Watching a monarch butterfly develop from an egg to a caterpillar, then watching the chrysalis built and give way to a monarch butterfly is one of the most spectacular cycles in nature to observe. Kids and adults alike can spend an entire month tracking this process by following the steps listed below.
Take kids to the same milkweed patch over a period of a month or so to observe monarch eggs transform from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Let kids know from the get-go that they won’t be taking the butterflies home—only watching over them until the young butterflies fly off into the wild on their own.
Know, too, that depending when kids find their milkweed patch their “butterfly babies” may be at any of the stages in the steps below.
And remember, this is a look but don’t touch adventure!
Step 1: Find a Patch of Milkweed
Milkweed grows in sunny fields and roadside ditches all over Northern Michigan. Here’s how to identify it:
- Stems are usually around 2 to 3 feet tall, but can reach 6 feet.
- Leaves are oval shaped and furry on the bottom.
- From June to August milkweed blossoms with bunches of pink and lavender flowers.
- The stems are filled with a sticky, milky sap that sometimes leaks out.
Step 2: Find Monarch Eggs
Check the milkweed leaves for tiny (sometimes as small as the head of a pin), oval white eggs attached. Look closely (a magnifying glass will help) and you will see lines running from top to bottom of the egg. If the eggs you find are round they are from another insect, not a monarch. If you have found monarch eggs, you may see a dark spot at the end—that’s the head of the caterpillar, or larvae, that will hatch in several days.
Help kids count the eggs so you can compare the number to how many caterpillars you find when your return in a few days.
Step 3: Look for Caterpillars in Your Milkweed Patch
Several days after you’ve found the eggs, the caterpillars should have squeezed their way out of their shells. Actually, they are called larvae when they first come out and look like tiny worms. Right after hatching, these little worms eat their shell. But after they’ve finished that crunchy appetizer they pig out on their favorite food, milkweed. Before long they’ve fattened up and become the size of a Tootsie Roll. But what really makes these caterpillars stand out in the milkweed patch is their beautiful black, white and yellow stripes. To find the caterpillars, look carefully through the milkweed patch on leaves, under leaves, on the stems. How many caterpillars can you find? Can you give them names?
The caterpillars will stay caterpillars for about two weeks and then an amazing thing happens so make sure to come back.
Step 4: The Chrysalis Transformation
Once the caterpillars are filled up on milkweed they do a strange thing—they find a stick in the milkweed patch that is strong enough to hang from. With their butt-ends attached, they shed their skin and grow a chrysalis or pupa. It takes about 24 hours for caterpillars to become entirely encased in their chrysalis. When they are finished they end up looking like green peanuts hanging from sticks.
If you’re lucky you’ll see some of your caterpillars forming a chrysalis. If you miss this amazing feat check out this web site for photos: http://www.linknot.com/Magic-Garden/Monarch-chrysalis.htm
Step 5: From Chrysalis to Butterfly
Over the course of the next two weeks or so the caterpillars will morph into butterflies inside their chrysalis. As the days go by the green chrysalis will become blue, finally becoming so transparent that the newly formed butterfly is visible through the chrysalis shell.
Now the butterflies will begin shedding their chrysalis. When they are completely “born” they will hang from the stick until their wings are dry and pumped up with blood.
If you miss seeing a birth, check out this site: http://www.linknot.com/Magic-Garden/Monarch-birth.htm
Step 6: Is it a Boy or a Girl?
Male monarchs have two small black dots on the lower end of their bodies, one on each side of their body. Females are brighter orange and their black veins are thicker.
Step 7: Bye-Bye Butterfly
Once the butterflies are strong enough, it’s time for them to leave Michigan and fly many, many miles to Mexico. But they’ll be back next summer to lay their eggs on Northern Michigan milkweed once again.