I have caterpillars. Now what?

This September, after I found my first monarch caterpillar, I went online to find out what I should do. Not only did I find out that the monarch population has plummeted 90% over the past two decades but I also discovered this little tidbit:Little monarch

A monarch egg has a 3-10% chance of reaching adulthood in the wild.

Flying monarch

Those odds increase significantly when monarch lovers bring
the eggs/caterpillars indoors to raise.

And the sooner in the life cycle, the better. 

As I mentioned in my last post, monarch caterpillars only eat one type of plant: milkweed. Various factors have colluded to severely deplete the amount of milkweed found along their traditional migration routes (more on that in a future post). But I’ve learned that they also contend with a host of natural predators that feed on monarch eggs and caterpillars. These predators include spiders, stinkbugs, praying mantids, and parasitic flies, for example. (This surprised me because I already knew that birds avoid feeding on monarch butterflies because the chemicals in the milkweed plant makes the monarch poisonous to the birds, so I thought the eggs and caterpillars would enjoy a similar break from other predators. Well, no such luck.)

There’s also a nasty little protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE, for short) that kills monarchs. The spores, invisible to the naked eye, can accumulate on leaves outdoors or on the indoor surfaces where you raise monarchs. This is why, if you’re raising monarchs indoors, you must keep things super clean and — I found this out late in the game — also rinse any milkweed that you bring in before feeding it to the caterpillars.

On the day I found my first caterpillar I also found a really good series of videos on YouTube from MrLundScience. Here’s one of several videos in his “how to raise monarch caterpillar” instructionals:

Little monarch

So at this point, I had some good information and I had found five caterpillars of various sizes on my milkweed. Why had it taken so long (three years from the time I originally planted Common Milkweed) for the monarchs to find my yard? Either I just got lucky this year or I had to have a critical mass of plants before attracting these butterflies. Whatever the case, I was pretty darned happy. So here’s what I did:

I filled a couple of mason jars with water and secured a coffee filter on the top. Then, I poked a hole in the filter and placed a stem of fresh milkweed in the jar. (The filter prevented the caterpillars from falling in the water and drowning.):

Jar for milkweed

I named my first caterpillar Trigglet, after my friends Mary and Beth Trigg. I covered the bottom of a cardboard box with newspapers and placed the jars of milkweed inside. Each time I found a caterpillar, I named it after a friend (either their real name or nickname): Hatbox, Lina, The Mayor, and Grey-Gray.

I’ll end this post with some pictures of that first caterpillar sleepover. What a joy to watch these babies devour their milkweed. Until next time … go order your milkweed seeds and plants so that you can have a monarch caterpillar sleepover next fall. Cheers, Heather:





About MonarchLover

Heather Rayburn is a native of Asheville, NC., and works at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, a non-profit 10-acre public garden dedicated to the promotion of plants native to the Southern Appalachians. She has a B.A. from UNC-Asheville and a M.S. from the University of Tennessee, both in Mass Communication with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. She's also a dog lover and baker.

8 comments on “I have caterpillars. Now what?

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  4. That plant doesn’t look like milkweed. I purchased ours from the Environmental Nature Center in Costa Mesa CA. Wondering if it’s different type.

    • Hi Maryann – The milkweed pictured above is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It is one of nine milkweed varieties native to Western North Carolina (WNC), where I live. I have all of the WNC milkweeds listed on my resources page: http://www.monarchlover.org/resources/

      I just checked the USDA plant profile distribution site and Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is not native to California. In planting milkweed, it’s important to use milkweed native to your region and your local environmental center would know which milkweed out of the 110 species of milkweed native to North America would be appropriate to your area. Cheers and thanks for looking after the butterflies, H.

    • Hi Mark — I found a total of 10 caterpillars this year. Stay tuned to my blog (new post every Monday) and I’ll show you what happened to them. I had a 50% success rate.

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