Hello Habiticans! Today we’re going to take a journey into the exciting world of butterfly gardening with Habitica’s resident amateur lepidopterist, Beffymaroo!
You may have heard, particularly if you’re in the U.S., that one of the world’s most iconic insects is in trouble. Monarch butterfly populations have dropped a lot in recent years. There are many reasons, but one of the biggest is habitat loss in areas where the butterflies lay their eggs and where the caterpillars feed.
If you’d like to help the Monarch, as well as other pollinators like bees, plus have a lot of fun watching nature unfold at your own home, read on for a basic guide to starting your own butterfly garden.
This will mostly be geared toward Monarch butterflies, which are best known from North America. They make their famous migration across the continent to overwintering grounds in Mexico, the U.S. Gulf coast, and the coast of California. Monarchs and their cousins are also found throughout Central and South America, and significant numbers of Monarchs also overwinter and breed in Puerto Rico, Cuba, New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, and other Caribbean and Pacific islands where suitable food plants grow (in many places these plants are introduced rather than native- more on that later). The basic concepts of cultivating safe food plants for caterpillars as well as nectar flowers for the adult butterflies should be applicable to many species!
First, you need to find a good spot for your plants. If you have a yard or garden space, perfect! If not, many types of milkweed (the monarchs’ food plant) and flowers will also thrive in containers. My garden is a collection of potted plants on a concrete patio- a little urban nature oasis!
Before you purchase any plants or seeds, research what types of milkweed and flowers are native to your area. The most commonly sold milkweed plants in U.S. nurseries and garden stores is Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. Some folks will tell you it’s straight-up bad for Monarchs because in warm regions it artificially extends their breeding season, and it can harbor disease since it doesn’t die back in winter. Tropical milkweed grows fast, does well in containers, and has beautiful flowers that butterflies love. If you choose to grow it, especially if you live in a region where it doesn’t dip below freezing, cut it back to a few inches above the ground twice a year. This helps prevent it from spreading invasively, keeps it from causing out-of-season breeding, and will stop it from accumulating pathogens that can hurt the caterpillars and butterflies. It will grow new fresh foliage with a little time!
Native plants will generally grow better in your climate and be easier to care for. While my garden has a lot of tropical milkweed because of availability (and because it seeds like crazy) I also have some natives and they tend to handle the weather and resist pests better than my tropical (I’m trying to clone this type from cuttings so I can eventually replace my tropical). Not sure what type of milkweed or wildflowers are native to your area? The Xerces Society (an organization dedicated to the preservation of invertebrates) has really helpful lists of pollinator garden plants for every region of the United States as well as some other countries- these lists also include native milkweeds. They also have a guide for sourcing seeds, if you’re unable to obtain plants at local nurseries or by getting natives and their seeds from the wild.
A big word of caution: if you choose to buy full-grown plants you should do some research and talk to the nursery or store’s plant buyer to ensure that the plants have not been treated with any kind of pesticide. Even organic or “pollinator safe” pesticides that are supposedly safe for bees and butterflies will kill caterpillars that eat the leaves. I learned this the hard way after buying milkweed from a local organic nursery and watching twenty of my caterpillars pass away as it had been treated with organic pesticide. Not fun, do not recommend.
The best time to start a butterfly garden is before the butterflies arrive! In regions where it freezes, sow native milkweed seed before winter as it requires some time in frozen ground to germinate. If it’s warmer where you live, start your plants in winter or early spring so they’ll be ready for earlier butterfly arrivals. Monarchbutterflygarden.net has a great guide to planting and caring for many commonly grown varieties of milkweed and nectar flowers. There are also some very helpful groups available on social networks for Monarch enthusiasts and pollinator gardeners, especially on Facebook. They’re great places to ask questions and get answers quickly!
When will the butterflies find you? This depends on where you live on the migration route. To make sure they spot your garden, have lots of flowers to feed the hungry adults and a group of six or more milkweed plants for females to lay their eggs.
The monarch life cycle is fascinating to watch- and lots of fun! I bring a few eggs inside to watch the caterpillars grow and make their chrysalides while safe from the many predators of the milkweed jungle. In the wild, 95-99% of caterpillars don’t survive to the adult stage. That’s not an issue of human intervention or an especially dangerous garden- that’s just how it is! The survival strategy for most insects is “have as many babies as possible so a handful make it”- hence Monarch females lay up to 300 eggs each!
Most researchers say that raising Monarchs indoors like this is something you should do for fun rather than as a conservation effort- it’s possible butterflies raised indoors, once released, may have disadvantages in survival compared to their counterparts that grew up in the wild outdoors. Keep in mind that providing outdoor habitat (along with generally trying to live sustainably) is the most important thing you can do to help their populations.
Recommendations I’ve seen on how many butterflies per household per year scientists say it’s OK to raise indoors without potentially weakening the wild population range from ten to one hundred. As you will read later on, they eat A LOT so definitely start small, especially if your garden is new and you don’t have large stocks of wild milkweed you can get food from.
Every step of the Monarch life cycle is dependent on temperature- the numbers I give here are for warm summer conditions (65 F and up). In the winter, their life cycle can take much longer!
Monarch eggs are very very tiny! They’re about the size of the head of a pin. You’ll often find them on the undersides of leaves (especially new leaves) and on flowers and flower buds.
In 3 to 5 days, the eggs will hatch into tiny caterpillars. At first, the holes they’re chewing in the leaves will be easier to see than the little guys themselves.
Monarch caterpillars, like all invertebrates, have an exoskeleton. It doesn’t grow with them- to get bigger they have to shed their skin. Monarch caterpillars shed their skin five times before they make a chrysalis, and the growth period in between molts is called an “instar.”
While they shed their skin, the caterpillars will stay still for 12-48 hours. Don’t panic that they’re not moving or eating during this time! Also they definitely look weird while this is happening.
After they shed their skin (which they usually eat later), their old “faceplate” will also pop off.
By the end of their final instar they’ve increased in size 2000 times! This is why it’s good to try to keep smaller newer caterpillars in a separate raising area from the large ones. Eggs and hatchlings can be accidentally eaten by the big guys.
This is what I like to refer to as the “they’re eating me out of house and home” stage. You’d really be amazed how much food they can put away. One caterpillar can eat an entire average-sized tropical milkweed plant all by itself! So do keep that in mind when considering taking them inside, where they are more likely to survive to adulthood and need all that food.
Once they’ve gotten to their maximum size, the caterpillars wander around for 24 hours or so, then find a spot to make a button of silk for their chrysalis. After they make the button, they’ll anchor their rear end to it and then hang upside down in a “J” shape for 24-48 hours.
As opposed to a cocoon, which is spun from silk and other materials (and more of a moth thing), Monarchs become a chrysalis- it’s really just another molt! But a really weird one where they turn into a strange green wiggling blob that then hardens into a more recognizable chrysalis. Here’s a YouTube video showing this process in time-lapse (maybe not something to watch if you’re particularly squeamish about bugs).
Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar has essentially turned into a weird magic soup that’s going to re-assemble into an adult butterfly over the next 8-12 days.
As the time comes for them to emerge, the chrysalis will start to darken – soon you’re be able to see the familiar orange and black pattern of the wings through it!
Within 12-48 hours of the chrysalis darkening, the butterfly will break through the chrysalis (in essence, this is their final molt!). It will spend a few minutes pumping fluid from its abdomen into its wings to inflate them to the proper shape.
It takes a minimum of two hours for the butterfly to be properly “dry” and ready to go. I recommend releasing them as soon as possible after that as they tend to get unhappy pretty quickly when they’re confined. If it’s cold or raining hard, it’s OK to wait a day or so.
It’s always a little sad to say goodbye, but it’s an amazing feeling to send a beautiful and beneficial creature out into the world. Especially if you watched their whole journey from tiny egg to hungry caterpillar to weird chrysalis to gorgeous butterfly!
I hope you had fun learning more about one of my favorite hobbies since my childhood! I’m linking a few more favorite resources below. Have fun learning about and helping pollinators. If you’d like to chat in Habitica about your butterfly gardening experience, please check out the Lovers of Lepidopterans Guild!
Monarch Butterflies on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarch_butterfly
Other butterflies in the Milkweed butterfly family- a lot of them are based in Asia and Africa and their host plants there include popular ornamental plants such as Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danaus_(genus)
A good startup guide for indoor butterfly raising: https://monarchbutterflygarden.net/how-to-raise-monarch-butterflies-inside/
(Note though you don’t have to to buy all the things this person recommends. Most florists will give you a few bud tubes for free if you explain what you’re doing with them. Egg cartons make great stands for the tubes and an aquarium or converted pop-up hamper is a fine cage. There’s tons of informative guides that can be found on the internet!)
If you are looking for a dedicated cage for Monarch caterpillars, I do like these mesh popup cages as they fold flat and are easy to clean: https://www.amazon.com/Insect-Butterfly-Habitat-Terrarium-Pop-up/dp/B07CWRYTLH/ The mesh is also a great place to make a chrysalis.
A very well-established Monarch garden in the U.S. can be certified by Monarch Watch as an official Monarch Waystation! You can even get a nifty sign. https://monarchwatch.org/waystations/index.html
You may have heard about tagging butterflies to help scientists learn more about Monarch populations and migration habits. Different U.S. regions have different tagging programs:
Monarch Watch encourages tagging east of the Rocky Mountains: https://monarchwatch.org/tagging/
Monarch Alert has a program for citizen scientists to tag Monarchs in California: https://monarchalert.calpoly.edu/citizen-science-0
Southwest Monarch Study has a tagging program for the U.S. desert Southwest: https://www.swmonarchs.org/tagging.php
The Monarch Butterfly Trust of New Zealand also has a tagging program: https://www.monarch.org.nz/introduction-to-research/taggingtransects/
Some information on raising other types of butterflies: https://www.joyfulbutterfly.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat/
I post regular updates on my Monarchs on my Instagram account! Here in southern California, I see them nearly all year round, but mainly in March through October.