DIY Monarch Habitat and Caring for Caterpillars
Last Friday, nature gifted me with a fun surprise: two monarch caterpillars! I was out taking a peek at the corn silks and there he was, a big fat yellow and black striped caterpillar hanging out on a tall stalk of milkweed. I was shocked. I had spent all last summer hunting for monarch eggs out in the ditches on country roads and had found absolutely nothing. I hardly see any monarch butterflies flying around here, even on the farm. Butterflies are kind of a beautiful surprise if there is ever one flitting about, a true rarity. Milkweed is something that I have heard much about since becoming a gardener. As a Master Gardener, the plant is highly prized as it has so many positive impacts to our environment, one of those being it is the only host plant for monarch butterflies that they can lay their eggs and the caterpillars can eat. It's kind of scary considering most of their population is being killed out by the destruction of this habitat. I try to leave as much milkweed as possible living on our property and ask that the county does not spray out ditch. But I do pull it out often in our field... It starts to overtake our crop!
I suppose I have to be thankful that I did not happen to pull out the particular plant in my corn rows or else I would not have found my two tiny caterpillars!
Did you know that only 2% of every 100 caterpillars lives into adulthood? This is due to predators, habitat loss, and natural selection. For monarchs, the main source of endangerment comes from the destruction of milkweed. Because of milkweed populations declining, the caterpillars are losing their numbers as well as they will not eat anything else. It is the only plant that they can survive on at this point in time. In the mid-1990s, the monarch population was estimated at nearly 1 billion butterflies. It is now estimated at 93 million butterflies, as of March 2018. Overall their numbers have sunk over 80 percent! That is insane.
I decided to try raising them myself. I could have left nature be. I was not sure that I would remember where their milkweed plant was, or if my family would, and pull out the weed at a later date. I was not sure that they would just make it alone, though I am sure they could have. I intervened with nature, and for that I hope that I can keep these two caterpillars alive! Tad was immediately smitten and excited to have them around. He is such an animal lover. We brought them in a milkweed leaf and I set to figuring out where to house them.
If you are planning to raise monarchs yourself, prepare to be disappointed. You can order eggs or caterpillars online, but I encourage you to forage. It will take time. Maybe even years! Take my own timeline. I just kind of happened upon these guys, and sometimes that is all you can expect. Population levels are low so it will be far and few between that you find any! Secluded areas in the country are the best spots, I think.
If you do happen to find monarch caterpillars or eggs, then you will need a few supplies.
- An enclosure. This does not have to be fancy. We used an old drawer from one of our previous homes that we thought was cute and kept (lol!). It ended up working perfectly. We stood it up on the back end and placed all of the supplies inside. The enclosure will need some sticks/twigs for the caterpillars to climb on and possible form their chrysalis on. It will also need some screen or plastic with holes to keep the cats inside.
- Milkweed. You need a lot. They eat through plants pretty quickly! I try to search for young plants and either pull or cut from the base of the plant, like a cut flower. Don't just pull leaves. They'll die quickly and the caterpillars will not eat them. Place the cutting in a glass of room temperature water and change it out daily. Fresh water will make the plant last longer. If it starts to wilt, you'll need to cut a new plant soon and replace it. You can also use potted milkweed, which should be tended like any potted plant.
- Misting bottle. You can mist the milkweed plants to help them stay moist and also provide moisture to the caterpillars. They do not need large amount of water. If you are keeping the plants in water like I am, then misting is not necessary.
So far our little enclosure has been working so well and is extremely lovely to look at. We used some velcro to stick the screen from an old screen door to the front of the drawer. It's easy for Tad to look inside without disturbing the caterpillars, something he is itching to do let me tell ya! I love watching them grow. Their growth rate is absolutely bonkers - they become 3,000 times their size at hatch! One of our caterpillars is very large and close to the chrysalis stage, I am thinking. I will keep you updated here on the blog and on Instagram, I am sure! The next parts are coming soon. I hope that you find some monarch eggs or caterpillars in your own adventures!