Whether you homeschool or not, raising butterflies at home is a rewarding, fun, low-key project that teaches kids many valuable lessons besides the obvious – there is no better way for kids to understand the life cycle of a butterfly than by seeing it happen first-hand.
Why learn about butterflies from a textbook when you can see it happen with your very own eyes?
Watching an adorable caterpillar transform into a beautiful butterfly is a great learning experience and a story your kids will enthusiastically share with others and remember for years to come!
There are 3 ways to raise butterflies at home:
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#1 Purchase a live butterfly kit and raise butterflies indoors.
This kit comes with 5 PAINTED LADY caterpillars and basic supplies including enough food to keep the caterpillars happy and healthy. Beware: Many live butterfly kits come without caterpillars which need to be ordered separately.
This is a pretty straightforward method of raising butterflies, and it is what we’ve done the first time around.
You’ll need to make sure you’re ordering the kit at the right time of the year so you can release the butterflies safely when they’re ready to fly. Butterflies need warm weather to fly and do best when it’s around 80°F (26°C).
There are a few drawbacks to using a live butterfly kit:
The caterpillars come in a very small container. It’s like a sad little caterpillar prison cell.
I’m no caterpillar expert, but over the years of raising butterflies at home it’s obvious that they do like to move around when it’s time to molt or pupate, or just to get away from the other caterpillars. You can, of course, move the container into a larger enclosure (you’ll want to keep the container – it holds all the food).
Depending on the shipping conditions and weather, some of these guys may suffer or even die. It happens.
Kids will be observing the butterfly life cycle but won’t be actively participating and won’t get the chance to learn about the relationship between butterflies and their host plants.
#2 Watch SOME of the butterfly life cycle happen naturally with little effort.
Give butterflies a little space in your yard or on your patio and provide the right conditions – and they WILL come and (hopefully) lay eggs!
First you’ll want to check a field guide (or this online guide) to determine which species of butterflies are naturally found in your area, which plants the butterflies feed on, and which plants they lay their eggs on.
Different species of butterflies lay eggs on different plants, with these specific host plants being the source of food for the butterfly larvae once hatched.
If you don’t have the right plants growing in your yard/outdoor area (ideally both for feeding and laying eggs on), you’ll need to plant some. The more, the better. Same with the variety of plants.
If you’re not starting with seed and are buying plants, ask about pesticide use – the plants MUST be pesticide-free or they will harm the butterflies and caterpillars.
I’ve successfully transplanted a bunch of wild plants from within my area that I knew wasn’t getting sprayed. So that’s another option to consider if you have that available.
Once the plants are established, observe them regularly and look for signs of eggs or caterpillars. You’ll want to use your field guide for this.
Even though you’re going to miss out on the key parts of the butterfly life cycle like the chrysalis formation or a butterfly eclosion, this is a very effortless way to help with butterfly conservation and observe at least some of the butterfly life cycle.
One thing to keep in mind is that the majority of both eggs and caterpillars you find will inevitably be destroyed when you let nature take its course. (It is estimated that out of hundreds of eggs, only a few butterflies will become adults.)
To help bring butterfly numbers up and not miss out on any key parts of the butterfly life cycle, you’ll need to carefully remove the eggs and/or caterpillars. Which brings me to #3.
#3 Raising butterflies indoors from scratch.
Once you spot the eggs or caterpillars (use that field guide or check with someone experienced in this sort of thing), you’ll want to bring them indoors. You will be fully responsible for keeping these guys happy, but don’t worry – caring for butterfly eggs and caterpillars at home is easy.
The quickly growing caterpillars will need a safe place – an enclosed habitat to keep spiders and other predators away. You can buy an inexpensive butterfly habitat, use what you have (bins and containers), or make your own.
We like using a cardboard box and mesh fabric which we carefully staple together, leaving only one side accessible.
The eggs don’t require much care. After bringing them indoors (leaves and all), you wait.
I like to keep the stems of leaves in a little bit of water or at least wrap them with a small piece of a wet paper towel to keep the leaves from drying out too fast – the progress of tiny eggs can be hard to monitor on dry shriveled up leaves.
Once hatched, the caterpillars will be very small and best not handled, but you’ll want to move them (together with the leaf they hatched on) on fresh leaves of the same plant you’ve collected them from.
(NOTE: Butterfly caterpillars are opportunistic cannibals. It’s a good idea to separate larger caterpillars from smaller ones and eggs so the small guys don’t get eaten by accident.)
From then on, the butterfly caterpillars will need a steady supply of food. The bigger they get, the more they eat (and poop!). You’ll need to provide plenty of fresh leaves of the host plant, rain or shine, around the clock.
Butterfly caterpillars are very specific about the plants they feed on. If you leave a butterfly caterpillar with a plant it’s not genetically programmed to eat, it will starve to death.
Later on, the caterpillars will need a few sticks to pupate on, and that’s pretty much it.
Here is an example of how we’ve been raising Monarch butterflies indoors:
What do you think? Does raising butterflies at home look like something you’d like to try?