Week 4: Marvelous Monarchs and Milkweed


Monarchs: Just another butterfly?

Have you ever seen the bright orange and black wings of a monarch butterfly? Starting in early summer each year, they begin to hatch in our area and flutter around our gardens. While they are strikingly beautiful, so are many other butterflies. So what makes them so special? One thing is the incredible journey these little insects make every year. Our eastern monarchs fly 3000 miles from Canada and the Northern United States to Mexico in the fall, where they stay for the winter. If you can find their winter home, it’s quite a sight: high in the mountains of Mexico, millions of Monarchs huddle together on oyamel fir trees.

(Image ©Derek Ramsey, derekramsey.com / Used with permission)


Milkweed and Monarchs: Made for each other

The monarch butterfly eats and lays its eggs on only one special plant: milkweed. Milkweed is a tall flashy fellow who grows wild here in the Finger Lakes. Over the years, milkweed has been disappearing as people pull it up and farmers kill it with chemicals. Without this special plant, monarchs have no food to eat and no place to lay their eggs, so they start disappearing too.

Do you have milkweed in your yard or neighborhood? If so, make sure to let it grow! The kind you are most likely to find in your yard is Common Milkweed. Look through the following images to learn to identify common milkweed:

Tall plant with broad flat leaves

Tall plant with broad flat leaves

Common milkweed can grow up to XX tall, with broad flat leaves with pinkish petioles (or stems that run through the middle of the leaf.) Image by Katja Schulz

Bunches of pink flowers with 5 petals

Bunches of pink flowers with 5 petals

When common milkweed blooms, it produces bunches of pink flowers. Each small flower in the bunch has 5 petals.

Milky Sap

Milky Sap

When you break milkweed leaves or stems, they ooze a milky sap.

Craft: Make a Monarch Hatching Habitat

For this week’s craft, we’ll be making a habitat where you can raise and hatch monarchs butterflies using a box, a few pieces of screen, and some duct tape.

Backyard Activity: Hatch and Release a Monarch

Now that we’ve made our monarch habitat, we can move on to our backyard activity: finding monarch eggs and hatching them. There are three basic steps to raising and releasing monarch butterflies:


1. Find an egg or a caterpillar on some milkweed.

Monarch butterflies lay only one egg on each milkweed plant. This ensures that the caterpillar that hatches has enough food to eat. It’s best to collect eggs if you can since caterpillars can sometimes carry mites. Mites are tiny insects that can kill a caterpillar before it goes into its chrysalis.

Here’s a short video on finding monarch eggs from entomologist Dr. Laura Jesse at Iowa State University. (Entomologists study bugs as their job. Learn more about them here – for littler kids and for bigger kids).

2. Feed your caterpillars fresh milkweed until they form a chrysalis, and then wait for them to hatch.

Just like any pet, your monarch caterpillar will need fresh food to thrive. So keep putting fresh milkweed leaves in your monarch habitat until your caterpillar attaches to the roof and forms a chrysalis. Monarchs stay in the caterpillar stage for about two weeks, and in their chrysalis for about one week. Here, Dr. James tells about the different stages of caterpillars, and how to care for them until they hatch as butterflies:
3. Release your hatched butterflies!

Once your butterflies have hatched and hung for a while, it’s time to let them go into the wild. In the video below, Dr. James show’s you how.

Listen to Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost

Listen to Hurry and the Monarch by Antoine O Flatharta

Monarch Coloring Pages