When I started gardening in 1999, right off the bat, I wanted to support butterflies. I had a good mentor that helped those first few years. She helped me make the plant list and lists of the other elements that make a habitat. The problem is that I was not planting milkweeds or native plants at the time so I was not having any butterflies visit.
Once I did get more experience and information I started planting a few natives and milkweeds.
I started with swamp milkweed and saw tiny caterpillars but I would always come back and check in a day or so and they would be gone. I didn't quite put together what was happening until I saw a stink bug sucking the life out of a fat healthy caterpillar. Gasp! All I was doing was raising food for the predator insects in my garden!
It took me another few years to start raising caterpillars. Again I was lucky enough to find a mentor to help me and teach me how to raise caterpillars at home.
The first lesson I learned was that collecting the milkweed leaves with the eggs on them is the key to success. The next crucial piece of advice I can give is sterilize everything! This prevents diseases and parasites from killing your cats. while they grow.
Why do I do it? Well first, I am a hobby-aholic and I can't resist learning new hobbies and collecting all the accoutrements that go along with it. I do feel like I am making a little difference. My butterflies may not be boosting the population significantly, but I feel that the more healthy butterflies flying around all the better.
I started out very slowly but raised about 275 in the second year. I could not believe how well they did, now I raise a lot more every year which is a big time commitment. In order to help the monarch you need not raise as many as I do. Raise one at a time, raise five or ten and it will help.
This year is my 8th year raising the monarch cats. Last year my husband who is a hobbiest woodworker, made me a caterpillar house. I am lucky to have this piece of equipment. More on that later...
Getting Started: Before the season starts, collect the supplies you want to use. I use plastic 12 qt boxes to hatch the eggs, a ten gallon aquarium to care for the cats once they are in the third instar. Bleach water in a spray bottle, lots and lots of paper towel. A tiny paintbrush is useful and a mesh habitat. Aquariums are not hard to come by, used. Ask your family first, someone probably has one in the basement or garage. If you can't get one that way, then the next stop could be a salvage shop or Goodwill. Last resort- buy new. They are not that expensive but I wholeheartedly believe in reuse, reduce, recycle.
Yes you will be collecting eggs, tho they be tiny! Once you get used to seeing them, they are not hard to find. Go out to your garden starting the third week of May in Chicagoland and check the plants for eggs. The eggs usually are layed by the female monarch butterfly on the bottom side of the leaf. However, sometimes, you will find eggs in the top of the plant, flower buds, newly emerged stems of milkweed and seedpods.
After you collect the eggs by taking the leaf or cutting a portion of a large leaf, you will bring them inside and make sure there are no predators on the leaves. I collect my eggs and take them in the house right away. Don't allow the leaves to wilt outside. Eggs then go into a sterilized 12 qt. container. Lay slightly damp paper towel in the bottom of the container. Lay the leaves with the eggs in a single layer. Put the top on the container. You will check on the eggs every day to see if they have hatched. When they hatch, use the tiny paint brush to move the newly hatched cat. to a brand new leaf in a different container. The cats. will then spend the next 10-12 days eating and pooping. You must clean out the boxes everyday. Take out the cats and place them in another clean container with new paper towel and new milkweed leaves. Then clean the old container, make sure you uses bleach water to do it and rinse well.
In the past few years I have had some caterpillar disasters and this I feel is due to overcrowding them in the containers and not having air vents in the containers. This spring (2017) my husband and I will be gathering up all the containers we use and cutting vent holes in the sides. Then I will hot glue vinyl window screening over the opening. The openings are going into the sides of the containers because I stack them. So screening in the lids would not be effective. This is where taking lots of photos can be helpful. Instead of trying to remember what you did last year and wondering how you can improve, look back at your photos and make a new plan. I will post a photo when we get started.