The insect world is full of some of the most beautiful and fascinating creatures seen in nature, but when it comes to deciding which one captivates every child and adult’s attention, it’s the butterfly.
Not only do they display beautiful colors and patterns and elegant movement through the air, they also play an essential role in the environment.
With about 17,500 species of butterflies worldwide, this dainty winged creature is no stranger to the insect or human world. They’re seen flying from flower to flower, using their long proboscis (like a tongue) to feed on the sweet nectar. What may not be as obvious is their vital role in cross-pollinating plants.
The spring and summer months are when you’re likely to see butterflies in your garden or local park, but have you ever wondered how you could attract and even raise butterflies in your own home?
Read on to discover more about butterflies and what they need to grow and thrive. Find out how you can raise butterflies at home so you can enjoy their beauty and their fascinating life cycle. It’s fun for both children and adults!
What You Need to Know About Butterflies
Before venturing into raising butterflies at home, it’s helpful to understand the butterfly’s life cycle. This way, you can better grasp what these insects need to grow happily in your home environment.
The Life Cycle of the Butterfly
Butterflies have four stages in their life cycle: the egg, caterpillar or larva, pupa, and adult stages. (You remember learning this in grade school, right?)
When the egg hatches, a caterpillar emerges and seeks out plants for food and protection. When they’re ready to pupate, they hang upside down on a leaf, forming a chrysalis, where they melt into a pile of goo (literally) and their molecules re-arrange themselves. After about a week, a fully formed butterfly will emerge.
Food and Water
Both the caterpillar and the adult butterfly need a range of plants to feed on. Certain species prefer some plant varietals over others, so it’s essential to research the specific one you plan to raise and get to know their preferences.
For example, the Monarch butterfly will only lay their eggs on the milkweed plant because it’s the only food the caterpillar will eat before pupating. Black Swallowtails will go to herb plants such as parsley, dill, and fennel. If you’re raising White Admiral butterflies, make sure you can access birch, poplar, and/or willow trees.
In general though, butterflies love flowering plants that provide lots of nectar. They also need water to sip on, which is why you often see them gathering around puddles after a rainstorm.
Whether you’re trying to attract butterflies to your home or raise them from eggs, make sure you don’t spray their food source with harmful pesticides or insecticides. By keeping your garden as organic as possible, you’re creating a more butterfly-friendly environment.
How to Raise Butterflies at Home
When deciding which type of butterfly to raise at home, the best approach is to choose one native to your region. You’ll be more likely to have the right source of food on hand, either in your garden or at your local nursery.
The Florida Museum has a phenomenal resource showing the 45 varieties of butterflies that frequent Volusia County. Reading the names alone can be entertaining! (Hello, Southern Dogface, Little Metalmark, and Sleepy Orange.) Some are truly stunning, like the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Long Tailed Skipper, the Great Southern White, and the American Painted Lady.
The most natural way to get butterflies for raising at home is to attract them to your garden first. If this isn’t an option (or you’re not that patient), you can find a reputable butterfly breeder who will provide you with caterpillars. Expect to spend between 15 to 30 days caring for your butterfly from the egg stage to adulthood.
Step 1: Provide a Variety of Host Plants and Flowers
If you’re relying on your garden to attract butterflies, make sure you provide a wide range of host plants and flowers. Find out which are the most popular plants for these winged creatures and start growing them organically. A quick hint! Butterflies are attracted to colorful flowers in shades of yellow, pink, purple, and red.
Some of the most favorite flowers and plants for the famous Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies include:
- Milkweed (essential for the Monarch butterfly)
- Dill, parsley, and fennel
- Tulips, Queen Anne’s Lace, and spicebush
- Willow, cherry, poplar, birch, and aspen trees
Provide shallow bowls of often-refreshed water around the yard, so the butterflies also have an easy source of water.
Step 2: Look Out for Eggs or Caterpillars
When you notice there’s a lot of butterfly activity going on in your garden, be ready to find caterpillars. You may even spot the eggs before the caterpillars hatch. Spring is the right time to see caterpillars, and it won’t be long before you find heaps of caterpillars devouring their favorite food source.
Despite their numbers, you’ll need a sharp eye to see them. These caterpillars are minute! In the beginning they might not be any bigger than a grain of rice.
When you find them, gently break off the leaf they’re feeding on. Make sure the caterpillar doesn’t fall off or get hurt while you’re removing the leaf from the plant. Their bodies are incredibly fragile, so please avoid touching them.
Step 3: Place Caterpillars Into a Special Habitat
By the time you’ve collected caterpillars, you want to have created their own special habitat. You can repurpose an aquarium tank or purchase a specially designed pop-up tent for raising butterflies at home.
Here are a few tips for creating an ideal caterpillar habitat:
- Place a layer of garden soil, soft felt, or paper towels at the bottom of the enclosure to absorb caterpillar droppings.
- Add a few small potted host plants or fresh plant cuttings inside. Make sure you provide the right plant for the caterpillar.
- Include some sticks for the caterpillars to climb up when they’re ready to form their chrysalis. They might also do this on the sides of the tank or tent.
Once the caterpillars are nestled in their new home, place the container in a shady area away from direct sunlight and drafts — and OUT of reach of pets!
Step 4: Watch, Enjoy, and Release
Your caterpillars will eat until they’re ready to pupate into a chrysalis. This stage may seem like it’s going on for ages, but don’t give up. Continue providing fresh plant material each day and keep the habitat clean and safe from other bugs or predators.
Once they form their cocoons, it’s critical that the enclosure is not bumped or disturbed. Continue to wait patiently.
If you’re lucky, you may actually observe the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. This is an exciting time and is sure to have you in awe at the magic of nature, no matter your age. You might notice that its wings are floppy and even look damp, but give them one to two hours and they’ll be ready to fly.
This is the time to release your new friends out into the world. Move the tank or tent outside and remove the lid, allowing them to leave the premises at their leisure. Please make sure the butterfly is released close to flowers, so they can find their way to lunch (they’ll be starving!) as soon as they fly out.
Raising butterflies at home is a rewarding and thrilling project for both children and adults. You’ll learn so much about these beautiful and fascinating winged creatures during the process, and you’re doing your part to keep the environment healthy.
Todd Stebleton is the owner and operator of Universal Pest Control, a family-owned business for over 25 years in Ormond Beach, Florida. He and his wife Natalie are proud to have built a company focused on conducting business with honesty and integrity: keeping customers first, protecting the environment, and providing trustworthy, personal service.
Universal: Honest, Environmentally Friendly Pest Control