Raising Butterflies

Scroll down for a slideshow of our butterfly’s life cycle!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 8, 2013.

Last year we raised toads from tadpoles, and this year we’re raising butterflies. This is surprisingly easy to do, and I’d encourage any family to give it a try.  It’s a wonderful experience for children and adults.

My sons received the Backyard Safari Butterfly Habitat as a Christmas present, but you can find other companies who sell butterfly habitats and the larvae online. The cages are around $15. The Backyard Safari Habitat came with a coupon so that we could order the larvae when we were ready for them. You need to wait for warm weather, if you plan to release the butterflies. (The larvae were approximately $10 with the coupon, but they are under $20 without it.)

We received six Painted Lady larvae (or caterpillars) in a small container with everything they needed to survive during this second stage of their life cycle. There were explicit instructions to not open the container. All we needed to do was set the container by a window (but not in direct sunlight). Note: I have read different opinions about leaving them in the container, so I suggest you do some of your own research.

Painted Lady Butterflies live almost everywhere, which is why they are often used in schools and homes for this purpose. In most places it’s okay to release them back into the environment. Another option is to find butterfly larvae in your local area and raise them, but each species has different needs, so you have to make sure you have the right food source.

We watched our caterpillars for less than two weeks as they stirred up the food, spun silk, and proved to be extremely bad housekeepers. When we got them, they were less than a centimeter in length, and in two days, they doubled their size. Right before they formed themselves into a chrysalis (or pupa), they were about an inch long and quite plump.

After the butterflies emerged, my son turned this into a project by making a model of the Painted Lady Butterfly! He studied it like a real artist!

According to the instructions I received, the caterpillars were supposed to climb to the top of the vial and attach themselves to the gauze that was placed under the lid of the container. There they would hang down and form into chrysalides, and then we weren’t allowed to disturb the container for two days. After that time, we could carefully remove the lid, and then pin the gauze with the chrysalides near the bottom and on the wall of the cage.

This is what really happened: The caterpillars made a huge mess in the container, and we couldn’t see through it very well. All of the caterpillars crawled to the top, but most of them didn’t stay there. In the end, there were only two caterpillars that formed chrysalides and hung from the top. We could barely make out one chrysalis on the bottom, and since there wasn’t any movement, I assumed the others down there were changing too.

Per the instructions, we waited two full days after the last caterpillar we could see formed his chrysalis. Finally we got out the butterfly cage, and found a small branch that fit nicely into it. Then I removed the lid to the container, and we discovered that the caterpillars had eaten most of the gauze! The two chrysalides were hanging from silk and the plastic lid. Luckily I managed to fit it over the twigs in the cage so that they hung down safely.

I had to scoop out the four other chrysalides from the bottom of the container with a spoon, and I laid them gently on the bottom of our cage. We had read that this can happen, and they should be okay, but unfortunately, two of these never formed into butterflies. We weren’t surprised.

After only five days, two of our butterflies emerged!  Two more butterflies emerged in the next few days.  They are beautiful, small orange and black butterflies, and we’re feeding them watermelon and oranges.

The whole process has enamored my six-year-old, and he wants to keep going, so we’re going to attempt to raise a second generation. Yep, call me crazy. If it turns into a good story, and I’m pretty sure it will, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Note: Yes, indeed, it’s turning into a story, and I will share it with you!

Below is a slideshow I created to show you our experience, and you can see the life cycle here too!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Notes you may be interested in:

  • The butterfly’s life cycle is in four stages: egg, larvae (or caterpillar), chrysalis, adult butterfly.  (I highly recommend the simple app Life Cycles by nthfusion.com to help with learning about nature’s cycles!)
  • The plural for chrysalis can be either chrysalides or chrysalises. (You can go here to hear the pronunciations.)
  • The word eclose is a verb which means to emerge from the pupa as an adult or from an egg as a larvae.
  • The red liquid that drips out off the butterfly after it emerges is meconium or the waste that was secreted while it was in chrysalis.
  • After the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it can live for about two weeks. During that time, they seek a mate, and the female seeks a host plant to lay her eggs.

If you like this, you might enjoy the slideshow I made of our tadpoles to toads last year.

Have you raised butterflies? Please share your experience!

9 Responses to “Raising Butterflies”

  1. Nice! We visited a local butterfly place and bought a few painted lady caterpillars this morning. We have a butterfly pavilion and can send away for more as well. Hoping it goes well! I always enjoyed doing this unit as a second grade teacher, happy to share it with my daughter now. :-)

  2. The larvae. They are pretty tiny caterpillars. I hope they make it. They are each in their own container with food, but the containers are pretty small. We did have instructions to keep them in there as well, but I’m curious as to where you read other opinions as I’d like to read them too!

    • I happened to find one of those today when I was looking up information for our newly eclosed larvae! Here is the link: http://www.mybutterflyguide.com/Painted_Lady.html I’m not sure what to think about it. I certainly didn’t want to try it on my first try. If we get through this second generation (we have no artificial food this time!), I might have more confidence to remove them from the container if we ever do it again.

  3. Thanks! I think I will try to find one of those plants and take them out as my conscience agrees with that link. :-). Plus my 5 year old has already asked what they are eating, aren’t caterpillars supposed to eat leaves? Where are the leaves? I’m pretty impressed that you managed a second generation!

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