Learning how to raise butterflies at home, such as black swallowtail and monarch butterflies, is an easy, educational, and fun summer activity for kids of all ages!
In this post, learn how to naturally attract butterflies to your garden, how to set up and maintain a caterpillar habitat, and how to release butterflies back into nature.
Related: How to Make a Bug Hotel
How to Raise Butterflies
Homeschooling has been a blessing to our family for many reasons. One of them being that my boys have the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature and witness extraordinary miracles—like the birth of a butterfly!
This is our 10th summer raising butterflies, specifically monarch and black swallowtail butterflies. Shared below are 5 easy steps and some helpful tips for how to raise butterflies at home.
Note: We live in hardiness zone 6a.
Step 1: Provide Host Plants
A host plant is a plant upon which a butterfly will lay eggs. When the butterfly eggs hatch, the host plant becomes an important source of food and protection for the growing caterpillars.
To naturally attract a wide variety of butterflies to your yard, plant a wide variety of host and nectar plants (butterflies are most attracted to pink, purple, yellow, and red flowers). Shared below are some of our favorite butterflies and their preferred host plants:
- Black Swallowtail Butterflies – Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, carrot, dill, fennel, and rue
- Monarch Butterflies – Milkweed, butterfly weed
- Painted Lady Butterflies – Thistle
- Giant Swallowtail Butterflies – Rue
- Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies – Tulip, cherry, birch, and willow trees
- Spicebush Swallowtail Butterflies – Spicebush and sassafras trees
Tip: Do not spray butterfly host and nectar plants with insecticide or fertilizer. Organic gardening is healthiest for butterflies! It’s also very important to make sure purchased plants are untreated.
Step 2: Collect Caterpillars
If your host plants are thriving, it won’t take long for butterflies to discover them!
Every spring, my kids and I plant heaps of curly parsley in our butterfly garden and in clay pots on our deck for black swallowtail butterflies. By late July, the parsley leaves are covered with tiny black swallowtail caterpillars!
We also grow swamp milkweed in our butterfly garden for monarch butterflies. It’s such a joy to find monarch caterpillars! The tiniest caterpillars are only as big as a grain of rice—even smaller when they are newborn.
We collect caterpillars by gently pinching off the leaf they are on. We never touch the caterpillars because they are fragile.
If your caterpillar drops to the ground, use a leaf or clean paintbrush to softly pick it up—the caterpillar’s feet will grasp the hair of the paintbrush.
Check out this video of our very hungry black swallowtail caterpillars!
Step 3: Make a Caterpillar Habitat
Making a caterpillar habitat is easy and fun! We enjoy raising monarch and black swallowtail butterflies in a 10-gallon aquarium with a screen terrarium cover.
We also have a mesh pop-up butterfly habitat but I prefer the aquarium or screen enclosure since we keep our caterpillars outside.
However, I do often use the pop-up habitat for itty-bitty newborn monarch caterpillars. I move them to the aquarium or a Nano ReptiBreeze when they are too big to fit through the screen.
I don’t put soil inside the mesh habitat or the Repti-Breeze, but I do cover the bottom with a layer of soft felt. The felt makes the habitats easy to clean and gives the caterpillars’ feet something to grasp onto if they fall.
1. Pour a 1-inch layer of dry garden soil inside the bottom of a clean aquarium. I like to think the soil recreates the habitat the caterpillars would naturally enjoy in our butterfly garden or potted plants. The soil also helps break down the caterpillar frass (droppings), keeping the habitat cleaner.
If you do not wish to use soil, place a layer of paper towel or felt on the bottom of the aquarium. Be sure to change it every day!
2. Place a small potted plant or a water-filled mason jar fitted with a frog lid inside the habitat. The frog lid should be packed tight with the stems of the caterpillar’s host plant. You definitely don’t want any caterpillars to slip through to the water!
Also, we like to make sure the host plant is touching the aquarium walls. That way if any caterpillars fall off and begin to wander, they can easily find “home” again.
3. Add a few thin sticks to the aquarium. In our experience, monarch caterpillars almost always climb to the screen to form a chrysalis. Black swallowtail caterpillars will form chrysalids on the glass walls, on the sticks, and on the screen.
4. Position your caterpillar habitat in a shady location outside. If the weather is hot and dry, gently mist the plants with distilled water. If it rains, simply cover the aquarium with a shallow plastic bin.
Tip: I like to keep really tiny baby caterpillars in a “caterpillar nursery,” which is really just a plastic food container! I tuck the box into a corner of the aquarium. The caterpillar nursery makes it easy to keep track of the little guys when it’s time to change the plants.
Step 4: Wait
That’s right…now you wait! The little caterpillars will eat and eat and eat, growing long and fat!
Continue to give them fresh plants and keep their habitat clean. Monitor the aquarium for spiders, ants, and flying insects, removing any you find.
When the time is right, the caterpillar will stop eating, hang upside down, and pupate into a chrysalis.
Step 5: Release the Butterflies
Releasing butterflies and watching them fly for the first time is always thrilling! My boys cheer and follow them throughout the yard.
1. But when to release butterflies after hatching? When a butterfly ecloses (emerges) from a chrysalis, it’s wings will be floppy and damp. Allow the butterfly to dry its wings in the caterpillar habitat for 1–2 hours. After this time, the butterfly will be ready to fly.
If desired, you could also provide the butterfly with watermelon, orange slices, fresh nectar flowers or a honey water solution containing 9 parts distilled water and 1 part raw honey. Pour the honey water solution onto a clean paper towel, then place the saturated paper towel on a plate or small plastic lid, such as a sour cream lid. (We don’t typically do this, because we always release our butterflies as soon as they are ready to fly.)
2. Gently lift the lid of the aquarium. If the butterfly does not fly right out, invite your child to gently place a single finger under the butterfly’s front legs. The butterfly will crawl onto their finger, then flutter into the sky!
3. If the butterfly does not fly away, bring it to a garden and let it walk on to a flower.
How Long Does it Take to Raise Butterflies?
This depends upon the species, but on average it can take from 15–30 days to raise a butterfly from an egg.
How to Cut Milkweed for Caterpillars
To prevent wilting, use sharp garden pruners to cut rinsed milkweed at a 45-degree angle. After cutting, plunge the milkweed stem into warm water. Alternatively, you could cut the stem under running warm water in a sink.
After cutting the milkweed, place the stalk into a small glass bottle or a mason jar fitted with a frog lid. Remember, we don’t want any caterpillars to fall into the water, so if your host plant stems are not packed tight, place parchment paper or cheesecloth under the frog lid.
If you have many monarch caterpillars, you may wish to keep the milkweed in floral tubes. If you are in a pinch, plastic to-go cups are a great solution! Simply push the milkweed stem through the straw hole.
Raising butterflies often piques a child’s interest in nature and the great outdoors. Grab hold of that curiosity and get outside to play, learn, and discover as a family—everyday!
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