One of our favorite summer activities is raising butterflies. We’ve done it for years and it’s so easy and the kids absolutely love it. We got started with this when my daughter Lily got this butterfly garden as a gift one year. (Great gift idea, by the way!) With that kit, you get the butterfly house and a voucher to mail in ($5 processing fee for that) to get painted lady caterpillars mailed to you. Put them in the house, they’ll form their chrysalises and emerge as beautiful butterflies! It works like a charm and is so education for the kids. But then what?
I wasn’t going to spend money ordering caterpillars when I knew we could attract them to our own yard and DIY this project. So here’s how we’re doing this year after year without spending any more money and how you can too! You do need the butterfly house (unless you rig up some netting thing but I’d just get the house). We actually have two of them, one for each of my kids.
First, get familiar with the butterflies that are your neck of the woods. Just go outside and look! We have a butterfly bush in our backyard and get lots of swallowtails and monarchs.
Next, figure out what they like to eat. Google it if you’re unsure. We also have this book that’s a fantastic resource for my fellow Eastern North America dwellers (my kids look up butterflies and caterpillars they find all summer!). This book looks better for any area of the US.
Swallowtails like to eat parsley and carrot greens. You can buy a parsley plant for your garden for a couple of bucks. Monarchs like milkweed, so we planted that too.
Then just keep an eye on your plants and watch for caterpillars. They start out very tiny but eat a LOT so they grow fast. We don’t pick them off the plants to put in our butterfly house until they’re about this big (see pic above) and pretty close to being ready to make their cocoons.
That’s me holding some of our summer pets! The swallowtail is on the top (green because of the parsley he eats!) and the monarch is the white, yellow, and black striped guy. The kids love finding them and go out every morning to look for caterpillars. A good way to get them outside, moms!
After we find them on the plants we put them in the butterfly house with food. They may still need to eat and hang out for a couple of days before they are ready to make their butterfly transformation. So put whatever they’re eating – parsley or milkweed in our case – in the house with them and change it daily so they have fresh leaves to eat.
This picture above is of 2 monarch caterpillars getting ready to make their chrysalises. They crawl all the way to the top and hang upside down. They can attached themselves to the ‘ceiling’ while they’re making their little sleeping bag!
Sometimes, unfortunately, they do fall off the top. This monarch is stunningly gorgeous! My daughter is holding the chrysalis because it fell from the ceiling of the butterfly house. We just laid it in a flat, clear spot on the floor of the house and he was fine. They are delicate, so be sure to remind the kids not to move the house too much.
Here’s a monarch that managed to stay put. When the chrysalis turns translucent like this you know he’s just about ready to emerge. At this point it will probably happen the same day.
And it did! Here he is, a newborn monarch, clinging to his old house. After they emerge, leave them in the house for a few hours. They’ll pump their wings to strengthen them and then be in better shape to fly once you release them.
Lily is getting ready to release a monarch in this pic. Take a look at the inside edge of the butterfly house. The greenish brown cocoons you see belong to swallowtails.
And if the house looks filthy to you, it kind of is. When the butterflies emerge, they drip a red fluid called meconium, just a left over part of the caterpillar that wasn’t needed to make the butterfly. The great thing about this house is that it’s easy to hose out or wash in the bathtub or a deep sink.
Remind the kids to be careful not to touch the wings when they help them out of the house.
Here’s a swallowtail we released onto our butterfly bush.
Gorgeous! It is truly awesome to watch the life cycle of these butterflies from beginning to end. Fun and very educational, and let me assure you, this will keep the kids busy for HOURS this summer!
Go grab yourself a butterfly house for the kids to get started. We have two now so that they don’t have to share. Ah, siblings. 😉 Then start planting some of the plants to attract the butterflies in your area to lay those eggs and getcha some caterpillars. The rest is easy. Have fun!