- 10% Off Coupon
- Raising Caterpillars
- Ten Butterfly activities your kids will love!
- 2. Search for Butterflies
- 3. Make the mask
- 3. Butterfly play
- 5. Read Butterfly Books
- 6. Plant a Butterfly Vine
- 7. Colour in this Butterfly Colouring Page
- 8. Visit a butterfly house
- 9. Rescue Butterflies
- 10. Butterfly Conservation – How can you help?
- Raise Your Own Butterflies + Video
- Raising Butterflies with Kids
- Finding caterpillars
- Creating a caterpillar habitat
- Watch them grow
- Changing into a chrysalis
- The birth of butterflies
- Release your butterflies
- Rearing caterpillars
- Essential reading
- Want to know more?
- This incredible timelapse shows a caterpillar transforming into a beautiful Monarch butterfly
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Making a caterpillar home indoors is relatively easy and inexpensive. There is a lot of flexibility in setting up a place to raise your caterpillars to butterflies.
The basics that a caterpillar needs are fresh food from its specific host plant, safety from drowning in water, ventilation, and a safe place to pupate or become a chrysalis.
While the caterpillars are eating and growing they will stay on the host plant as long as the food source remains. If the food dries up or is completely eaten they will start wandering for more food. Occasionally they may fall off the food plant but for the most part they will eat, poop, and molt right on the food source until they get ready to pupate. Caterpillars do not need extra water. They get all the water they need from eating their host plants.
Many caterpillars have a tendency to wander right before they pupate. We’ve had some caterpillars crawl right up in the sticks we provided and become a chrysalis and others have gone hiking across rooms and up walls to fulfill their wander-lust.
You can have an enclosed environment or an open one all depending on your personal preference and your willingness to move a wandering caterpillar back to the sticks. There are pluses and minuses to both. An open environment is good if you only have a few caterpillars. An open environment makes it much easier to view all stages of the caterpillar, chrysalis and emerging butterfly. An open environment is well ventilated and will keep disease at a minimum. With an enclosed environment you do not have to worry about your caterpillars wandering off but you do have to be more vigilant about keeping it clean.
Ideas for an enclosed caterpillar home include old fish tanks or small aquariums with a screen lid, large glass or clear plastic containers with holes punched in the lid and/or sides (punch from inside out if you can so the sharp edges are on the outside of the container), critter containers from pet stores, etc. Whatever you choose, it will need to have some form of ventilation to keep the environment from becoming too moist and the frass (caterpillar poop) will need to be cleaned out daily.
Of course you always have the option to utilize both methods. You can keep them in the open until they get close to pupation then place them in a container until they form their chrysalis. Depending on what they pupate on within their enclosure, you may be able to move the chrysalis back into the open (ie. if they pupated on a stick rather than the wall of the enclosure) for a better view when the butterfly emerges.
Here are some considerations for the fresh food requirement in your caterpillar house. If you take cuttings from the host plant they will usually last for several days if the stems are in water. You can do this by using floral picks or you can take a plastic container like a small butter container or cool whip container and poke holes in the lid. Fill the container with water then put the lid on and place the stems in the holes. This helps hold the food plant up, keeps it in water, prevents the caterpillars from falling in the water and drowning, and keeps the caterpillars up in the food and out of their poop (frass). Instead of using water, you could just add fresh food everyday.
Of course, if your caterpillars are on a potted plant outdoors you could just bring the whole plant inside. You can keep it in the open or if you have a fish tank or other large container you can set the whole pot down inside.
Another idea is to use a vase and put plastic wrap over the top then stick food plant and some sticks to pupate on through the plastic wrap. You may have to criss-cross some more plastic wrap across the top around the sticks and stems for additional strength.
The next requirement for a caterpillar home is a place to pupate or form their chrysalis. The type of chrysalis varies between butterfly species but two common ones for popular indoor butterflies are to hang straight down (like the monarch for example) and to attach themselves to the side of a stick/stem (swallowtails). Both of these will use sticks/stems but the caterpillar that forms a hanging chrysalis is generally going to look for a more horizontal area of the stick (does not have to be horizontal, though) to pupate on and if they are raised in enclosures with lids they will often hang from the lids. Just place a few sticks in the enclosed container so the caterpillar can find a place to pupate.
If you are raising your butterfly caterpillars in an open environment then you can supply sticks by just pressing some down in the dirt. If you are using a potted plant for food then you can put sticks in the dirt of the pot. If you are using a plastic container with water for the food plant then you can just put a pot of dirt with sticks stuck in it right next to the plastic container and then aim some of the sticks into the food plant.
Wherever they do pupate, they need to have space to hang their wings when they emerge from the chrysalis. We have had some pupate on a stem with a lot of surrounding leaves. To help them out we have removed the leaves so they have plenty of room to hang and expand their wings.
A few other tips:
1) Be prepared for lots of frass (poop). They are small, roundish, dark green/black in color and they do not stink, but they are plentiful. If your caterpillars are enclosed, you will need to clean this out periodically. If the caterpillars are in the open you may want to consider putting something down to catch the frass. We have used several different set ups. We have an old, small table that we decided to dedicate to caterpillars so we didn’t put anything down and just wiped it from time to time. We have also used foil, an old cookie sheet that was no longer good for baking, a large open plastic container like what greens come in from grocery stores or Costco, or a plastic tray that goes under potted plants.
2) Many caterpillars will empty their digestive tracks right before pupating. This is a greenish liquid so depending on what surface is near your caterpillars you may want to put some paper towels or newspaper around the area.
3) After the butterfly emerges and while it is pumping its wings and preparing for flight it will release some reddish-brown colored fluid. You may want to put a paper towel or newspaper under your chrysalis or freshly emerged butterfly.
4) It is recommended not to place your caterpillars/chrysalises homes in direct sunlight. It can be too hot for the caterpillars and chrysalises can dry up. That being said, we have raised caterpillars in front of a sunny window with the shade partially open. These were “open” caterpillar homes so that might be why we did not have a problem. I can imagine that an enclosed caterpillar house in the sunshine would get way to hot. So, to be on the safe side you should keep your caterpillars out of the direct sun.
I hope this article gives you some ideas about making your own indoor caterpillar home. We started out with just a couple Black Swallowtail caterpillars on some parsley stuck down in a plastic container of water with some holes in the top to stick the stems through. We set this in a large plastic tray on our coffee table. We watched it very close since we were new to this and when the caterpillars got bigger we put them in a large glass jar with holes in the metal lid. We put a couple sticks and some parsley (not in water) inside. We added more parsley as needed and in the next day or two we had a chrysalis on a stick.
I think we left ours in the jar but at this point I would recommend carefully removing the stick with the chrysalis and putting it in a little pot of dirt to hold it upright (put it at about the same angle as it was in the jar). By doing this you will give the butterfly plenty of room to hang its wings and you will not risk the butterfly getting hurt while trying to get it out of the jar. Plus, if you happen to see the butterfly emerge you will get a better view of this spectacular event. For more information about raising Black Swallowtails in particular, see Black Swallowtail Caterpillars to Butterflies Indoors.
Good luck in creating your own caterpillar home to raise your caterpillars to butterflies! It is a lot of fun.
This article is intended as an introduction to raising caterpillars for people with little or no knowledge or experience of butterflies and moths. If you are not familiar with the life cycle, start here. If you are, you can skip to “Raising Caterpillars.”
The Life Cycle of Butterflies and Moths:
Butterflies and moths, like many other insects, go through a process called complete metamorphosis over the course of their brief lives. They begin life as tiny eggs, which hatch out to become larvae (the plural of larva), commonly known as caterpillars. The larva eats and grows, filling out its stretchy skin until the skin becomes too tight to expand any further and must be shed, revealing a fresh skin underneath. This happens several times (usually four). The caterpillar’s life-stages between sheds are known as instars – you may see descriptions of first through fifth instars – and may look quite different (see Black Swallowtail for an example), although usually the head size is the most reliable way to determine which instar the caterpillar has reached.
Eventually the caterpillar reaches its final instar, having grown to be hundreds of times as big as when it first hatched. Its final molt reveals the third life stage – the pupa. In butterflies, the pupa is also known as the chrysalis (plural: chrysalides) – this name (from chrysos, the Greek word for gold), refers to the golden color seen on many species’ pupae. In many moth species an enclosure, which may be spun entirely of silk or incorporate leaves, hairs or other debris, is spun around the pupa. This is referred to as a cocoon. Some moth caterpillars dig down into the soil to pupate, and do not form a cocoon. If you have one of these, you should resist the temptation to dig it up after it pupates, as you may damage the pupa and leave it open to dehydration and disease.
After a period of time which can be anywhere from a few days to several months, the adult butterfly or moth emerges from the pupa. This is the reproductive stage. Its goal is to find a mate and thus reproduce. Once mated, the female will lay eggs on a host plant, and the cycle begins again.
Caterpillars (and thus butterflies and moths) may be collected and raised from any of the life stages described above. The important thing to consider is that, as a group, caterpillars are extremely particular about what they will eat. Although there are some polyphagous (=eat many different plants) exceptions, in general each butterfly or moth species is restricted to eating a few, often related, plant species. These are referred to as the “host plants.” Caterpillars may not even transfer successfully from one known host plant to another, especially in later instars. If placed on the wrong food plant, a caterpillar will usually not eat – it just does not receive the chemical trigger it requires. Researchers have found that the chemical receptor is in the caterpillar’s jaw – when this receptor was removed in experiments, the caterpillar would eat anything it was given. However, a caterpillar raised on the wrong food plant may not pupate and almost certainly will not become a successfully reproductive adult. ( The exception to this rule is the Painted Lady butterfly, which can be reared on artificial food. That is why this species is commonly sold in kits for rearing in the classroom or at home.)
Because caterpillars are voracious eaters, it is unwise to try to raise one in captivity unless you have access to a plentiful supply of the host plant. If you collect a caterpillar from the wild, you should document what it is eating, as that can be very helpful with identification of the species, and will also enable you to find more of the host plant later. Please note: neither caterpillars nor host plants should be removed from any land where you do not have the permission of the owner to collect. In general, parks will require you to have a permit for collection of either plants or animals.
When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it will wander away from the host plant to find a place either to attach itself while it forms a chrysalis, or to spin its cocoon, or to dig into the soil (depending on the species). It is to the caterpillar’s advantage to get far away from the host plant, as the pupa is a very vulnerable stage, having little defense except camouflage to protect it from predators. A host plant loaded with pupae would be a feast for predators, which seek out host plants to find the tasty caterpillars. Often people find caterpillars in this final stage, wandering across sidewalks or up the side of buildings. The advantage of capturing a wandering caterpillar is that there is no need to find food plants – just provide a place for the caterpillar to pupate, either a twig or some loose soil or leaf litter, depending on the species (in general, twigs or at least a vertical surface for butterflies, leaf litter or loose soil for moths).
When the caterpillar has pupated, the waiting begins. Several factors influence the time it will take for the adult to emerge. The most important is temperature. If the pupa is chilled this may trigger diapause, a resting state in which the creature waits out the winter cold in order to emerge in spring when food and mates will be available. If diapause is triggered, it may take several months for the adult to emerge. Some species overwinter as adults or as caterpillars – a little research will usually turn up this information if you can identify your caterpillar to species.
What Can Go Wrong?
Many species of flies and wasps (known as parasitoids – not parasites, because they kill the host, which parasites don’t) lay eggs on caterpillars, which may go on eating and growing but eventually will be consumed on the inside by the developing larvae, and will never successfully pupate. You may not see any outer sign of this until the adult parasitoids emerge. See Tobacco Hornworm for an example of wasp pupae on a parasitized caterpillar. The only reliable safeguard against this is to rear your caterpillar from the egg stage, entirely inaccessible to these parasitoids (but more work).
Handling the caterpillar puts it at risk for problems. You may have insect repellent or other chemicals on your hands. Even household soaps may irritate the caterpillar’s skin (ever hear of insecticidal soap?) – so it’s always best to handle them as little as possible. Soft paintbrushes can be useful for transporting or nudging caterpillars to where you want them to be.
Your home may be too dry for the creature’s needs – in winter, heating, and in summer, air-conditioning may dry out the atmosphere. Better to keep your caterpillars in an unheated garage or outdoor protected location, if you can, or find a way of introducing more humidity into their habitat (this can be as simple as a moistened paper towel).
The relatively constant temperature of your home may not give the caterpillar the signals it needs to complete its natural cycle. Again, an outdoor or unheated enclosure may be preferable. This is mostly a concern in fall when caterpillars need to prepare to overwinter. Alternatively, pupae may be overwintered in a refrigerator and then allowed to warm up in spring.
Simple Home-Rearing Containers
Ideally, try to reproduce the natural living conditions for your caterpillar to feel at home. At a minimum, good air circulation, and a frequently replenished supply of the host plant until the caterpillar pupates are desirable. There are many ways to do this with whatever containers you have on hand. You don’t even need the host plant to be enclosed until the caterpillar is close to pupating, as it will not wander away from a plentiful food source until then. An easy container may be made of a tube of window screening wired into a cylinder shape, held at the top and bottom by a cake pan (see here for a photo). This has the advantage of easy disassembly for cleaning. Caterpillars eat a lot and they defecate a lot, and keeping them enclosed with their poop, technically known as frass, is unhealthy. The host plant should ideally be a living containerized plant (but then you have to provide the right growing conditions for the plant – more complicated) or have its stem in a water source to keep it fresh. Beware: caterpillars have a tendency to fall into and drown in an open water-container. Cheap florists’ picks, sold for keeping stems fresh in bouquets, are a convenient solution, but you may use any kind of water-holding container as long as you cover any large openings to prevent caterpillars falling in (foil, paper towels, cotton balls or cling-wrap work fine for this purpose). In the Miami Blue rearing program at the University of Florida, Dr. Jaret Daniels raises larvae in two paper cups nested together, with the water in the bottom cup and a hole punched in the top one to poke the host plant stems through.
For moth species that usually pupate in the ground, it is preferable to provide a few inches of loose soil or leaf litter, but if this can’t be managed, they will pupate without it eventually if you make sure they can’t escape. For most butterfly caterpillars, any vertical surface will serve for them to attach to and form their chrysalis. Again, make sure they are properly enclosed or the wandering caterpillar may travel far from its host plant and pupate somewhere inconvenient for you both. If this happens, and you find a pupa somewhere around your house, gently moisten the silk which attaches it and you should be able to pull it free without damaging it. At this point you can very carefully attach the silk to a twig or other surface (use the warm setting of a hot-glue gun), making sure you keep it the same way up.
When the butterfly or moth is about to emerge from its pupa, which may be several days or several months later, generally this will be signaled by a color change a few hours ahead of time. The emergence is very rapid (turn away and you may miss it), but afterwards the adult will spend a couple of hours stretching out and drying its wings. Amazingly, the adult does this by pumping blood through the veins in the wings, but then sucks the blood back into its body so the veins become hollow air-filled tubes – that’s why butterfly wings don’t bleed when they get torn. It will need something to crawl up and hang from during this process so the wings can fully expand, or it may be crippled. you should provide a twig or other rough-textured vertical surface suitable for climbing – at a pinch a crumpled paper towel in the container can provide enough clearance.
Watching the creature emerge from its pupa is the most magical part of the whole experience. Release it to the wild when it is ready to fly, and with luck it will find a mate so the cycle can begin again.
If you know the host plant and are trying to ID the caterpillar, the British Natural History Museum’s HOSTS database provides a list of caterpillars known to feed on any given plant. Be sure to narrow your search by location (Nearctic, which includes the USA and Canada, will return the most relevant reports for BugGuide users) for best results.
If you don’t have a copy of Wagner’s book (1), the online version of Caterpillars of Eastern Forests, through the USGS, is a good resource. It includes a section on Rearing Caterpillars.
There is a similar USGS publication for the Pacific Northwest – Caterpillars of Pacific Northwest Forests and Woodlands.
For overwintering pupae, I found some useful advice at this Royal Alberta Museum website.
There is an excellent website dedicated to this entire topic called Raising Butterflies. Although the author, Todd Stout, specializes in butterflies of the western US, he has excellent advice that applies across the board. Especially check out his containers for caterpillars under Caterpillar Setups.
Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner(1) has color photos of nearly 700 species, and lots of information about finding and rearing them.
Note: Thanks to Stephen Cresswell, Chuck Entz, Gehan Gehale and Tony Thomas for their improving suggestions on my original version of this article. Thanks to Lynette Schimming for drawing my attention to the Raising Butterflies site.
If your child has been showing an interest in butterflies lately, why not extend on their interest with these ten top butterfly activities!
Ten Butterfly activities your kids will love!
Start your butterfly journey by learning all about them. Check out these great websites:
- Butterfly Website for Kids
- The Butterfly Website
We’re learning about the endangered Richmond Birdwing Butterfly and thankfully we’ve found a great website that’s given us wealth of information Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network.
2. Search for Butterflies
The perfect butterfly activity is to go on a nature bushwalk and hunt for butterflies. You’ll need to focus on finding a butterfly if you’re searching for them, one could flutter right past you and you’d miss it. It might take some time but when you finally find one, you’ll smile from ear-to-ear! Make sure you take these explorer essentials with you too!
3. Make the mask
It can be hard to find Butterflies in the wild so I’ve created a mask for children to help them connect with the colourful insect through play. This butterfly mask is a Richmond Bird Wing Butterfly.
You can also download the eyes and proboscis (tongue) butterfly mask here.
3. Butterfly play
When we play this simple game at home, the girls love it. Simply ask your children to act out exactly what you say. Use a calm, gentle voice and talk about each part of the butterfly’s life cycle.
Here’s what I usually say:
A tiny little egg sat on a leaf. It was very still and very small. The egg was still for quite some time (pause).
The insect inside started to wriggle. It didn’t break open the egg, it was just getting ready to leave its comfy warm egg home (pause).
Suddenly, the egg hatched and out popped a little caterpillar. It slowly stretched it’s body out long and moved all its limbs one by one (pause).
The caterpillar’s tummy grumbled and it started to looked for some nice, juicy leaves to eat. It ate and ate and got bigger and bigger until it was so big it could hardly move.
Then, it started weaving a cocoon around itself. It weaved a silk button below its feet. Next, it shed its skin by gently wiggling the body until it was covered in a chrysalis. It was very patient while the body changed within this new home. The caterpillar waited and waited and waited (pause).
When the caterpillar was ready it started to make its way out of the chrysalis. Gently, it pushed its way out making sure it didn’t damage the delicate wings. Once it had climbed out, it raised it’s beautiful, colourful wings and froze to let them dry.
When the butterfly felt confident it flapped his wings and rose in to the air. it fluttered past trees and through the forest looking for beautiful colourful fruits to eat.’
5. Read Butterfly Books
There are a heap of butterfly books out there. Go to your local library and you’ll find plenty. We have been focusing on two books about butterflies. The very popular book by Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Birdwings’ New home by Lynette Reilly.
If you love this you will adore this Hungry Caterpillar Nature Craft!
6. Plant a Butterfly Vine
We were lucky enough to get a Richmond Bird Wing Butterfly vine to plant in our garden. It wouldn’t take much to find out about a vine to plant that would help a butterfly in your area.
7. Colour in this Butterfly Colouring Page
8. Visit a butterfly house
It’s quite sad that we don’t have a butterfly house where we live any more. I know my girls would be memorised seeing so many butterflies up-close and watching them feed using their long proboscis. It would also be really good to see the different chrysalis made by different butterflies.
9. Rescue Butterflies
This website explains how to help a butterfly should you find a sick or injured one. It gives you a solution to feed butterflies and also explains how to hold them without damaging their wings.
10. Butterfly Conservation – How can you help?
Butterfly Conservation has a lovely list of ways that you can help with butterfly conservation. Read on and act for butterflies!
More butterfly activities?
- Butterfly nature craft
- Barbie butterfly wings
- Theme activities
- Theme of the week
- Theme archives
- Themes to come
- Educatall club
- Babies and toddlers
- Exploring squares
- At the window
- Baby rattles
- Stick and remove
- Summer exercises for little legs and feet
- Taking my home outside
- ALL ARTICLES
- Arts and crafts
- Love Bug Crown
- Oh-so-soft fishing game
- Popsicle Stick Snowflakes
- Fruit salad DIY game
- Make your own paper farm animal game
- Be Kind Handprint Craft
- Original manipulations for color and letter exploration
- New Years Confetti Poppers
- ALL ARTICLES
- A paper spiral
- Water on a tightrope
- The scientific method for preschoolers
- A needle in a balloon
- Invisible salt
- The rocket
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- Creative recipes
- Colourful moon sand
- Homemade sealer (Mod Podge)-Cooking required
- Pumpkin modeling dough (baking required)
- Homemade sealer (Mod Podge)
- Silky modeling dough
- Jell-O Modeling (and Cookie) Dough
- My pudding in a bag
- Quick homemade glue
- ALL ARTICLES
- Tips and tricks
- Compassionate interventions for children
- 10 facts related to the development of gross motor skills
- Minor illnesses and sleep
- 10 simple tricks for managing tantrums
- Disciplines worst enemy is guilt
- 5 discipline tips to follow when integrating new children
- Teaching young children healthy sleep habits
- The importance of preparing an action plan
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- Special needs
- Tips and tricks for living with ADHD
- 5 ways to help an anxious child
- 5 simple ways to intervene with a highly active child
- Tactics for helping children take care of their body
- Could childrens behavior reflect their needs?
- Things you may not know about language development
- Communicating with parents when something is wrong
- Saying goodbye to parents in the morning
- ALL ARTICLES
- Extra activities
- Creating a reading treasure box
- Alphabet books in your reading corner
- Reading 101
- The flea market: findings and treasures
- Dads and reading
- Reading to my doll
- A puzzle for book storage
- Get moving with books
- ALL ARTICLES
- Educatall club
- Online store
- Le bottin
- Who are we?
- Technical support
We are in the MIDDLE of learning all about bugs in my class and by FAR the favorites have been caterpillars and butterflies. They’re my daughter’s favorites too. I think that the fact that you can learn all about the lifecycle at such a young age has something to do with this. I like that as a teacher of really young children I can connect science, literacy, art, music, and movement into one theme so easily.
Here are my favorite caterpillar and butterfly activities for preschool.
Clear Egg Carton Caterpillars
Toddler Butterfly Craft
Alphabet Butterfly Garden Activity
Wooden Peg Monarch Butterfly
Butterfly Sensory Table
Paint Stick Caterpillar
Coffee Filter & Colored Glue Butterfly
Fill in the Blank Life Cycles
Color Matching Butterflies
Cereal Butterfly Necklaces
Caterpillar C Letter Craft
Fall Leaf Butterfly
Pasta Butterfly Collage
Band Aid Butterflies
Classic Egg Carton Caterpillars
Books About Caterpillars and Butterflies For Kids
All book lists include affiliate links.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is a classic, that most preschool teachers like myself can recite from memory. It really is a fantastic book, not only does it explain the life cycle of a butterfly it also is useful for a lesson about the days of the week and healthy eating. Children love relating to the caterpillar who eats too many treats and ends up with a belly ache before eating one more healthy leaf and spinning a chrysalis.
Bob and Otto by Robert O. Bruel is a lovely story about 2 friends who must part ways , in this case because one is a caterpillar who needs to build a chrysalis and the other an earthworm who needs to dig deep into the ground. What I like about this book is that it goes on to explain that the earth worm”™s digging is vital for the trees to grow so that the caterpillar can eat the leaves and turn into a butterfly. I like the lesson about how we all play a part!
The Crunching Munching Caterpillar by Sheridan Cain is another story about a caterpillar who is not happy with his lot in life. There is a fair bit of language that some parents would object to. This caterpillar is often reminded that he is too fat to fly- so that poses a few challenges to parents like myself who are trying to instill healthy body images as well as using respectful words with others in our children. I have dealt with this book in two ways, first by saying that the caterpillar is getting fat but it”™s a good thing because he will be sleeping for a long time in his chrysalis and needs that fat to live. Also, I have simply replaced fat with big, a word that is much less ugly to many people”™s ears.
From Caterpillar to Butterfly by Deborah Heligiman is part of my favorite non-fiction for kids series ” Let”™s Read and Find Out Science”. I always grab these books at garage sales and thrift stores. In this edition, you follow a classroom of students observing a caterpillar as it metamorphosis into a butterfly. A classic spring activity for preschool age children to discover and learn about life cycles. Also a perfect match for your own Insect Lore Live Butterfly Garden which I highly recommend and will be doing this year with my son. Reading non-fiction with your preschoolers is important as it teaches them seamlessly that writing and reading are not just for stories but for information too.
Butterfly Butterfly: A Book of Colors by Petr Horaeck is such a wonderful book! I love the simple text and engaging story about a little girl who is trying to find the butterfly that she saw the day before. In her attempts, she finds many other colorful bugs in her garden. At the end of the book is a beautiful pop-up butterfly that will delight your little readers. I read this to a class of 2 and 3-year-olds who were glued to every page and both my kids who are 3 and 7 loved it as well. Great book!
Raise Your Own Butterflies + Video
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Butterfly metamorphosis is incredible to behold, no matter what age you are! There are four stages to a butterfly’s life cycle:
- Egg. The female butterfly lays her tiny eggs on leaves, usually on the underside. Some butterflies lay their eggs in clusters; others only one per leaf.
- Larva. Caterpillars are butterfly larvae that hatch from the eggs. They like to eat! They’ll grow startling amounts and shed their skin (molt) multiple times as they grow.
- Pupa. The pupa of a butterfly is called a chrysalis. When the caterpillar is ready, it will molt for the last time, and this time the new skin will form the protective chrysalis shell. While the pupa seems completely inactive, inside it the caterpillar is being transformed into a butterfly.
- Adult. After about 10-14 days, the butterfly breaks open the chrysalis and crawls out. Its wings are wet and folded up, so it has to pump fluids into the wings to expand them before it can fly.
- Get a Butterfly Garden
>> Watch our butterfly life cycle video to see the larva, pupa, and adult stages – you’ll even see a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis!
To raise your own butterflies, here’s what you’ll need:
- a small aquarium or one gallon jar
- cheesecloth and a large rubber band to cover the jar
- caterpillars you collect
- leaves from the plant on which you found the caterpillars
- sugar water or oranges
(Or you can raise your own butterflies with the much more convenient Butterfly Garden.)
- Collect some caterpillars. You can find these on common host plants like milkweed (monarch butterflies) and parsley (black swallowtail) or trees like cottonwoods and quaking aspens (tiger swallowtail). Check a field guide to find out what butterflies you have in your area and what their larvae eat. Place the caterpillars in the aquarium or jar along with fresh leaves from the plant you found them on.
- You will need to provide lots of fresh food for the caterpillars during the larval stage. They are very picky eaters; some caterpillars will only eat one type of plant.
- As the caterpillars get larger, you can prop some sticks in the jar a few inches off the bottom. The sticks will give the caterpillars a place to hang from when they transform into chrysalides.
- After your butterflies emerge from the chrysalides, they will hang still for quite some time until their wings are fully expanded. They will most likely secrete a colored liquid (usually red or orange) that is leftover pigment from the formation of their wings.
- You can feed the butterflies with sugar water sprinkled on carnations, or with fresh orange slices. They will drink by unfurling their proboscis, which they use for sucking up the liquid, like a straw. After observing them for awhile, release them near where you found the caterpillars.
Find more information on raising butterflies on this page.
Raising Butterflies with Kids
One of our favorite spring and summer activities is to raise our own butterflies from caterpillars. Watching the life cycle of a butterfly is absolutely fascinating, for both kids and adults. My husband and I are always surprised to find ourselves incredibly invested in the health and growth of our little caterpillars and we watch over them like concerned parents. The kids love observing the caterpillars as they inch their way around and explore, they marvel at how quickly they grow and can barely contain their excitement when the first butterfly emerges from it’s cocoon. Watching this spectacular metamorphosis up close and personal is an incredible experience that every kid should try.
Raising your own butterflies from caterpillars is a much easier and low maintenance science project than you might imagine. It’s an easy project for parents to set up and teaches children valuable lessons about observing nature, the metamorphosis process and taking care of wildlife. Whether you want to hunt for your own caterpillars or just purchase a kit online, we’re here to walk you through the process and make this an experience that you and your children will always remember and want to recreate every year.
Did you know that there are at least 725 different species of butterflies in North America? If you live in the U.S. it’s likely that there are about 100 butterfly species near you; even more the further South you are. If you know what butterflies are native to your area, you can look up the particular host plants that caterpillars prefer. Once you identify the types of plants, start looking for caterpillars on the leave. Caterpillars can usually be found on trees, grass and leaves near wooded areas. Caterpillars may also hide in piles of decaying leaves and on tree bark. Monarchs love milkweed. Caterpillars look different based on what species of butterfly they come from/will turn into. They can be brightly colored, dark and camouflaged, hairy, spotted, skinny or fat. June is usually a good month for finding caterpillars.
While it’s very exciting to go out and find your own caterpillars, that is easier said than done. Feel free to give it a shot with your kids, but if you can’t find any, don’t feel bad about ordering a kit online. Trust me, it doesn’t make you any less of a butterfly-lover to just have them shipped to your front door! Last year we purchased this butterfly growing kit that contained a mesh net butterfly habitat, feeding pipette and a voucher to order our caterpillars. Once our order was placed, a cup of 5 tiny caterpillars arrived at our door. The lid of the plastic container had air holes punched in it and there was a thick layer of “caterpillar food” (whatever that is) at the bottom of the cup.
Creating a caterpillar habitat
If you find your own caterpillars in the wild, you need to create a habitat for them. A large glass jar or small aquarium works great. Make sure it has a secure lid with lots of breathable fresh air (more than just poking a couple holes in a lid). Try using cheesecloth or mesh over the top. Gather some leaves of the host plant you found your caterpillars on and put them in a large jar with some sticks for crawling on and some grass in the bottom of the jar. Caterpillars only like fresh leaves, so change them out daily. And they get their hydration from the leaves, so no need to put any water in the habitat.
If your cup o’ caterpillars was shipped to you, you’re all set. There’s no need to take them out of the cup they come in, however, you can do the same thing and create a larger habitat for them, which makes it easier for kids to observe them and gives the caterpillars some extra space and things to crawl around on. We did this and left the cups of food at the bottom of the jar for the caterpillars to eat. We filled the jar with grass, sticks and leaves. The caterpillars loved exploring their surroundings, but they spent a lot of time down to the food cups to eat.
Watch them grow
It’s amazing how quickly your tiny little caterpillars turn into big fat caterpillars. The caterpillars you receive in a hatching kit will only be in caterpillar stage for 5-10 days. In that time they will more than triple in size. Mainly, they’ll eat, but they’ll also crawl around the habitat and practice spinning silk, which you can see on the outside of the container. You’ll also notice they they shed a bit, so don’t be alarmed when it looks like the caterpillars may have left a fuzzy segment or two behind. Keep the container around room temperature and out of direct sunlight, which can overheat them and cause condensation in the habitat.
Changing into a chrysalis
When they’re big and fat and ready to change into butterflies, the caterpillars climb to the top of the container/habitat and attach themselves to the lid with strands of silk. They hang upside down and form a J-shape, which signals the start of the chrysalis process. They shed a thin layer of outer skin. During this time it is very important not to disturb, shake or move your container.
Once all your caterpillars form chrysalises, wait 24 hours and then transfer them to the hatching habitat (mesh pop-up). Move the entire lid and do not detach the chrysalises. Be very careful when transferring and remove any webbing that may be stuck to them. You can rest the lid against the side of the habitat, so the chrysalises hang down and lay against it. Once a day, spray a fine mist of water into the habitat for a tiny bit of extra moisture, but do not over-water.
The birth of butterflies
After the caterpillars form chrysalises, they emerge as butterflies in 7-10 days. The change is absolutely remarkable and it’s a great time to read a book or two on butterfly metamorphosis with your kids. The chrysalises grow darker as they get closer to emerging and sometimes they even shake! When your butterfly emerges, you may also see a red liquid that looks like blood – this is meconium. We call that the butterfly’s first poop!
When butterflies first emerge, they cannot fly. They need some time to stretch and strengthen their wings and push blood into their veins. After a few hours, the wings will be fully unfolded, dried and hardened and the butterfly will be ready for flight! However, you’ll probably be pretty attached to them by this point, so it’s okay to keep them a day to two to observe before releasing them. Make sure to have some food in the habitat, like fresh fruit (watermelon, bananas, strawberries, oranges) and a few drops of sugar water. Butterflies taste through their feet and eat through a tube called a proboscis.
Release your butterflies
When you’re ready, release your butterflies into their natural habitat. The release can be done by just opening the top of the habitat and letting them leave on their own or by gently cupping them and letting them go. If your kids want to release the butterflies, show them how to hold them very gently, so as to not damage their wings. It’s ok to shed a tear when they fly away. Even though you’ve raised them from tiny baby caterpillars, don’t worry, it’s not nearly as hard as sending your kid off to kindergarten or college (or so I hear). Once released, butterflies usually stick around the area and can be seen for several days in the vicinity of their release. Hopefully you’ll get lucky and they’ll stick around!
You should spray the cage lightly with water once a day or so, however avoid large quantities of condensation forming on the inside of the container. Caterpillars can easily drown in condensation, remember that to caterpillars, a blob of water is very much like a lump of syrup.
The majority of caterpillars are herbivores (ie they eat vegetation) although many will become cannibals if not given enough food plant. Aside from cannibalistic tendencies some caterpillars will kill and eat caterpillars of other species of moth and butterfly and it is best to keep them singularly (e.g. Anthocharis cardamines – the Orange Tip Butterfly).
Caterpillars are very particular about what they eat. Individual caterpillar species have a particular type of food plant (or family of plants) that it is associated with. Caterpillars will only eat very specific plants, which is why you must remember what plant you collected the caterpillar from – it is a good idea to identify the plant from a book or collect and press a stem for reference as your caterpillar grows.
As your caterpillars grow they will require more and more food so it is a good idea to make sure you have a good supply of the food plant before contemplating keeping the caterpillar. Remember that the larger the caterpillars get the more they will eat. Caterpillars increase in size by moulting so don’t be concerned if you see some with small bits of their old skin still attached.
As soon as most of the food plant has been eaten or if it starts to wilt you must change it for fresh leaves etc. The replacement food should be exactly the same plant as before otherwise your caterpillar may not eat it. It is also a good idea to wash the food plant thoroughly before giving it to your pets. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you feed your caterpillar the correct food plant.
The pupa of the Large Copper butterfly Lycaena dispar.
Butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis and caterpillars must pupate as a chrysalis (or pupae) before becoming an adult (imago). During pupation almost all of the caterpillar is broken down and the resulting ‘nutrient soup’ rebuilt into the body of the adult insect.
When the caterpillars are full-grown they should be provided with suitable pupation sites. Butterfly caterpillars should be given stems and branches from which to suspend their pupae. Many moths produce larvae that burrow into the soil to pupate so these species should be provided with a thick layer of damp earth. Other larvae should be provided with foliage or bark depending on the species. If you are unsure of your caterpillar’s requirements it is best to present them with a choice of pupation sites.
Pupae that have formed during the spring or early summer should hatch within a few weeks. Pupae that formed during the autumn will overwinter and should be removed from the cage and stored to prevent them drying out or going mouldy. The pupae should be placed in layers of earth in small sealed containers; these should be kept in a cool but frost-free place (such as an unheated shed) until the following spring. In spring the pupae should be slightly embedded into a layer of earth or placed between the grooves of a sheet of corrugated cardboard. They should be misted with water occasionally to produce a humid atmosphere and this can be used to induce the emergence of adults.
When the adults are about to emerge you should place a number of twigs and stems in the emergence tank. The twigs are required by the butterflies and moths to climb up before expanding and drying their wings. If no suitable supports are available then your butterflies and moths will have deformed wings and be unable to fly.
If you collected your caterpillars from the wild then you should release the emerged adults (or imagos) in the same area as you collected the caterpillars. When releasing butterflies, and especially moths, during the day make sure they are released in secluded areas so that they are not immediately eaten by birds.
If you obtained your caterpillars from an entomological supplier you could try and breed them to produce another generation of insects – you should not release them into the wild. Information on breeding butterflies and moths will be available from the supplier of the caterpillars and from a number of our publications.
Mating butterflies at the London Butterfly House.
Further information on Butterflies and Moths.
- Breeding the British Butterflies (Vol. 18)
- British butterflies throughout the year
- Larval Foodplants of the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland
Remember: it is important that you know the needs and requirements of your pet before you obtain the animal. You should never, ever obtain an animal before researching its needs and preparing the housing and conditions.
Want to know more?
If you want to know more about insects and other creepy-crawlies then join the AES today.
Steps To Raise Monarch Butterflies
Congratulations! The milkweed you planted is growing, or you know where to find some in the wild. You are ready for a wonderful adventure, which will bring you and your family closer to nature, and experiencing a new kind of awe.
Preparations for Getting Started
You are ready to raise monarchs in your own home. Here’s how.
You’ll need two plastic containers, one for eggs and the caterpillar’s first week of life, and a larger one, for its second week.
Check your milkweed every day for eggs. When you find one, cut the leaf that it is on and bring it in the house. Line your container with a paper towel, and sprinkle a few drops of water on it. Then put in the leaves with eggs on them, egg side up, and click the top shut.
Young caterpillars are escape artists! Your little ones won’t need any more air, as you will be opening the container twice a day to check for mould, and wipe away any excess moisture. Keep all containers in natural light, way from direct sun.
Clean all containers daily, by removing the leaves with the eggs or caterpillars on them, then dumping the little poops, wiping the container with water, adding fresh milkweed, then returning the leaves. You don’t need to move a caterpillar from its leaf.
(Also, we have found a very economical set of mesh enclosures, provided by Todd Stout at https://store.raisingbutterflies.org which are perfect homes for the caterpillars.
You can order any of the ‘Pop-Up’ enclosures offered there, and qualify for a 10% discount, by using the coupon code Monarchs10 at checkout. Their product is high quality and the price is very, very good. He has had many years of experience in the whole art and science of raising Monarchs.)
In a few hours, your monarch will begin to flutter in the cage. When it is at least 3 or 4 hours old, you can wish it well, and set it free.
If you’re like most people, you’ll want to do this again and again, and tell your friends, classmates and family members what you have learned, and share your joy with them.
How To Get Started
- The best place to get eggs and caterpillars is from the milkweed you grow, or in the wild. The hunt is exciting, and you will discover a whole community of insects living on the milkweed.
- But if you do your best, and still cannot find any caterpillars, you can order them from David Bohlke of Monarchs Forever. David runs the Butterfly House at many State Fairs across the US, and has had many years of experience in the whole art and science of raising Monarchs. (But these caterpillars are only available in September, due to high summer shipping temperatures.)
- Keep the eggs in an enclosure. They will normally hatch into caterpillars in 3-4 days.
- The caterpillars will immediately begin to feed on the milkweed leaves and on its own eggshell.
- Hence, when in a container, provide fresh milkweed leaves daily. You should also place a wet paper towel below the leaves to prevent them from drying out.
- The caterpillars are eating non-stop, so they generate quite a lot of droppings (frass). The paper towels in the bottom of the enclosure will be quite helpful in collecting the frass, which should be collected every 2-3 days.
- As the size of the caterpillar increases, the requirement of food also increases, so, make sure these creatures get a constant supply of fresh milkweed leaves.
- In the larvae stage, they undergoes five ‘instars’, which means they shed their skin around 5 times. At this stage, there is a chance of getting bacterial and viral infection. If any of the caterpillars is affected, then remove it from the chamber before it spreads to others.
- The caterpillar moves to the top of the container to enter into the pupa stage by sticking there with a silken thread.
- In this stage, the pupa will not consume food but remain idle for around 10 to 15 days, after which beautiful butterflies emerge.
- The adult butterflies should be given time to open its wings for flight. Similarly, do not touch them for 3 to 4 hours, until their wings dry.
- If you need to keep your adult monarch until the next day because of stormy weather, you can keep it in a mesh laundry basket, or order a beautiful display/flight mesh cage here from https://store.raisingbutterflies.org
- Not all of your caterpillars will live to be adults. If you need immediate answers to your monarch rearing concerns, you can get them from Facebook group, The Beautiful Monarch which you should join even before you start to raise your monarchs.
For more information about raising monarchs and what to expect, plus details on their migration and predators, how to attract butterflies your garden, what you can do to help, and a list of useful resources, we recommend How to Raise Monarch Butterflies A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak. The book is just $9.
We are grateful to Holli Webb Hearn, Carol Pasternak, David Bohlke, and Todd Stout, for their assistance in writing this article. They are all experts on the care and feeding of the Monarchs.
Best wishes to all of you!
-Your Friends at Save Our Monarchs
This incredible timelapse shows a caterpillar transforming into a beautiful Monarch butterfly
Up to four generations of butterfly can be created in one year. YouTube The beautiful black and orange Monarch butterfly may soon be on the endangered list. It’s suffered a 90% decline in the eastern U.S. over the last 20 years thanks due to loss habitat and specifically the loss of milkweed, the only plant on which it will lay its eggs and the resulting larvae will feed.
Monarch butterflies go through four stages within their life cycle, which takes around a month, and four generations of butterflies are created in one year.
Three to eight days (depending on the temperature) after being laid the egg will hatch into a larva, or a caterpillar. After two weeks of feeding and shedding its skin, the larva will spin a silk mat and attach it to the underside of a leaf or stem. It then hangs there and sheds its skin for the final time. This forms a pupa, or chrysalis.
The caterpillar slowly builds a silk mat and hangs in it before shedding its skin. YouTube
During this stage, which takes roughly 10 days, the larva inside the chrysalis begins to digest itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve its tissues turning it into what is essentially, caterpillar soup. Only a few highly organized groups of cells survive this digestive process. These cells – called imaginal discs – and the the protein-rich soup the sit in are used as building blocks for rapid cell division, forming wings, legs, eyes and all other butterfly parts.
The fully formed butterfly then sheds its chrysalis, going on to mate (for up to 16 hours!), lay eggs and start the cycle again. It has to get a move on though, as it only lives for about two to six weeks as an adult.
You can watch this amazing process in a HD timelapse video created by FrontYardVideo
It is very popular to raise Monarch butterflies indoors mostly because the caterpillar and the butterfly are beautiful, the chrysalis is stunning, and monarch butterflies are gorgeous and widespread. The process of watching a caterpillar become a butterfly is truly awesome and it really is easy to do!
Monarchs have a large range and can be found all through North America, Mexico, and into Canada as well as other parts of the world. Their host plant (the plant their caterpillars eat) is milkweed (Asclepias). There are many different varieties of milkweed that the Monarch caterpillars eat which adds to the ease of raising monarch butterflies. Please visit our article about Milkweed Plants for Monarchs for more information. Milkweed also serves as a nectar source for Monarchs and many other butterfly species.
Monarch butterflies generally lay their eggs singularly on the underside of the leaf. The easiest way to find eggs is to watch a patch of milkweed plants for a visiting Monarch butterfly. When you see one hanging around for a day or two you will probably be able to find the eggs relatively easily. Look at the underside of the leaves. You can also find eggs on the flower buds.
Once you find the eggs/caterpillars you will want to bring them in soon to their indoor caterpillar home. If you leave them out they may start disappearing due to natural predators.
If you think you might not have enough food for all of them and you don’t have a supply at a nearby nursery (or friend’s garden) you may want to leave some outdoors and let nature take its course.
In about 2 weeks from the time the caterpillar hatches from the egg the Monarch caterpillar will be ready to pupate. Monarch caterpillars will be about 2 inches long when they are ready to form their chrysalis.
It is safe for humans to hold and touch the Monarch caterpillar but it is not always safe for the caterpillar. When they are young/small they are quite delicate but as they grow it becomes safer for them to be handled. The one time that no caterpillar should be handled is when they are preparing to molt. They will molt several times as they grow. Prior to their molt they will stop eating, lay down some silk (which you may or may not be able to see), and stay still for around 24 hours then split their old skin and wriggle out. During this time, and for several hours afterward, they should not be moved or touched.
When the Monarch caterpillar gets ready to pupate it will spin silk, attach itself and hang head-down in a “J” shape. The caterpillar will stay like this for around 24 hours. Shortly before its final molt the caterpillar will straighten some and the antennae will become ragged rather than the normally rigid appearance. Within an hour or so the caterpillar will shed its exoskeleton and expose the pupa.
Over the next several hours the Monarch pupa will continue to change into the beautiful jade, with gold trim, chrysalis that the Monarch is so well known for. It is truly a work of art.
The Monarch chrysalis will stay like this for about 1-2 weeks. About 24 hours before the Monarch butterfly is ready to emerge, the chrysalis will begin to darken and become transparent so that right before the butterfly emerges you will be able to see the wings inside the chrysalis. Very cool! Monarch butterflies usually eclose sometime in the morning hours so be sure to check it first thing in the morning when the time gets close.
When the Monarch butterfly emerges it will have crumpled wings and will need to pump them full of fluids and dry them. During this time it must be able to hang its wings freely with nothing touching them so that they are not hindered in their full formation. It will take the butterfly several hours to prepare for its first flight but when it gets close to being ready it will start to flutter its wings some. If you want to allow your butterfly to crawl up on your fingers this is a great time to do it.
Monarchs are beautiful in all of their life cycle stages which makes them such a spectacular butterfly to raise indoors. Each Spring, my kids and I have Milkweed seeds sprouting up in flats for planting in the garden so we can attract and feed the Monarch caterpillars. We always get excited about the return of the Monarch butterflies. It is great fun!