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Butterfly Life Cycle: Buttermilk the Monarch Butterfly

Discover the butterfly life cycle through photos of Buttermilk the Monarch Butterfly as he moves through the monarch life cycle.

Click to read also: Caterpillar to Butterfly Craft

Monarch Butterfly life cycle:

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Butterfly Life Cycles: Buttermilk the Monarch Butterfly

Kids are always fascinated by butterfly life cycles, and monarchs make for wonderful specimens to observe.

Where Do Monarch Butterflies Live?

Monarch butterflies are found in most parts of the United States in the summer. In the fall, they migrate to one of a few overwintering sites–most in Florida, California, and Mexico.

What do Monarch Butterflies Eat?

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of plants in the milkweed family. As humans have encroached on their habitat, some populations have struggled.

A good place to start, if you want to observe these beautiful and fascinating insects, is by planting milkweeds in your yard. Ideally, find out what types of milkweed are native to your area and plant that.

One good way to acquire milkweed seeds appropriate to your area is through the Live Monarch project.

I found wild milkweed growing near my home and transplanted some to my yard. My kids and I check the plants regularly in the summer for caterpillar eggs. Two years ago we got lucky and found multiple eggs.

How Do You Spot a Monarch Butterfly Egg in the Wild?

Monarchs usually lay one egg on a leaf; they don’t lay them in clusters. You will find the eggs on the protected underside of the leaf.

Can I Raise a Monarch Butterfly at Home?

Monarch caterpillars have many predators in the wild, including termites, wasps, and ants; bringing an egg or caterpillar inside can actually help to protect it.

Mesh enclosures work well for keeping monarch caterpillars; we started ours out in a large tupperware container with damp paper towels on the bottom to prevent the milkweed leaves we brought in from drying out too much but later moved them to a mesh butterfly tent. It is also healthy for caterpillars to spend some time outdoors, and a mesh tent is easy to move to a shaded place in the yard during the day.

Butterfly Phases: Hatchling Next to a Monarch Butterfly Egg

This is one of our Caterpillars, nicknamed Buttermilk, on the day he hatched from his egg; we photographed him next to a dime for easy size reference as he grew.

Butterfly life cycle: monarch butterfly hatchling

Buttermilk was tiny as a new hatchling–not much bigger than the letter I in Liberty on that dime. He was also mostly colorless, with a black head. You can see the monarch butterfly egg he hatched from just below him to the right.

Feeding a Monarch Butterfly Hatchling

We brought Buttermilk fresh milkweed leaves every day, and he grew quickly.

Only 24 hours after hatching he was already larger and had more noticeable black stripes. You can see the holes he has been nibbling in his leaf:

Butterfly life cycle: young monarch caterpillar

Instars – Stages of Monarch Butterfly Larvae

Monarch caterpillars go through five stages, called instars, as larvae. At the end of each instar the caterpillar sheds its old skin and emerges with shiny new skin; the banding patterns on the caterpillar become more complex with each new stage. 

Monarch Butterfly Stages: After Shedding

Here is Buttermilk just after shedding, looking all fresh and shiny in his new skin:

Butterfly life cycle: monarch butterfly caterpillar

How Long Does it Take a Monarch Caterpillar to Grow Up?

Monarch caterpillars grow remarkably fast, reaching their mature size in about two weeks. Here is Buttermilk right before pupating; it is hard to believe that he started out barely the size of the letter “i” on this dime:

Butterfly life cycle: full grown monarch caterpillar

How do Monarch Caterpillars Pupate?

When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it will climb to a high place to form a chrysalis. Buttermilk climbed the side of his mesh enclosure and spun an anchor of silk to attach himself to. Here is Buttermilk all prepared for pupating:

Butterfly life cycle: monarch caterpillar attaching

Monarch Butterfly Life Stages: Chrysalis

After the final caterpillar exoskeleton (skin) is shed, the monarch chrysalis is visible.

Buttermilk’s chrysalis was a beautiful pale green with a gold band near the top and gold flecks near the bottom:

Buttermilk’s chrysalis stage lasted just over two weeks. As his transformation into a butterfly progressed, the chrysalis darkened in color and eventually we could see the pattern of his wings just below the surface:

Butterfly life cycle: mature chrysalis

Monarch Butterfly Metamorphosis: Eclosing

When a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis it is called eclosing. Here is Buttermilk just after eclosing. His wings were wet and crumpled and he needed time to pump fluid into them to stretch them to their full size:

Butterfly life cycle: monarch butterfly eclosing

Here is some great footage of a Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis:

We had a hard time capturing good image of Buttermilk’s wings stretched out because they were in constant motion; this is the best we were able to get with a dime for comparison:

Butterfly life cycle: monarch butterfly

How to Tell is a Monarch Butterfly is Male or Female

Those two spots on the lower wing veins are how we knew that Buttermilk was a boy–female monarchs don’t have those spots.

Not long after taking this photo we took Buttermilk outside, where he happily took to the skies. He did stop for a few minutes on a nearby tree–this is our last image of him:

Butterfly life cycle: monarch in flight

My kids loved watching the monarch butterfly life cycle; it was a great opportunity for them to see one of nature’s most fascinating transformations up close. The milkweed patch in our front yard has been spreading, and we hope to find many more monarch caterpillars there in the future. Maybe some will be descendants of Buttermilk!

Have you ever raised monarch butterflies, or any other butterflies? What was it like?

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Sarah Evans

Sarah chooses to see in life an endless adventure, and greets each new side trail as a path to explore and learn from. An Air Force veteran with degrees in anthropology and education, her current endeavors include attempting to wrangle seven children, four cats, and eleven chickens and planting as many fruit trees as will fit on her property. In her spare time, she listens to many audiobooks and indulges in occasional writing of poetry.

4 thoughts on “Butterfly Life Cycle: Buttermilk the Monarch Butterfly”

  1. I love that bit in the moomin books where the color of the first butterfly you see in the spring tells you what kind of summer you’ll have. Butterflies are magic.

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