Raising Caterpillars and Butterflies

Did you get to raise a butterfly in your elementary school classroom like I did when you were a kid? I think it was one of the highlights of school for me. If you weren’t so lucky to do this at school, or if you just want to do it again, there are kits online that you can purchase, either from the company directly or through retailers like Amazon. These are typically painted lady butterflies, which are found in most areas of the United States. You will not usually find an exotic butterfly raising kit, as introducing new species into an area is not advised.

Your butterfly kit may come with the caterpillars or it will have a voucher you can use to sent away for them. If you have to send away for them, never fear. They arrive quickly and as very small caterpillars.  They will be housed in a special container which prevents their escape into the house. These kits are self-contained so you do not have to grab the right kinds of leaves for the caterpillars. They will eat the nutrition solution at the bottom of the container. It is also a good idea not to open the container until all of your caterpillars are safely in the pupal stage. You can watch the caterpillars as they grow and molt, and witness their ascent to the top of the container where they will form their chrysalis.

Once they are in the pupal stage, you can safely move them to the mesh container provided with your kit. Day to day, it won’t look like much is going on, but inside those chrysalides, there is amazing work going on. The entire caterpillar will change as it turns into a butterfly.

It is very cool to watch the caterpillars emerge from their chrysalis. If you are afraid you will miss it, train a video camera at the butterflies and film it. Once the butterflies have arrived, you can add flowers or soft fruit to the container for the butterflies to drink.

However, after a few days, it is best for you to release the butterflies out into the world. They will need to find mates and lay eggs, and it is difficult to tell if you have enough males and females. Also, the butterflies would not want to lay their eggs in that mesh container because there is no food source. They will also lay more eggs than you are equipped to handle, even if your caterpillars did not eat all of the food in their container. So you should really let them go.

Releasing your butterflies is a sad thing but is the right choice. You should release them preferably somewhere that they will have a ready source of nectar. It is good to release them when it is over 55 degrees and sunny as well. It will give them their best chance of survival.

Most places offer a “refill” kit that is cheaper and only contains the live caterpillars in their container. This way, if the weather is cooperative and you want, you can raise more. Once you start, it is hard to stop!

Lifecycle of the Butterfly

The lifecycle of a butterfly is rather amazing. All species of butterfly go through a “complete metamorphosis,” meaning it completes four stages of development. These stages are the egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

 

The first stage is the egg stage. Butterfly eggs vary in shape from rounded to cylindrical. The shape of the egg depends on the butterfly that laid it. If you are very determined and observant, you may be lucky enough to find some butterfly eggs. They are usually laid on the leaves of plants, but they are very small. If you happen to find some, you will be able to see the tiny creatures growing inside.

 

Once the egg hatches, a caterpillar is born. The only job the caterpillar has is to eat! The first thing that caterpillars eat is the leaf that they were born on. When they are very small, it is hard for caterpillars to travel, so they eat what is closest to them. Therefore, it is very important that the mother butterfly lay her eggs on the type of plant the caterpillars will want to eat—believe it or not, each type of caterpillar prefers certain leaves. They are pretty picky eaters! With all of the eating the caterpillars do, they grow very quickly. Their bodies do not grow along with them like yours does, so they shed their skin several times (in a process called “molting”) as they get bigger. Some can grow up to 100 times their size! Can you imagine how big you would be if you grew that fast? The caterpillar stage does not last for very long—usually only a week or two.

 

Once a caterpillar has grown to its full size, they form themselves into a pupa—or chrysalis. It is like an envelope that the caterpillar forms around itself. It is usually hanging upside down on a leaf or a branch during this time but some bury themselves underground. It looks like nothing is happening, but this is where the magic of a butterfly takes place. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar is undergoing a metamorphosis, or transformation. The duration of this metamorphosis depends on the type of butterfly. Most take a few weeks but some take a month. There are a couple of species that stay in the pupal stage for two years! Caterpillars don’t have wings but their bodies and tissues are slowly forming the features we will recognize as that of a butterfly when it finally emerges.

 

Finally, when the caterpillar is done changing, it will emerge from the pupa as a beautiful winged butterfly. The job of the butterfly is to find a mate and to lay eggs. Some butterflies have a long tongue that they can use to feed on nectar from plants and flowers, but others don’t eat anything at all! Most species of butterfly live for one to two weeks. However, there are some species that hibernate during the winter—and those species can live for several months. The females lay their eggs and it starts the lifecycle all over again!