Monday, September 29, 2008

Raising Butterflies

A few days ago Gail, from Clay and Limestone, asked if I could give the details about bringing the caterpillars inside. I am more than happy to share this information, especially if it encourages more people to have this awesome experience.

You can see the container I use in the picture above. It really isn't tall enough when using the fennel, but it still worked. I purchased this at Walmart, but they should be available at any pet store.

I collect the caterpillars as soon as I spot them, (usually the first instar). This year I even started with eggs. Whatever plant I find them on, (parsley or fennel), that is the plant I keep available for them to eat. This year they liked the fennel best, (I only spotted one caterpillar on the parsley all summer). I snip the plant with the caterpillar on it and bring it inside. I have a really small single stem vase that I use, (large openings can cause the caterpillars to drown if they fall in). I place the host plant with the caterpillar on it in the vase. Every couple of days I wash the vase, refill it with water and replenish the food. I place the stem with the caterpillar on it back into the vase. It doesn't take long for it to crawl to the fresh food. I usually take this opportunity to clean out the container too. Caterpillars are prolific poopers and they make quite a mess. Right about the time you think they are too messy and too much trouble is about the time they are getting ready to become a chrysalis, so don't give up, the worst part is almost over.

I had to leave the top of the container open a few times because the fennel was too tall, one day the caterpillar was very restless and I found it crawling on the microwave. I knew it was looking for something to attach to. I picked it up and placed it back on the fennel, closed the lid, and went outside to collect a few small twigs to place in the container. Within minutes it found its way to the stick. Usually I don't wait that long before placing twigs in the container. The caterpillars need something firm to attach too, usually it is a stick, however this year one of them attached to the top of the container.

This is the easy part. Once in the chrysalis stage there is nothing to do but wait for the butterfly to emerge. For me it usually takes anywhere from ten days to several weeks for this to happen. I try to keep the container in a place where I can check it often, (usually the kitchen). As soon as the butterfly emerges and the wings dry a bit, I take it outside and place it on a flower that is popular with the black swallowtails. Of course there is usually a photo session involved.

That is all there is to it. So easy to do and the experience is priceless.


Yolanda Elizabet said...

Caterpillars are prolific poopers, who knew? What I know about caterpillars is what I've read in Alice in Wonderland and a fat lot of use that was to me. ;-)

Joking aside, you have written an excellent *How to grow your own butterflies* tutorial, Robin, and hopefully more gardeners will take up this lovely passtime.

Jayne said...

Such a great experience Robin! I may just have to try it next year.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

Great tutorial Robin. We watched a Monarch caterpiller turn into a chrysalis almost before our very eyes the other day. Wish we would have brought it inside to watch the butterfly emerge as when we looked for the chrysalis the next morning it was gone. Hopefully it opened but I bet some critter had an hors d'oeuvre.

Defining Your Home said...

Robin, very informative! I grow milkweed for Monarchs (Monarch Waystation) and lots of bronze fennel for the swallowtails. Excellent tutorial for folks. I hope more gardeners will raise and release. Cameron

Debbie said...

Robin, you have given great instruction for someone to try raising butterflies.

We have done Monarchs for years, but did get to that project this year. I don't know where our summer has gone.

I like your idea of using a vase. We usually just put the leaves in the container, but they dry out quickly that way.

We use an old aquarium that doesn't hold water anymore, but because of it's size, it does make it harder to clean regularly. We usually just put a layer of sand in the bottom and wait for all the caterpillers to morph into butterflies.

Muddy Boot Dreams said...

They are amazingly beautiful. What a great shot you got of that lovely butterfly. Maybe someday when we finally move to the country, we will be able to try and raise them.

beckie said...

Robin, this is something I had not thought of before seing your post the other day. I think some of the granddaughters would love to do this(me too!). You explained the how very well and I will try to find some of the containers for next year. Beautiful photos-as always!

Kathleen said...

I haven't ever enjoyed the whole life cycle in this way Robin. Really interesting idea. I have brought a chrysalis in and watched a monarch emerge but I never thought to see the entire process. It's a great experience for children.

Patsi said...

Amazing pics !!
Lots of work !!
I've been here before but I don't believe I left a comment.
I envy your photographs. :)

I found you again when I was trying to post at Blotanical.
Which I can't seem to do.
Anyway I'll save your link and be back later.


gardenmomma (Chris) said...

Oh, what amazing photos! What a fun and informative post. I had a lot of swallowtails last summer, but not so many this past summer. What a miracle to watch the metamorphasis!

Tyra in Vaxholm said...

Amazing never heard anything like it,great experience. Thank you for sharing this with us. LOL Tyra

Daphne said...

I get a lot of black swallowtail caterpillars in my garden. They never go for the parsley, only the dill (I don't grow fennel). And I get quite a few on my dill. I've never thought about hatching them inside though. I see them get to a certain size then they disappear. I've never found their chrysalis in the garden though. I have to look harder next year.

Charlotte said...

What a wonderful idea! This way, nobody gets hurt, and its all well. Fun for the kids to see as well. I hope you don`t mind that I make a link to youre blog from mine? I would really like to share this with other gardenlovers in Norway.

shirl said...

Wonderful Robin, thanks so much for sharing this with us :-D

Gail said...


Thank you posting this and for the link! You've described the process so well, that I am going to try it next year. What a delight to see the changes and release a beautiful butterfly into the garden.


Rose said...

Robin, Thanks for this great post! I've always been a "wormaphobic," but I might try finding some caterpillars next season, even if they are "prolific poopers," LOL. My grandchildren would enjoy watching this transformation.

Cindy said...

What an absolutely fascinating process! I love that you've shared it. That's great!


Patsi said...


Thanks for adding me to your list at blotanical.
Just wish I knew how to use the site. Can't add more favorites can't post.I keep trying.

Have a great day,

Sunita said...

What a great project this is going to be for my daughter! Thank you for taking us step-by-step through this.

Inger said...

Haha!! Brilliant idea!
Hope you don't mind me posting a link to your blog?
Will be a great way to also find out wich caterpillars that grow into uglybugs that damages ie.roses...!
I will definately try this.
Thank you Robin! Great blog ^^,

Shirley "EdenMaker" said...

What beautiful photos to commemorate a wonderful day!
Shirley said...


Laurie said...

Hi Robin, I love your blog, and your pictures are beautiful! This brings back memories when my father would gather the monarch caterpillars and we would watch the whole process from start to finish, just as you do. I've had a hard time over the last few years locating them, would love to share that experience with the kids in the family! Thank-you for sharing?

George Africa said...

We really enjoy butterflies in our gardens and always plant dill and leave the milkweed in the field. This insures a good population of swallowtails and monarchs most years.

There's a caterpillar on one of my recent posts to show what a natural, artistic addition to the garden they are. Try:

Good gardening wishes!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Gardens
Vermont Flower Farm

lzyjo said...

Hi Robin, I'm really glad I found this post again, I saw it originally when the caterpillars were out, but I didn't remember where. Awesome, awesome tutorial, it's perfectly detailed, I know exactly what to do for next year. Thanks a lot for the great info.