RAISING BUTTERFLIES WITH YOUR CHILDREN.
Have you ever reflected on the miracle it takes to get the fluttering butterflies to fly before our eyes? I sometimes wonder why God chose to do the whole process of butterfly metamorphosis instead of just a one or two-step process. Join us in observing the miracle of the development of a butterfly with your children.
I remember studying the metamorphosis process in my younger grades, and it was fascinating for me to find out what all had to happen. As school was never hard for me, I passed all the tests about that just fine.
However, with my children I want to give them as much “real life” science as possible, and I am already seeing how it will never be an issue for them to remember the order of metamorphosis since they have already seen it in real life so often, even though they haven’t entered first grade yet. I want to show you how you can do the same with your children or students. Come along for the adventure!
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Butterfly Life Cycle
Adult butterflies lay eggs on their species’ favorite plants. After a few days, tiny caterpillars come out of the eggs and start to eat from their host plants. They quickly grow big, and then they attach themselves to some surface with silk threads and change into chrysalises. In a week or two the butterfly comes out of the chrysalides. Once they are done drying their wings, they are ready to fly off and start the cycle again.
Watching Monarch Caterpillars
In my middle school years when we lived in Canada, my family occasionally caught the monarch butterfly caterpillars and watched them go through the whole process till they became monarch butterflies. We always found them on milkweed plants, and sometimes we even found tiny monarch eggs on the leaves.
If you live in North America, this is probably one of the most common and easiest caterpillars to catch and raise. You can bring in the entire milkweed plant, as they will usually have some eggs or small caterpillars on them.
Observe Other Butterfly Species
Here in Costa Rica we don’t have monarchs, but we have many other butterflies, including the black swallowtail butterfly. I don’t remember exactly how or when I started raising caterpillars with my girls, but now we have a few years of experience. You can do it too.
We started finding different caterpillars and raising them in a large jar covered with a piece of paper towel or mesh, like the ones pictured here. It is best not to have them in totally closed containers so they can breathe. If nothing else, make small holes in the lid of your cage.
More recently I found this small terrarium in a plastic container store, so we upgraded to that so we do not have to be using my glass jars for crawly critters!
You can find similar terrariums somewhere . I have a link to one here on my resources page under “Insect Adventures.”
HOW TO START RAISING CATERPILLARS:
When you find a caterpillar, you have to make sure you remember which plant they are on, as that is their host plant and generally the food they eat. My girls are the ones who lately find the caterpillars. They come running to me for a container, and then we pick the leaves with the caterpillar on them, put them in the jar, cover them with the cloth, and secure it with a rubber band.
The Caterpillar Stage
Caterpillars start out so tiny, but it is amazing how quickly they become large, within 10-14 days approximately.
WHAT TO FEED CATERPILLARS:
Caterpillars are big eaters. In order to take good care of a caterpillar, you need to add some fresh leaves from their host food plant every day, till they turn into a chrysalis or cocoon. (A chrysalis turns into a butterfly, and a cocoon turns into a moth.) Occasionally if too many dead leaves pile up, we take out some of the old ones. Mist some of the fresh leaves a bit so that the caterpillar has enough moisture.
WHAT HAPPENS TO CATERPILLARS AS THEY GROW?
For some time, depending on how grown up the caterpillar was when you got it, the caterpillar will simply crawl around his home eating leaves. They occasionally molt, leaving behind black little balls of their old “skin.”
The Chrysalis Stage
One day you will start to observe the caterpillar holding very still on the underside of the cloth, or side of the container somewhere. That is the time to leave them alone and not move them. Then all at once, you will see they have transformed into a different shape after they have shed their skin (chrysalises) or wrapped themselves in silk (cocoons).
We haven’t really gotten to observe that transformation because it is pretty quick, though I try to keep my eye on the jar once I see the caterpillar holding still, and often attaching its tail end to a surface. I know that process would be fascinating, but somehow we usually miss it.
After the chrysalis is formed, it is time to set the container somewhere out of direct sunlight, where you can observe it but not move it too much. If we can take out the old leaves without disturbing the chrysalis, we do. But if not we just leave it all alone.
Usually the chrysalis starts changing color and getting darker just before the birth of a butterfly, so we can watch it a bit more, and have occasionally gotten to watch them appearing. Soon after they come out of the chrysalis and hang down from it, they let out a red liquid that is like their meconium.
Ocassionally you can give the chrysalis a gentle mist of room temperature water just to make sure it doesn’t dry out too much.
Some butterflies take just a bit over a week to hatch. Moths can take several months till they appear.
It is truly fascinating to watch the whole process, and so exciting for my girls.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY BUTTERFLY ONCE IT APPEARS?
Newly emerged butterflies usually hang there for quite a while as their wings straighten out and dry. After the first day or even several hours later, we like to take them out and carefully let them crawl onto some plant, and then get some nice pictures if they don’t flutter away too fast.
Make sure to not touch their wings as that can damage them. We enjoy letting the butterflies walk on our hands, but we try to make sure we don’t touch their wings.
Make a Butterfly Habitat
Another thing you can do is plant a butterfly garden. Study what flowers butterflies like, and plant a bunch. Also plant some common host plants (like the milkweed if you live in North America and want to attract monarchs, or dill for the black swallowtail butterfly.) You can even set out a container of sugar water or make a butterfly feeder to attract butterflies. Be careful with pesticide use.
With time you will start to see more and more butterflies flitting around your flowers, and you might even find eggs or caterpillars to raise. That would also be an excellent place to release your butterflies.
MORE OBSERVATIONS ABOUT BUTTERFLIES.
I don’t know most of the scientific names of the butterflies we have raised. We do have a library in town with some butterfly identification books, but at this stage of life I can’t take the time to search them all out. Hopefully someday once my girls can read well they can catch up on that project.
As you learn to observe butterflies and caterpillars, you will start finding them more often. I have been surprised by how opening our eyes has taught us so much.
We sometimes see an adult butterfly fluttering around a certain tree or bush, occasionally touching down for just a second or two before fluttering off again. We have gone and checked and at each landing place we find a tiny white dot – a butterfly egg!
Usually we don’t bring the eggs in because we haven’t had much success raising the caterpillars from so tiny, and since the leaves wilt they don’t survive as well either. Once we found a leaf full of some tiny eggs that we brought home, and we had the fun of watching the tiny caterpillars hatch and crawl out the top of the eggs, but sadly they did not survive long so we don’t know what they would have become.
Be careful when touching caterpillars as some of them can sting. Our girls haven’t had any bad experiences yet. We try to teach them to be careful with what they touch, but occasionally they show up with caterpillars in their hands and everything turns out fine! So now there are certain caterpillars we know they can hold without any problem.
WHEN THINGS DON’T TURN OUT WELL.
Occasionally our caterpillars or chrysalises die, or a butterfly hatches and falls to the bottom of the cage before his wings stretch properly, and we don’t get the happy ending we had hoped for.
Last year we got this huge green caterpillar.
But after a few days, we saw him covered in these funny brown bumps.
He didn’t survive long. From a bit of studying we did, it looks like some other insects, possibly some small wasps, laid their eggs on him and they worked like parasites. What confuses me is that he was in a closed container, and I don’t see how another insect could have gotten in, so that is a mystery we still have to solve someday.
Another time we caught these caterpillars that, from previous experience, we knew would turn into these beautiful black swallowtail butterflies. The chrysalises formed nicely, but then the colors did not progress like normal.
A week or two later we saw these ugly maggots come crawling out of the chrysalises. A bit of Google research taught us that it was a certain fly that had laid its tiny egg on the caterpillar, and it had done its parasitic work, killing our butterflies. While annoying, it was a good science lesson for us.
The maggots turned into hard dark cases. We kept them in a well-closed container so they wouldn’t escape, but so that we would get the experience of watching the flies appear before destroying them.
We have raised flies that way, but we always make sure to destroy them and not let them go, so they don’t hurt more of our butterflies and caterpillars.
OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE!
This is not just an activity for boys! I have three girls and they all love the insect world, and any science in general. As we go on walks I try to open my eyes and point out little details about plants and insects, and they are getting really good at observing things even I don’t notice.
While we try to teach them to be careful with new creatures, they like to hold the spinybacked orb weaver spider they are familiar with, as well as inchworms, and certain little bugs and ladybugs that we know are safe and won’t sting them.
Our neighbors are learning along with us, especially the few who see my WhatsApp statuses about our insect adventures. One day one of them brought over a big, ugly caterpillar. The case it formed looked pretty nice, but then after several weeks we got an ugly moth from it. They enjoyed following along with the process.
Start your journey observing the creatures, and you will see that they have much to teach us about God’s design and care for details! You can also read about observing the praying mantis, or about learning from experience and how it applies to other aspects of life, not just caterpillars and butterflies!
Job 12:7-9 “But ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this?”
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Find out where to get terrariums, and butterfly (or ladybug!) kits if you can’t find caterpillars in your own back yard. The information is here on my resources page under “Insect Adventures.”
Enjoy this butterfly journey with your children!