You may have noticed that the butterflies are back for the summer. Cabbage whites are fluttering around your broccoli, looking to lay some eggs, and tiger swallowtails are looking for nectar in your flower beds. Butterflies are out of hibernation and looking for a good time. Adult butterflies spend their days doing two things – drinking nectar and laying eggs. These eggs are the start of the butterfly life cycle, which is both exciting and easy for even young children to understand. Beyond that, the life cycle has an air of mystery about it: What is really happening in that chrysalis? How does the butterfly get in there? While it is very enjoyable to watch them flutter around your backyard and to look for eggs and caterpillars on your plants, it can be even more fun to raise butterflies indoors. This is a great way to practice scientific thinking; your child will learn about the butterfly life cycle while utilizing his deductive and observation skills – and have a good time doing it!
To begin with, you will need some caterpillars. There are multiple online resources that provide you with both caterpillars and a butterfly habitat. It is best to purchase a butterfly species that is native to your area so that you can release them after you are done. Each kit come with care instructions to help you give your caterpillars a comfortable experience. Make sure to follow the directions regarding feeding and when to put your chrysalids in the larger butterfly habitat. You will also need magnifying glasses, a nature journal and any butterfly resources that may help your child learn more about butterflies. (See the bottom of this post for resource ideas).
Learn about Larvae
Begin your butterfly experiment by observing the caterpillars; set aside a set time each day to observe your critters together with your child. Caterpillars have interesting bodies; they have both “true” legs and little suction cups called “pro legs”. They also have an assortment of spines and patterns to confuse their predators. Take some time and observe your new friends. What colors are they? What end is the head and what end is the tail? Encourage your child to use his magnifying glass and learn about caterpillar anatomy. Caterpillars also engage in some pretty weird behaviors. Watch them walk upside-down on plant stems and use their jaws to gnaw away at leaves. The caterpillars you receive should go through several stages of molting, so see if you can catch them in the act! There are many exciting behaviors that your child can observe and record. Some of these are so strange that it may prompt your child to start asking questions; this is a good time to give them resources to help fill the gaps in their knowledge, while encouraging them to wait and see if they can discern the answers by further watching.
One of the most mysterious parts of the butterfly life cycle is the pupa stage, or the chrysalis. Before your caterpillar molts for the last time, it will hang in a “J” shape off one of the branches in its container. This is a great time to keep an eye on your caterpillar, as you may be lucky enough to watch it shed its skin and turn into a pupa. The skin that makes up the chrysalis is very different from the skin of the larva; it may be a completely different color. Often, this is to camouflage the vulnerable pupa from predators. Once your caterpillar is in the chrysalis, create a chart in your journal to count down the days until it emerges. It can often take up to two weeks for this to happen and there is very little else to observe during this time, so counting down the days is a fun way to keep your child engaged in the process.
Soon you will notice the chrysalis begin to shake. This is caused by the butterfly inside wiggling its way out! If you can catch this in action, it is an incredibly exciting sight. The butterfly will emerge slowly, covered in a sticky, red liquid; this is meconium, the remnants of the metamorphosis process. For the next several hours, the butterfly will flap its wings to dry them and fill them with blood. This is a very vulnerable time in the life of a butterfly; it is unable to fly until the wings are dry. Make sure to have a source of nectar in the habitat for your hungry butterfly to drink once it is ready. Have your child record this process if they are able. This is a rare opportunity for your child to get incredibly close to a butterfly; observe it carefully, maybe even drawing or painting it. Watch it unfurl its proboscis to drink nectar and use its antennae to smell. Count its legs and talk about the qualities of an insect. What an exciting time to observe!
Time to Fly
When you are done observing, it is time to release the butterflies. They will not be happy in their habitat for very long, nor will they be able to complete the butterfly life cycle without a mate. Releasing your butterflies can be a special occasion; reading a poem, sharing observations or even going to a special spot that you think the butterflies will like are all lovely ways to celebrate the life cycle. Slowly open the habitat and gently shoo the butterflies out into the open; they may falter a bit at first, but will quickly find their wings and soar away to find food and mates.
Here are some resources to help you get started on your butterfly raising journey:
Live caterpillars: InsectLore and Carolina Biologicals are reputable places to get started; you can find a kit to match any price point. Try to purchase your caterpillars from a site that sells them for education, as opposed to weddings or events.
Taking care of your critters: This resource will give you details on how best to raise your new friends.
Butterfly gardening: Make your yard friendlier to all pollinators with these tips.
Monarch tagging: Monarch Watch is a citizen science program that helps scientists to track the migration movements of monarchs.
Field guides and other butterfly resources for all ages
Check some of these books out of your local library and learn more about your pollinating pals; check the card catalogue for related titles!
Butterflies through Binoculars by Jeffrey Glassberg
Butterflies of North America by Ken Kauffman
Kids Look and Learn: Butterflies! by Becky Wolf
A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston
Backyard Books: Are You a Butterfly? by Judy Allen
National Geographic Readers: Caterpillar to Butterfly by Laura Marsh
National Geographic Readers: Great Migrations Butterflies by Laura Marsh
Watching this process gives children a sense of the complexity of the life cycle and makes them feel like they have been a part of helping their caterpillars to grow. A wonderful activity, growing butterflies can connect children to nature on multiple levels; if it peaked your child’s interest in butterflies, spend some time observing the ones that visit your yard. You can also go to your local botanical garden or children’s museum; these informal learning institutions often have pollinator gardens to attract butterflies of all kinds. Some even have butterfly rooms, like at Phipps, where butterflies are cultivated in large numbers. If your child’s interest in butterflies continues over the summer, consider raising another species of butterfly at home or taking part in a monarch tagging program at your local nature center. The sky is the limit!
The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry and Julia Petruska.