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How to be a Mother to a Butterfly, Yes, You!


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By Kay MacNeil, Garden Clubs of Illinois Milkweed For Monarchs Chairman

If you are reading this article, you are probably already aware that monarch butterfly numbers in Illinois are way down. Worse yet, it is our State Insect! But guess what! We can all help increase monarch numbers by finding butterfly eggs and raising caterpillars and releasing newly hatched butterflies. What??? Yes, YOU!!

To Attract and Find Monarch Eggs and Caterpillars: You’ll need milkweed plants, the only plants monarchs lay their 200 plus eggs on. Go to a garden center. You know you have milkweed when you rip off a plant leaf and it has white sap. Buy any kind of milkweed. Monarch caterpillars love them all equally. Remember common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the invasive one that travels by runners.

How to Look for Eggs: The female takes her rear end and attaches a whitish egg the size of a period on this page under the leaf. You can see the egg and see her doing this. Several days later it hatches and the caterpillar will be the size of a comma on a page. Usually there are just one or two eggs per plant.

Egg: 4-6 days. Caterpillar stage: 2-3 weeks. Chrysalis: 5-15 days The monarch chrysalis is a beautiful green surrounded by a gold dotted horizontal line. It will eventually turn dark and you can see the orange and black wings the days before it will hatch.

So let’s say you’ve found a nice yellow and black striped monarch caterpillar on milkweed. Bring it in and put it in a big container, an old terrarium or a big snack container. You need a flat bottom and plenty of space. Cover the top with screening held
in place securely. We don’t want escapees.

Next you need food. Cut milkweed leaves, bring them in and wipe them down or rinse with water and dry. Put the milkweed in a flower tube used for roses and stand it in a short glass or in a glass of water with tin foil over the top. The caterpillar will eat down to open water and drown, so keep the water covered.

Each time you add new leaves, clean the frass (caterpillar poop) out of the bottom of your container. Caterpillars love to eat at night, so keep adding new leaves. The caterpillar will be as fat as your little finger when it is ready to change to a chrysalis.
The “cat” will hang for a day in a “J” from the top of your container. The next day it will be a chrysalis.

Butterflies usually emerge early in the morning. It will pump liquid into its wings and probably look like a normal butterfly by noon and start to flutter. By midday when it is warmest outside, it is ready for release. Take the jar out, put your bare arm into the jar. (Be sure there’s no bug spray on your arm.) The butterfly will climb up, perhaps pause, and away it goes. Look for black dots on the hind wings that denote a male. Aren’t You PROUD!?!?!

Wash out your container with soap and water and Go Find More Eggs.

Other Caterpillars You Can Raise: black swallowtails-To attract black swallowtails, plant fennel, curly parsley, dill, or Queen Anne’s lace. Just watch for a yellow dot (egg) the size of a period on this page anywhere on the plants. Use the same techniques described for monarchs for bringing in and raising swallowtails. Always remember, your caterpillar needs the correct food or it will not eat and will die.

Dutchman’s Pipe Vine Swallowtails -These caterpillars (solid black) will be found on Dutchman’s pipe vine. (It’s a little invasive.)

Spicebush Swallowtails should be found on a spice bush.

Tiger (yellow) Swallowtails are found on tulip trees.

Zebra Swallowtails should be on pawpaw trees. I have yet to see a zebra swallowtail in Illinois but that doesn’t stop me from checking my pawpaw trees.

To ask questions, Kay MacNeil, your favorite Monarch Butterfly Fanatic, can be reached at kaymac60423@yahoo.com. A website with lots of info is gardenclubsofillinois.org. Also check our K’s youtube.com video.

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