From Egg to Monarch Butterfly
Commissioner Linda Painter is doing her part to support the monarch butterfly population. She has reared monarchs — from egg to adult butterfly — before releasing them in her backyard to make the long, migratory flight to Mexico for overwintering. Here, Commissioner Painter answers a few questions about her experiences with the monarch butterfly and captive-rearing process.
Why do you raise monarch butterflies?
The miraculous metamorphoses that monarchs go through from egg to flight is truly amazing. Not only do I get to see the metamorphosis first-hand but I also help out the declining monarch population.
Why are you doing your part to enhance the population?
Monarchs are such beautiful butterflies. It would be a loss not only to us but also future generations to not be able to see them flying around. Because there are so many natural predators of the monarch eggs in their early stages, I feel like I am helping out the declining monarch population in my own little way. Besides their beauty, monarchs are pollinators which are important to our flowers and our food sources.
How do you raise the butterflies?
First, you plant milkweed plants. As perennials, they will come up every year once they become established. Milkweed serves as the only food source for monarch’s caterpillar. Then, I look for the monarch eggs on the bottom of the milkweed leaves. They are very tiny, so I cut out a little piece of the leaf that has the egg on it. I wait for up to five days before the tiny caterpillar emerges. Then, it's on to the stage of eating and growing for about 3 weeks. They eat a lot of milkweed leaves in their final week of growing — about one leaf a day!
What is involved in the captive-rearing process?
As it grows bigger, the caterpillar needs a container with a mesh top to crawl up to when it forms a chrysalis. It crawls up to the top where it adheres to the lid with a sticky substance, then hangs head-down. It forms the shape of a "J,” where it stays for about 24 hrs.
Next, it begins the miraculous transformation into a butterfly. Rather quickly a green substance encompasses the whole caterpillar forming the chrysalis where it hangs for about 10 days. During the final day in the chrysalis stage, it turns a black color and the outer coating becomes transparent. (You can begin to see the orange and black coloration of the monarch butterfly.)
Usually the next morning, the butterfly will crack open the thin chrysalis covering and hang from it, upside down — all within three minutes! This is one of the most critical points, because its wings are forming. It comes out of the chrysalis with its wings all crinkled up and very small. Its blood and fluids start draining into the wings to develop beautiful, large orange-and-black wings. It hangs like that for several hours draining and drying its wings.
Then I take the fully developed butterfly outside to let it crawl on a flower. When it's ready, it flaps its wings and takes off.
Where did you learn about the monarch and its plight?
A friend who raises monarchs initially inspired me. Of course, I was also moved by the Forest Preserve District and its Willowbrook Wildlife Center, where monarchs in a variety of stages can be viewed by visitors. The media is also beginning to promote growing milkweed to support the monarch population.
How long does it take from the period a monarch lays her eggs to when her offspring turns into a butterfly?
It takes from five to six weeks.
How do you feel after releasing a monarch butterfly?
I feel a little sad but also really excited knowing I helped that little egg become a beautiful butterfly that will fly to Mexico for the winter and start the next generation of the monarch population.
What can homeowners do to support the monarch?
First and foremost, homeowners can grow milkweed! They can also avoid using herbicides that kill the milkweed plants and pesticides or insecticides that kill the growing caterpillars.
Any other insight to offer?
This is a great process for kids of all ages to watch, gain an understanding about the monarch lifecycle and develop a respect for nature’s beauty.
Lifecycle of the Monarch
Courtesy of D. Scott Productions