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We often receive inquiries from schools/people wanting pupae or butterflies for a special date. This is a great opportunity to work with your class on a maths exercise. Children will also learn valuable lessons about planning and the vagaries of Nature.
All you need to do is have swan plants – and quite a few of them – and some warm weather.
Firstly we know that the basic timing of a Monarch’s life cycle is:
4-10 days – eggs
9-20 days – caterpillar
10-28 days – pupa
So from the egg to adult stage(s) can take as little as 23 days (4+9+10), and this would be in the optimum conditions, i.e. a full 23 days of hot summer sun. Bear in mind too, that not every egg is going to become a butterfly – some will be food for other species or even contribute to your garden detritus.
A butterfly on 28 February MAY come from eggs laid before 5 February – but very unlikely to be from an egg laid after that date. And if it’s pupae you want on a certain day… well, you can do the maths!
Ensure you have several milkweed (swan plants) a month before the event and been absolutely certain that they are caterpillar-friendly, i.e. have not been contaminated with spray. Next expose those potted plants to Monarchs in the outdoors, watering them well and wait for a female Monarch to come by. (I have a gut feeling that the signals the plants give out will be better if the plant is not dry.) A Monarch can smell a milkweed from as far away as 2 kilometres… there will be some flying in your area for sure.
Now if all goes well and the Monarch lays on that first day, don’t worry that things might be early – there are a few tricks we can still use.
* If the weather gets cooler, the caterpillars’ growth will slow down – so you could ensure that plants are kept in a cooler part of the garden/house.
* Keep them covered from predators. Ensure there are no pesticides in the vicinity, and remember this includes flea collars and those plug-in insect controls.
* To prevent caterpillars wandering stand your plants in a ‘moat’ arrangement.
* After 24 hours (in which to harden off) pupae can be removed from the plant to ensure that they’re kept safely. They do NOT need to be hanging for the butterfly to emerge.
* Pupae can be slowed down by being stored in a cool, dark place (the same way their progress would slow down if there was bad weather outdoors).
* Butterflies can also be kept in a cool, dark place for some time after emergence without the need to feed them. For the first 24 hours after emergence they will not want to feed – and if the unfavourable weather continues they will not feed until it does improve.
If you have any questions about this please ask them in the forum.
All insects go through a series of changes as they mature (called metamorphosis) unlike mammals, where the young are born as ‘miniature’ adults.
With moths and butterflies, the first stage is the ovum or egg, the second stage the larva (larval stage) or caterpillar, the third stage the pupa (pupal stage) and finally it becomes the imago or adult, usually termed the ‘butterfly’ or ‘moth’.
Moth caterpillars spin a silk cocoon around themselves to enter the pupal stage.
Most butterfly larvae, however, split open and then the inside forms a transparent skin or cuticle. This is called a chrysalis.
Just to complicate things… there is one species of butterfly in Siberia which spins a cocoon. It’s an interesting story, best told by Eric Carle, author of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”.
Butterflies usually fly during the day and moths generally at night. Butterflies usually put their wings together above their body when at rest, exposing their body, while moths will fold them over each other.
Another difference is that butterflies have clavate or club-like antennae or feelers, but the feelers of moths are feathery (pectinate).
As well, moths tend to have plumper bodies than butterflies, and because moths’ scales tend to be larger they give the appearance of being more dusty.
There are many types of injuries – and sometimes it is time for the butterfly to die. But in bad weather (cold or wet) you can best help a butterfly by putting it on flowers in a sheltered position, or by bringing it indoors.
Pick some flowers with nectar, and put your butterfly on that, and with warmth, shelter and nectar it may recover.
Remember that a Monarch lives only 6-8 weeks after it has done what it is here to do – continue the species. Every living thing will die – but hopefully before doing so it will have added to the population.
It is possible to replace a broken wing by gluing on a perfect wing from a dead butterfly. This is labour-intensive and requires practice. Full instructions can be found here.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to do the job well, our suggestion is to pop your injured Monarch into a container and put it in the deepfreeze.
A pupa that falls or is dented may well be infected with disease. It may be best to euthanise the pupa (by wrapping it in a tissue, and putting it in the deep-freeze). You certainly don’t want to foster disease or a virus.
If you are sure the chrysalis is not diseased (e.g. you knocked it off yourself) it can be rehung by tying cotton around the cremaster (the black stem at the top) using miniature pegs, or it can be glued by using a glue gun. Place a bead of glue on a suitable support and then place the silk mat or the cremaster into the glue.
Pupae do not need to be hanging for the butterfly to emerge safely. You can leave the pupa next to an upright support and the butterlfy will climb upwards so the wings can hang down as they dry. One suggestion is using a food cover (the umbrella type) and putting the pupa onto a paper towel inside and next to the wall of the food cover.
In NZ the natural food species of the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) larvae is the Asclepiadiae family – milkweed which includes swan plant (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) and giant swan plant (G. physocarpus) as well as Asclepias species such as tropical milkweed/bloodflower (A. curassavica). The tropical milkweed comes in two colours -scarlet (which has a gold centre) and gold (all yellow).
The term ‘milkweed’ can be confusing – but a Fact Sheet on this is available. The Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust will be able to help you with seed of the giant swan plant and tropical milkweed, each packet is $5.
Larvae in their latter stages can sometimes be fed on a noxious weed called moth vine, cruel vine or kapok plant (Araujia sericifera) and some people have had success with cucumber, pumpkin and courgette – but only when they are in their last instar, i.e. ten days old or more than 2cm in length. Any earlier than this and the larvae will not get enough cardenolides (chemicals called cardiac glycosides) and will not be able to make a successful transition to an adult.
Moth vine is on the banned list in some regions – check with your regional council.
When caterpillars have eaten all the leaves they will then eat the stems and fruit (seed pods). You can crush the ends of the stems while you sort out a long-term solution. Don’t let them wander away!
*** If you have “run out of food” place a notice in the forum but make sure to say where you live. Someone in your neighbourhood may be able to help!***
Adult butterflies need plants giving nectar. They usually choose flowers with bright colours, purples, pinks and blues in mass plantings. Buddleias and Hebes are very popular. There are more listed in our forum – click on the link on the homepage to go there. There is a poster showing many nectar plants available from the MBNZT. See it here.
The worst pests are undoubtedly wasps; ones which eat the larvae (caterpillars) and eggs until late summer, when the wasps’ diet changes from protein to nectar, and other wasps that parasitise pupae. Some wasps have been deliberately introduced to control the White Butterfly.
Praying mantises will eat caterpillars, as will the Predatory Shield Bug (Cermatulus nasalis). Ants will also take eggs.
Disease can also be transmitted from caterpillars and will badly infect pupae – so if you are breeding Monarchs ensure that you keep their food supply in small, separate ‘islands’ in your garden rather than a concentrated area. In this way, any disease cannot spread as rapidly. If you keep caterpillars in containers try not to have them all in one container, and clean each container with a bleach solution before reusing.
Consider doing a “Create Butterfly Habitat” course (on-line) to learn more about our butterfly species and how to avoid disease and other pests.
If you have too many caterpillars, take some of them to where there is milkweed with no caterpillars; don’t let your plants get inundated with larvae. Post in the forum where you are and how to contact, and you might find others in your neighbourhood have excess swan plants.
Yes, but it is always better to choose a natural diet, the nectar from fresh flowers. In a country like NZ there should be no need for artificial diets. Also in cold dry weather sugar water can form crystals inside the butterfly. A better form of artificial nectar is a heaped teaspoon of honey dissolved in half a glass of water, with a drop of soy sauce added to give added minerals.
You can grow your plants in pots, and move them to where the wasps can’t find the plants or grow them under cover, such as a mosquito net.
You could also purchase a ‘caterpillar castle’ from us – see them here.
Even an old net curtain will help. Throw it over the plant and the Monarch will lay eggs where the net touches the leaves. Cover a plant when you have seen a female Monarch laying eggs. The eggs will hatch, the tiny caterpillars can crawl through the net and live relatively undisturbed from wasps. You can then watch your caterpillars grow. It’s not 100% foolproof, but is better than letting the wasps have them all.
You can plant swan plants close to other bushes, the branches of which will offer protection to the young caterpillars as the wasps can’t reach the swan plant growing intertwined with branches of the other bush or shrub.
There is more information about wasps and other pests under Species / Pests on our website
and also tons of discussion in the forum, https://www.monarch.org.nz/forum/tags/wasps
The process from egg to butterfly is weather dependent and also depends on the regional climate. It can take about four weeks in the peak of the summer in warmer climates. The egg takes 5 to 10 days, the larva/caterpillar and pupa/chrysalis each take about 10 to 14 days.
In winter, autumn and spring it takes a lot longer (if it happens at all – they continue to breed in Northland).
The process slows down in cool weather; in this way we can ‘use’ the climatic conditions to speed up or slow down the creation of a butterfly.
When the pupa is ready to hatch, the shell will be transparent and you can see the dark colours of the butterfly’s wings folded up inside. The transformation happens suddenly and if you turn away for a few minutes you will usually come back to find a butterfly.
After mating the butterfly has done what it was created for – to continue the species. Males will die 6-8 weeks after using up all their sperm mating with a succession of females. Similarly the female will die after she has laid all her eggs – usually between 300 and 400 although one Monarch laid over 1,000 eggs! Only a few of these eggs will mature to become butterflies – some will become food for predators or succumb to parasites etc.
Milkweed (such as swan plant) is easy to grow. Just make sure that your soil is not too fertile or rich. You will see that the strongest plants grow in ‘wild’ gardens.
Most garden centres sell swan plants (a type of milkweed) in the season – but ask at the counter if the plants have been sprayed. Some growers/garden centres spray their plants with insecticides to keep them looking good, and of course this could kill your caterpillars. These plants will be suitable for the next season.
You can also buy seeds from the Trust. Plant them NOW (whatever the time of year) and grow them so you have lots of food for your Monarchs in the Sprin or look for Yates seeds at your nearest retailer.
Seeds are $5 a packet. https://www.monarch.org.nz/items-for-sale/seeds/
Once your plant is well established you can save your own seeds and have plants growing forever. In the meantime, consider doing a “Create Butterfly Habitat” course (on-line) to learn more about our butterfly species and getting the best from your plant.
Throughout the summer season there are several people who sell plants, butterflies and/or pupae (chrysalises).
These are recommended:
www.madambutterfly.co.nz or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
The process is very simple – grow some milkweed in your garden, and you will soon embark on a wonderful adventure. The female butterfly will donate a few eggs to your cause as it flies around looking for milkweed. The eggs will hatch, and out will come caterpillars – and you’re in business.
When purchasing a swan plant (milkweed), ask the retailer ‘is this plant safe for caterpillars?’. If not, i.e. if it has been sprayed to keep it in pristine condition leave to grow in a corner of the garden and protect it from the female Monarchs so it will be of a good size for the next season. In the meantime, consider doing a “Create Butterfly Habitat” course (on-line) to learn more about our butterfly species and getting the best from your plant.
As issues arise, we will gladly help you with information to help you – post queries in the forum (or search there for answers). Soon you’ll be hooked, as we all are!
Many people are concerned for their Monarchs (caterpillars, pupae and adults) when there is a sudden change in the weather or when winter arrives unexpectedly.
The first thing to remember is that Monarch butterflies are wild creatures and have been surviving for many years without human intervention. For all sorts of reasons not every one survives – but as each and every female Monarch can lay something like 700 eggs not every Monarch is meant to survive. Imagine how many Monarch butterflies there would be if we helped every one! Some are destined to be food for other animals, or even detritus to add another element to the soil.
The other thing to remember is that Monarchs are not built like humans and do not experience the same sensations. Just like other wild animals they adapt to whatever conditions Nature throws at them. They don’t think weather is ‘bad’, ‘stormy’, ‘miserable’ like we do. They can probably sense bad weather coming better than we can. Whereas we shut the windows, turn up the heat or add another layer of clothing wild animals, just as their forebears have done for thousands of years, will more than likely find shelter and wait the weather out.
Butterflies will hold on to their perch and try not to get too wet. They may even move somewhere offering more shelter. Their wings are naturally shower-proof; the rain runs down and off them like it does off roof tiles. When it’s warm and sunny and the last drops of water have evaporated off their body, a Monarch will fly about, bask in the sun and look for food (nectar). If it’s winter they won’t breed until the spring.
If you have raised Monarchs indoors and the weather is not favourable to put the butterflies outside we suggest you put them somewhere cool and dark so that they are experiencing similar conditions to outside without the wet and wind. That way they will acclimatise more easily. They will not need to feed until the weather changes.