Sep 20

Our Butterfly Journey

I don’t have any butterfly tattoos…yet, but I admit it: I adore the fluttery critters. They’re beautiful, sure, but it’s more about their changing from something slightly awkward and a little, um, less than elegant, to something majestic and noteworthy and free. (As for me, pretty sure I’m stuck in my chrysalis phase.)

I find butterflies enchanting on any given day, but lately, I’ve been a little obsessed. (You may have noticed if you follow me on Instagram). Though I’ve never “raised” butterflies before, I have cared for them in the past: one a black swallowtail, which had been hit by a car and had a damaged wing; the other a monarch, whose wing never straightened after it emerged from its chrysalis. The monarch was with us for over a month; it seemed comfortable with being held and regularly drank honey-water from my fingertips. (Butterflies drink with a proboscis, but they can also find food by “tasting” with their feet.)

This summer, though, I specifically invited monarchs into our yard. How? Simple: I bought some milkweed plants (here’s the post, with photos), and a Mama Monarch dropped out of the sky and laid her eggs right in front of me. Pretty accommodating, don’t you think?

*Milkweed, in its many varieties, is the only host plant for monarch caterpillars. There’s been some controvery about growing tropical milkweed for monarchs, but it seems to me the good outweighs the risks, especially if you prune your tropical milkweed at various times. (A link at the bottom of this post will take you to an article that addresses the issue in detail.)

By Bfpage – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Within a short time, I’d discovered my first tiny caterpillar, already in its second instar phase:

This little caterpillar and its caterpillar siblings ate and grew and ate and grew…


(Third and fourth instars)

…until they reached their fifth instar phase. I brought the last two inside, so the kids and I could watch what would happen next (and also because, outdoors, their numbers kept dropping and we were concerned that they were being lost to predators).


Left to right: fifth instar with a fresh milkweed leaf in the background, caterpillar forming J-hook, new chrysalis

*Here’s a video of a caterpillar forming its chrysalis–if you’re faint of heart or weak of stomach, you might want to skip this one: 🙂

The caterpillars made their chrysalises (also: chrysalides) within a couple days of one another, so we sat back and waited for them to emerge.


Changes taking place in the chrysalis; notice the gold specks in the sunlight?
(Even looking like an alien life form, the butterfly manages to be beautiful)


It takes at least three hours for the butterfly’s wings to straighten and dry


Female on left (thicker veining on wings);
male on right (two spots on lower wings, thinner veining)

Do we think our monarchs are extra-special? Yup! We’re partial, we admit it, but ours are also fourth generation monarchs, the last of the summer. While earlier generations (born in the spring and early summer) live for about two to six weeks, our monarchs should live for up to a whopping eight months. In that time, they’ll make the long journey to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate in oyamel fir trees.

*Logging in Mexico has reduced the forests where the monarchs overwinter; as a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the monarch migration as a “threatened phenomena.” (Source: National Geographic)

Image via pixabay/skeeze

Hibernating monarchs

In the early spring, the monarchs will reach sexual maturity and mate, migrating up to northern Mexico or the Southern US. Here, they’ll mate and lay their eggs. Those offspring, when they reach adulthood, will migrate farther northward and lay their eggs. So, I’m expecting my butterfly grandkids to be born sometime around here early next summer. I hope they’ll remember to visit.

Here’s a brief video on our butterfly experience:

There’s been some controversy about growing tropical milkweed for monarchs, so here’s a good article that should address questions on that front:

For more on monarch migration and decreasing numbers of overwintering monarchs, I’d recommend:


  1. Love this so much. Tasting with their feet, that was new to me. Now I want to raise them. I’ve got to find some milkweed, though I know I am too late in the season for this year. Still, I could be ready for next year…

    1. Oh, I hope you do raise them! I have tropical milkweed, which isn’t as good as native milkweed, but still works well. If you do decide to grow some monarchs of your own, I found a good article with some information about tropical milkweed, raising monarchs indoors, etc. that might be helpful ( I’ll add the link to my post, too. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a visit from my butterflies along their journey 🙂

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