Let’s explore the monarch butterfly life cycle in greater detail! Kids love to raise monarch butterflies at home and at school. With the monarch population shrinking due to climate change, deforestation, and pesticide use, this project will not only captivate little ones and help them appreciate science and nature, but will also help monarch butterflies thrive and survive.
Related: How to Raise Butterflies
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
One of the most impressive things about raising monarch butterflies at home is the relatively short time in which their transformation happens. These fresh changes will keep kids motivated, interested, and engaged throughout the process.
Getting involved with living creatures gives kids a lifelong appreciation for nature and science. They will see and understand the beauty of metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar to butterfly. In turn, perhaps our children will become pioneers in protecting the world’s habitats for years to come.
But, first, onto the life cycle of monarch butterflies!
Egg (1–5 days)
Female monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. Eggs are ridged, cylinder-shaped, and white or yellow in color. A female monarch can lay up to 500 eggs in just 2–5 weeks!
Larva/Caterpillar (10–14 days)
After hatching, the rice-sized monarch caterpillars eat their eggshell before moving onto the leaf. Monarch caterpillars will molt 5 times before pupation. Each period of time between a molt is called an instar.
Related: Wiggling Caterpillar Craft
Pupa/Chrysalis (9–14 days)
During a monarch’s pupal stage, they transform from larva to adult butterfly inside of their chrysalis.
Related: Toilet Paper Roll Chrysalis Craft
After about 5 days, adult female monarch butterflies are old enough to lay eggs! Males monarchs have a black dot on the surface of each of their hindwings, while females do not.
Related: Monarch Butterfly Stick Puppet Craft
How Long is the Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
It takes a monarch butterfly 28–32 days to complete its life cycle.
How to Raise Monarch Butterflies
Get the whole family involved and see the magic of raising butterflies at home through their eyes. Invite the kids to set up the hatchery, with your help of course. Teach them how to care for their butterflies. Observe carefully and be patient!
Step 1: Collect Eggs from Milkweed
Monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed, a flowering perennial. Search for monarch eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and on the flowers and buds at the top of the plant. You may also occasionally find eggs on top of the leaves.
When you find an egg, remove the entire leaf or use scissors to cut just the portion the egg is on. If you find a small caterpillar, pinch off the entire leaf. To reduce the risk of injury and disease, handle caterpillars as little as possible.
Step 2: Make a Caterpillar Hatchery
To prevent the milkweed leaves from drying out, arrange them in a container lined with a moist paper towel. When the eggs hatch, the newborn caterpillars will feed on their eggshell before moving onto the milkweed.
I tend to keep eggs and young larvae in separate hatcheries, just in case a caterpillar decides to wander to a new leaf.
Step 3: Move Caterpillars to Large Habitat
When the caterpillars are large enough, move them to a spacious, well-ventilated habitat such as a small ReptiBreeze. To minimize disease, your caterpillar habitat should be cleaned often. To aid with cleaning, line the bottom of the habitat with a moist paper towel or a sheet of felt.
Always keep your habitat out of direct sunlight and provide cover during rain. I place a shallow plastic bin or garbage bag over the top of the habitat during inclement weather.
Tip: Plastic to-go cups are perfect for holding milkweed and preventing accidental caterpillar drownings. Click here for milkweed harvesting tips!
Step 4: Care for the Caterpillars
Change the plant water, clean up frass (caterpillar poop), and continue replenishing the habitat with freshly rinsed milkweed.
When a monarch caterpillar is fully grown, it will leave the milkweed in search of a place to pupate. Most caterpillars choose the top of the habitat, but occasionally there are caterpillars who choose milkweed stems or the rim of the water cup.
After finding a spot, the caterpillar will spin a silk button, then attach its cremaster to the button. Next, the caterpillar will allow its body to drop into the shape of a J.
After about 1 day, the caterpillar’s skin will become dark and wrinkly. At this time, the caterpillar will shed its skin for the 5th and final time to become a chrysalis.
New chrysalids feel soft and tacky. After several hours, they become darker, harder, and smoother in texture.
Step 5: Patience
Continue caring for caterpillars while you wait for your butterflies to emerge (eclose) from their chrysalids. About 24 hours before an adult butterfly ecloses, their wings and body become visible inside the transparent chrysalis.
Step 6: Release Your Butterfly
When your butterfly emerges, its wings will be folded, floppy, and wet. The butterfly will need to hang so they can pump and dry their wings.
After several hours your butterfly will be ready to fly!
Take it Further
Shared below are easy and fun enrichment ideas to help you take your monarch butterfly studies further:
- Make a monarch butterfly suncatcher
- Draw pictures of each stage of the butterfly life cycle
- Graph the amount of time each stage takes
- Learn about the parts of a butterfly
- Read about the monarch’s migration
- Explore the monarch butterfly’s role in nature
- Identify male and female monarch butterflies
- Learn to attract monarch butterflies to your garden
- Discover more about threats monarch butterflies face
- Learn about the optimal climate for monarch butterflies
- Read about monarch butterfly migration
- Plant native milkweed
More Butterfly Life Cycle Projects for Kids
- Butterfly Life Cycle Craft
- Life Cycle of a Butterfly Activity
- Butterfly Life Cycle with Bricks via The Crafty Classroom
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle Resources
- Magnetic Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle Kit
- Safari Ltd Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly Toy
- Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons
- Monarch Butterfly Facts and Photos via National Geographic