Guide to Raising Butterflies at Home

Raising butterflies at home is fun and rewarding because you can see the entire butterfly life cycle. On average, it takes about 2 to 4 weeks to raise Monarch butterflies or other types from the egg stage to the adulthood stage.

Step 1: Gather Required Equipment

Depending on how large of a butterfly “sanctuary” you’re planning to build, you have to prepare the following:

  • Large aquarium, box, galvanized fencing, wooden poles, or cage
  • Nets with small holes, especially if you’re using a large box or cage as your sanctuary
  • Adequate space to set up your butterfly enclosure

If some of these items are not available in your area, consider improvising some of them to fit the needs of the butterflies.

After all, the main goal of the setup for raising butterflies is to take care of them until they are old enough to be released, protect them from predators, and increase their population safely. 

Other things you will need to nurture the butterflies are the following:

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  • Water sprayer to keep the plants–especially the leaves–moist
  • Snapdragons, violets, parsley, zinnia, fennel, honeysuckle, willow, alfalfa, and milkweed plants to feed caterpillars
  • Plants or leaves where the butterfly eggs are attached (if there are any available at the time)
  • Mobile stand where you can set up your mobile device or cameras (ideally more than one spot to ensure a better view in every phase)

Step 2: Build a Butterfly Habitat

If you have visited any beautiful butterfly sanctuary, you will get a good idea of what a good man-made habitat should look like. Ideally, it is a large setup with netting to prevent predators from easily entering the premises.

At the same time, it should give the eggs, butterfly larvae, pupas, and butterflies a place to stay until they are ready for release. This means it should have lush vegetation to ensure enough space to feed on, form chrysalides, and thrive.

Some of the other essential elements needed for the butterfly habitat are:

  • Adequate spots for both sunshine and shade
  • Sugar solution in different spots of the butterfly garden to encourage the butterflies to stay (if they are not bound for release yet)
  • Flat stones where the newly-emerged butterflies can rest and dry their wings
  • Flowers with bright colors and/or flat surfaces
  • Mud puddles/slurries (water + mushroom compost + sand) as water sources; alternatively, water in shallow saucers
  • Grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem, panicgrass, prairie dropseed, and cat grass

Step 3: Collect Caterpillars

How to Pick up a Caterpillar
How to Pick up a Caterpillar

While getting butterfly eggs is ideal for your controlled habitat, looking for them may be extremely difficult. These eggs are so small that you may mistake some pest-infested leaves for those with actual eggs.

Your next best choice is to look for caterpillars to place inside your sanctuary. Some good ways to find a larva are to know what they look like, what host plants they usually stay in, and where they usually thrive. Here’s a useful hint: if a plant’s leaves have holes, a caterpillar may be feeding on them.

Make sure your hands are clean when getting caterpillars to avoid making them sick. Don’t pull on them; encourage them to crawl on your hand.

If you are unsure how to handle them manually, you may also pick off the stem or leaves where they are. Bring them to the sanctuary and let them do the rest of the crawling. 

If you’re curious about what type of butterfly your caterpillars will turn out to be, here is a quick list of the most common caterpillar appearances before they get their wings:

Black swallowtail butterfliesyellow dots and black stripes on the swallowtail caterpillar’s green body
Hackberry emperorsplit tail, pale green body with yellow markings
Cabbage whitegreen and furry body, thinner than Hackberry
Eastern tiger swallowtailgreen body with markings on the head that look like large eyes
Monarch butterfliesyellow, black, and white horizontal stripes throughout the monarch caterpillar’s body

Step 4: Introduce Caterpillars into the Habitat

There’s no exact rule on how much to feed your caterpillars, but expect them to eat a lot. A safe estimate would be one caterpillar to three matured plants.

This may seem a lot, but it will account for the time it takes for the caterpillar to get to the pupal stage. This is around 1 to 2 weeks from when they hatched from the egg.

Step 5: Watch the Transformation

After 1 to 2 weeks, the caterpillar will fully develop its parts (thanks to rapid cell development) and slowly emerge from the irregularly-shaped cocoon or chrysalis. It will then stay on a flat, sunny surface to dry its wings before trying the pair for a test flight.

Step 6: Release the Butterflies

Release Your Butterflies
Release your butterflies

Adult butterflies are pollinators, and they help your garden and surrounding ecosystem. 

As such, they need to be released to ensure that the balance of nature will be at its optimum state. Secluding them will make it harder for other plants to grow and develop new seedlings.

If you still want to keep the butterflies, do so, but only for one week. Remember, aside from pollination, they need to reproduce around their second week as adults.

How hard is it to raise butterflies?

Butterflies are quite docile and don’t need a lot of space to thrive, so they are easy to raise. Still, don’t confuse them with pets. They are wild insects that love their freedom and should be released as soon they reach adulthood.

Is it a good idea to raise butterflies?

Raising butterflies has some good and some bad sides. For example, people who raise butterflies help boost the population numbers and save certain species. On the other hand, some argue that raising butterflies in captivity is not ethical and should be avoided, especially when the insects are raised only to be released at weddings or similar events.

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