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.