the ceiling, but there was one that looked like his antennae were drooping. I knew the time must be close now from what I had read in the book about raising monarchs, so I watched and watched and watched some more. Hours later, the caterpillar's body hung straighter and its body started to pulse in a rhythmic motion. Moments after this, the skin started to peel off from the head first and inch up its body until it wriggled the black skin right off.
In its place was a light green, raindrop shaped pupa still wiggling itself into chrysalis form. The transformation made me think of the movie "Alien". One moment there was a caterpillar body and a distinct head and the next, a green blob with no distinct parts. Amazing! It took almost an hour after that for it to look like what you or I would call a chrysalis - perfectly shaped with golden accent spots.
Over the next couple of days, I watched at least 4 more caterpillars go through this transformation and was wowed by it every time and grateful that I got to witness it again and again. A couple of my caterpillars did not make it through the first few days of life and I gave 5 to a friend to raise, but 27 of the 30 I raised have transformed into the next stage of life, chrysalis!
While I was away in TN, my family watched the monarchs. 25 became healthy adults during that time and 3 more caterpillars formed chrysalides. I was able to release the last 2 adults when I came home. Now, I'm onto round two of caterpillars. I have 9 so far. This is a cycle I hope never ends!