Raising Monarch Butterflies

Monarch Waystation

Description Click on the Image for a larger image.

The Monarch butterfly has a magnificent migration each year from Mexico north as far as Nova Scotia taking several generation to accomplish the travel. The populations of this endangered butterfly are in their third year of decline. Several yearss ago, we began raising these insects under protection to help increase their chances of success and help increase their population.

This is the area covered by the overwintering Monarch butterflies in Mexico over the previous twenty years. As you can see the population is at an all time low.
Our property is located in the centre of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. It is an agricultural area but our soils are poor sandy and drougthy. Actually the common Milkweed grows well here and has spread in the last few years. Map of the Bogan Field of Milkweed and site of Monarch raising
This is an aerial image of the southern end of our property with its 2 hectare field surrounded by woods on two sides. The milkweed is spread through most of the field and waking paths can be seen leading through the milkweed.
This is a view of the milkweed field from the west back toward our home. This is in June when the flowers of the milkweed are in bloom. 
The bees and other insects love the milkweed flowers which have a very sweet fragrance. When the field is in flower, the sound of bees is very audible.
In addition to having milkweed for feeding the Monarch larvae, there must be a nectar for the butterflies. We have established a 'butterfly garden' of  nectar plants and satisfied the conditions to become a 'Monarch Waystation' as designation by Monarch Watch (http://monarchwatch.org)
There are other species of milkweed that grow in Nova Scotia and one is this flower, the Swamp milkweed or Asclepias incarnata.
This is a popular form of milkweed for the flower garden, called "Orange Milkweed", "Butterfly Weed", and is Asclepias tuberosa.
The larvae of the Monarch grows through five instars and becomes a caterpiller nearly 5 cm long before it will pupate. The takes about two weeks.
In the wild fields of milkweed are many predators. This picture shows an earwig nextled in the top leaves of the common milkweed. There are many other threats to the Monarch larvae, including spiders, mice, voles, and birds. 
The adult Monarch female lays its eggs on small milkweed plants and usually on the underside of the leaf. The egg is small as shown here and is oblonged and a creamy white color.

Several days after being laid, the egg will develop a darkness as the larvae forms inside. The larva will break out and eat the egg shell before starting to eat at the leaf.

Video of the emergence of a Monarch larva from its egg. Taken through a microscope.

(View mp4 file - 9 Mb Download

The first instar of the Monarch is a very small black headed larva and difficult to see. It will usually eat a small hole in the leaf and that is a good sign of where to look for this caterpiller.
In later instars the caterpillar will develop its black, white and yellow strips. Between instars, it will become immobile before shedding its skin. It will eat this skin before starting on the leaf.
In the final stage of the caterpillar, tney are quite easy to see since they are so large.  Here are four being fed inside on milkweed brought in for them.
The last stage of its metamophisis has the caterpillar attach to the underside of a horizontal surface. It will sometimes hang there for nearly a day before it sheds it's sking and turns into a pupa.
The pupa of the Monarch just after the transformation.
Once the caterpillar settlles down inside the pupa takes a shape like this and there are characteristic gold dots and ridges
It takes about 10 days for the pupa to mature and the butterfly will visible through the transparent case of the chrysalis.
The new butterfly will break out of the chrysalis and grab it with its legs before pulling its abdomen out. At this point the wings are all crumpled and wet. The Monarch will hang onto its chrysalis and pump up its wings.
The new Monarch will stay on the chrysalis for a couple of hours to let it's wing dry. Here is a view of three Monarch butterflies that eclosed (emerging from the chrysalis) about the same time. 

We bring eggs and larvae in from the field to protect the monarch from predators. Since they eat only milkweed, we bring the milkweed in with the egg on it. Putting the plant in water keeps it fresh. 

As the milkweed wilts or is eaten, we bring in fresh plants. 

Initially, the larvae stay on the milkweed plants but as they get bigger, they begin to roam and will go to the floor or walls of the house.  We contain them in a special cage made with a screens. Since the caterpillar will pupate on the underside of the top of the cage, that is where they almost all end up.
Once a screen becomes filled with chrysalises, we move it away and put a new one on the box or container with the actively eating caterpillars.  The dryer stand here is a convenient method of holding all the screens and other surfaces on which the pupa are attached.
Unfortunately, some caterpillars get out and attach to places like this window casement.
Once there, we just leave the caterpillar pupate.
The Monarch butterfly can be sexed easily, Here is a male with its widening of it two black stripes on its hind wings.  We put the butterfly on a plant outside and let it fly away at its own time.

In order to keep track of where the Monarch will go on its migration south, we tag the butterfly using a small paper sticking label provided by Monarch Watch. 


This is a picture of another butterfly, that mimics the Monarch called a Viceroy. It is distinquished from the Monarch by that black strip across the rear wing.
Here is another picture of a Monarch egg on a small common milkweed. This is what you should look for when finding Monarchs to raise.
As of 2020 we have been managing our field of milkweed for 15 years. This is a history of our experience with the Monarch butterfly.- Click on the image to enlarge it to readable size.