Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Share and Learn - Butterfly Habitats

Prior to each monthly meeting of Memphis Area Master Gardeners, a member does a short program for the other members called Share and Learn.  The May Share and Learn was on Butterfly Habits and Habitats, presented by Pam Caruso.  Many thanks to Pam for allowing us to post her presentation.

     I have been fortunate to have children who love to spend time in the garden with me. Unfortunately, they are not planting and weeding alongside their mother – they're in search of critters: toads and geckos, slugs and bugs, and the highly sought after caterpillar. My girls love to watch the way the caterpillars move along the branches, devouring each leaf they encounter.   I remember collecting the butterfly larvae in a jar when I was a child, but they never seemed to survive very long.  Because I wanted my girls to be more successful in hatching a caterpillar into a butterfly, I did a bit of research.

     The female butterfly will lay her eggs on the host plant that her young will eat. I know most of you are thinking you do not want those babies munching through your garden, but caterpillars are very picky eaters. Most eat only the leaves from trees, shrubs, and weeds. The black swallowtail caterpillar is fond of parsley, so I just plant extra to attract them to my yard.  It’s very cheap entertainment for the kids! Monarch butterflies caterpillars will only eat the tender leaves of milkweed plants, which are often considered a “roadside weed”.  

     Habitats for the milkweed plants, and the monarch butterfly, have been declining rapidly due expansion of urban areas, widespread use of herbicides in croplands, and frequent roadside mowing practices. The Monarch Watch organization ( has sent out a call to concerned individuals to help offset the loss of milkweeds and nectar sources by creating “Monarch Waystations” in home gardens, schools, businesses, parks, along roadsides, and other unused plots of land. Milkweeds native to the southeast region of the U.S. are asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed), asclepias variegata (white milkweed), and asclepias perennis (aquatic milkweed). Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) are also perennial in western Tennessee. My favorite milkweed  is the asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed or bloodflower). The monarch female seems to agree with me – studies have shown she will lay more eggs on this variety when given the choice. The asclepias curassavica has long, thin leaves which are probably easier for the young caterpillars to chew.

Asclepias curassavica
    The Monarch Watch does suggest planting several varieties because of different bloom times. The plant is able to quickly send out new growth once the caterpillars have had their fill. I think of it as nature “pinching back” my plants for me. Milkweeds are carefree plants once established as long as they get full sun and some water during dry periods.  The asclepias curassavica is an annual in zone 7, so you will need to collect up the numerous seed pods in late summer to get seeds for next year.  Be sure to save some for friends and your local seed swap.  Every plant that is added will help get the monarch population back to where it once was.

       My yard is a “five star stop” for quite a few butterflies because I plant the extra parsley, four types of milkweed plants, pasiflora (passionvine), a willow tree, a butterfly bush and a wide variety of nectar sources make. Through the Monarch Watch organization, I an official registered Monarch Waystation. The butterflies have given their stamp of approval by providing me with many fresh new caterpillars to entertain the children. 

     I have created a butterfly hatchery to collect the caterpillar in and provide it with all it needs for a successful transition into a beautiful butterfly. 

The photos should help guide you through this simple project. You will need: 
  • an empty plastic 2-liter Coke bottle
  • an empty plastic Chinese take-out soup container with a lid
  • a rough stick to place inside
  • a small piece of netting or hosiery
  • a rubber band, and tape 
  1. Cut the soda bottle just before the bottom of the bottle. Coke products have a narrowing middle for gripping which makes it easier to fit onto the soup container lid. Discard or recycle the bottom. 
  2. Cut two 1" notches on opposite ends of the cut end of the soda bottle.  These will slip down into cuts you will make in the top of the soup container lid.  
  3. Cut a small ¼ inch hole in the center of the soup container lid to push plant stems through. 
  4. Cut a piece of netting large enough to cover the soda bottle top opening and use a rubber band to hold it in place. This allows air to get in and prevents humidity from building up. 
  5. Tape the stick in place to the inside of the soda bottle so it doesn’t slip when you remove the dead plants and clean up caterpillar waste (“poop”).

      Once you have your Hatchery ready, gather the kids and go in search of your caterpillar.  It is extremely important that you only collect a caterpillar that is actively eating and you have access to that food source to replace what it eats until it forms a chrysalis. Kids usually understand being a picky eater, so they accept these restrictions well. Place the fresh plant cuttings into the hole in the lid and add water to the lower compartment to keep them fresh. Place the caterpillar on the plants and secure the top using the notches you cut and a little tape for extra support. Hopefully, your hatchery will be handled by many children as they observe the beauty of nature unfolding before their eyes.

     Be sure to keep the Hatchery out of direct sunlight. You will need to replace the host plant as needed until the caterpillar crawls to the stick and begins to form his chrysalis. Then remove the plant material, caterpillar waste, and water from the base. I put a little sand or small gravel in the bottom to make it more stable. Depending on the species, you will see a butterfly emerge in about 10-14 days. Once the butterfly has emerged and dried his wings, remove the top and turn it upside down to release the butterfly.  The butterflies usually move slow when they are released and can be carefully urged to a finger for release. Photo opportunity!  

      The conservation and creation of habitats for monarchs and other butterfly species is essential if they are to survive in our ever changing world. People need to take steps to live in harmony with nature and teach our children the importance all creatures have in our fragile ecosystem. It helps to make it fun!

--- Pam Caruso

1 comment:

  1. We live in northern Ontario and have started raising monarchs. Luckily we have milkweed astride our long driveway. Our great nieces and nephews are fascinated with the hatchery as are we. Good article. Its nice to have the DYI approach instead of some buy a kit marketing. instead of empty coke bottles, we are recycling large disposable water bottles. But the rest of the process/supplies are the same as yours. Thanks.


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