A couple of years ago my kids’ Grammy brought us a milkweed plant she’d found at a nursery with a monarch chrysalis attached. Although the monarch butterflies sip nectar from a variety of flowers, their caterpillar stage feeds exclusively on milkweed plants. After hatching from an egg and feeding for a couple of weeks, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis to undergo metamorphosis. After an additional 10 to 14 days, the chrysalis cracks open, allowing the adult butterfly to emerge.
Not wanting to miss our butterfly’s debut (since we had no clue how long it had been in its chrysalis), we brought the plant into the house and set it on a sunny windowsill inside a mesh insect cage. Despite our careful monitoring, we were out running errands when the butterfly emerged, but after placing it outside, we did get to watch it warm up its wings before flying away. This little six-inch plant kicked off our family’s interest in butterfly gardening.
Ready for more and knowing that our milkweed would need additional space to grow, we decided to fill our mobile container garden with pollinator plants. Along with the milkweed we planted black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia), coreopsis, morning glories and salvia, but the milkweed quickly dominated the space. That first spring our garden had the most amazing population of monarch caterpillars! We even got to watch one of the caterpillars slip into it chrysalis, which happens so much quicker than I expected. By the time I thought to record it on my camera, it was almost done. (Check out this You Tube Video from Jeff Ormiston, Naturalist at Fox Island County Park to see the process from egg to butterfly – very cool!)
The new garden seemed to be a hit, and we eagerly awaited the return of monarchs in the fall as they stopped over on their seasonal migration to Mexico for the winter months. Much to our delight, in the fall we discovered leaves covered in little eggs and soon after, little caterpillars...and then they started disappearing! Through a quick Internet search, I discovered that ants, spiders and wasps, all of which are well represented in our garden, prey on Monarch caterpillars.
Trying to find a quick solution, we collected the remaining two caterpillars and placed them in a butterfly observation cage inside. Getting to watch them up close as they grew was quite an experience. It was amazing to see how many leaves we needed to harvest to keep them fed, and even more incredible how much poop they produced (just wow- they are pooping machines). We ended up with two chrysalises last fall, but unfortunately neither hatched. They both turned into a gooey black mess, victims of some kind of disease.
The following spring our monarch caterpillars were again falling prey in large numbers (in fact we never could find any caterpillars just small holes eaten out of leaves where we had seen eggs), so we went back to the butterfly observation cage. We put five eggs in our cage and from those, we ended up with four caterpillars. Despite watching them like hawks and checking the cage before we left each day and as soon as we came back, all four of them made their chrysalises while we were out of the house—those stinkers! From our four caterpillars, we ended up having two monarch butterflies hatch and fly away.
When I first embarked on this garden with the kids, I can honestly say I was not expecting quite as many challenges (like heading outside at 10 PM with a flashlight looking for milkweed leaves to harvest for the starving caterpillars). I also did not realize that the expected survival rate in the natural environment from egg to mature adult hovers between 2 to 5%. But we are not ready to give up! We are starting seeds of some native pollinator-attracting plants this summer, including native milkweed. We also plan to install an in-ground pollinator garden with the hope that a larger, more diverse habitat will provide more natural checks and balances against predators and disease. I promise to report back on our new garden this fall.
Despite our struggles, I would highly recommend a home butterfly garden if you have young kids. Not only has it been a learning experience for us all, it has also been lots of fun. For more information check out our KidsGardening article Grow Milkweed to Help Monarch Butterflies and the North American Butterfly Association’s Monarch Page.