Butterflies — beautiful creatures dancing on the wind! Fragile yet strong, mind-boggling in the thought of the migratory paths of some varieties. What homeschooling parent hasn’t drooled just a bit over those raising butterfly kits — wanting their child to have that “hands-on” experience, yet cringing at the high price of the kits! Or, you decide to splurge and purchase a butterfly raising kit, and once it is all finished your children want to do it again, but your budget doesn’t allow. The good news is that raising butterflies, either from a purchased kit or without, is a fun and easy home school activity to do.
Our family has enjoyed both ways of raising butterflies, starting the first time with a purchased kit, but soon realizing our desire for raising exceeded our dollars available for purchasing kits. So, in this blog post I am going to concentrate on how you can raise butterflies without purchasing a kit — but please remember that the butterfly raising kits are available and can make an awesome birthday or Christmas present!
The first thing you need to do is educate yourself on butterfly raising. The above book is one that our family has found useful. It talks a little bit about what type of containers to use, and even shows how you can make your own container.
There are also books that have butterfly activities in them — sort of like a unit study. We have used the above book on Monarchs, but it does not talk about raising Monarchs; it’s more of activities about Monarchs.
We have used this Stokes guide quite a bit. A butterfly guide will help you learn what types of butterflies live in your area. This is important to learn first, as it will then help you discover what type of butterflies you can expect to find, as well as learning what foods those types of butterfly caterpillars eat.
This little pocket size guide is perfect to take with you and your children outside. Go to wherever there are flowers planted, whether it is your own yard or a park. Sit quietly for a while, and observe what butterflies come to visit the flowers. Take pictures of them, and use your identification guide to discover the type of butterfly that you saw.
Once you have learned who lives in your area, do a little research either, in your field guides or online, to learn what that variety of butterfly caterpillar eats. Scan the list you find, and look for plants that you could easily add to your yard. You have a two-fold goal: 1) attract the adult butterfly with the variety of flowers they like to feed on, and 2) have host plants available near by. Host plants are the types of plants that your butterfly variety lays their eggs on. For example, we learned that Swallowtail butterflies are common in our area. We can attract the adult Swallowtails easily to our yard by planting flowers such as zinnias, cone flowers, etc. But, if we want to be able to raise Swallowtail caterpillars, we also need to plant something such as parsley or rue — two varieties of host plants that the Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on. Obviously, you want to make sure to not spray your host plants with any type of poison, or it could kill any caterpillars that have hatched out on that plant. Make your little garden corner attractive to butterflies. Think of it as a bed and breakfast for butterflies! Give them food, shelter, and host plants, and they will come!
Once you have your flowers and host plants planted, start watching for butterflies around that area. You do not need a large garden to do this; a couple of potted plants will work nicely. Keep in mind, though, that the larger area of color with your nectar producing flowers, the easier the butterflies flying past will be able to see the banquet you have prepared for them! Examine your host plants frequently. Make sure you are familiar with what the different stages of the caterpillars you are looking for look like! In the above picture, this is a Swallowtail caterpillar that is almost ready to go into its chrysalis. It looks very different at this stage than it did when it was tiny. When you find caterpillars, carefully collect them and place them into your raising container. Remember to not touch the caterpillar itself, but rather gently break off the part of the plant it is eating on and place it in your container. Once you have a visitor, keeping its container clean daily is important. We simply line the bottom of the container with a piece of paper towel, and change it out daily for a clean one. It is also important to provide fresh food for your caterpillar daily. Have enough of your host plant growing in your yard that you can break off a few fresh pieces each morning to bring in to it. No need to provide water — it will gather all the water it needs from eating the fresh host plant leaves.
Depending upon the variety of caterpillar, it will spend a couple of weeks munching and eating. At this point it will enter its chrysalis, and will no longer need to be fed. You will need some sticks inside its container for it to climb up on and hang from. Since you never really know when a caterpillar will be ready to change to its next stage, I keep sticks in my containers at all times. Even with this, they will sometimes still attach themselves to the sides or ceiling of your container and ignore your fine sticks. If this happens, do not worry about it. Just leave it alone and do not disturb it. Make sure the containers you are keeping your caterpillars in are large enough that when they hatch they will have enough room to stretch out their wings fully. If they are in a too-small container, it will damage their wings permanently.
When your butterflies have hatched out, it is time to release them back into your garden. Gently carry your raising container outside. You can see in this photo one of our containers — a plastic terrarium that was inexpensively purchased at Walmart. It is hard to see from the angle of the photo, but this container is actually quite deep.
Here is a second type of container that we also use. It is a net and has a spring going around the sides. When we are not using it, it folds completely flat. We purchased this from the Insect Lore company.
With the large spring-type of containers, the butterflies often need help finding their way out of the container. You can gently place your finger in front of them and see if they will climb up on it. If they do, you can give them a ride out of the container. Never force the butterfly onto your finger, and never touch their wings — no matter how gentle you try to be, you will end up damaging their fragile bodies.
Once you have a butterfly taking a ride on your finger, place him or her next to a flower and wait just a bit. They will happily step off of your finger and onto the flower.
If your butterfly has just recently hatched out, they will stay on the flower for a while, sunning their wings and getting ready to fly. This gives you a great opportunity to get close up pictures that normally you would not be able to get!
I hope you have enjoyed learning more about God’s beautiful butterflies! The fall time is a great time to begin researching and planning out your spring planting list — and don’t forget to plant something for the butterflies!