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A Favorite Home School Project: Raising Lepidoptera

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Monarch Butterfly

monarch caterpillarnewly-molted pupachrysalismonarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are wonderfully common and easy to raise. Their life cycle is only a few weeks long and they are a hardy lot.

You can easily find monarch larvae (caterpillars) if you know what a milkweed plant looks like. Find a patch of milkweed and you will probably find an abundance of caterpillars. They have narrow black, yellow, and white vertical stripes and a pair of antennae at either end. They also have a voracious appetite! If you claim a larva for your very own, be sure to yank up at least a whole milkweed plant to go with it. Also, if you are a novice, choose a big caterpillar--you'll spend less time feeding it.

I've found that a great way to keep a caterpillar is to use a glass jar and cover it with a sheet of paper toweling held in place with a rubberband. Give the critter fresh milkweed real frequently.

When it starts marching around in a frenzied search, its eating-days are passed. It plans to pupate soon. The paper toweling is a great place for it to pupate. First it will make a silk pad and hang itself upside down from it. It will hang for about 24 hours and then shed its skin and become a green pupa. After that, it takes about 2 weeks for the butterfly to completely form and then emerge. The new butterfly must hang undisturbed for a few hours before it is able to fly. Then you can examine it, keep it as a specimen or let it go. Have fun. Email us with questions.

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Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

tiger swallowtail larvatiger swallowtail chrysalis

The tiger swallowtail butterfly has a much different life cycle than the monarch. This butterfly's pupa over-winters and must be cared for properly. We have managed to successfully raise one out of two larvae that we found.

The larva of the tiger swallowtail is a little brown, unobtrusive thing that is most easily found just prior to pupation. It feeds in trees during its growing stages but then begins its frenzied march for a place to pupate and that is when it can be found crawling along on a road or something.

Just put the little guy in a container with a cover and give it a small, flat piece of wood, long enough to lean against side of container, so larva can attach itself to it. It will pupate nicely there. If it acts "dead," don't be alarmed--it becomes very dormant just before molting its skin.

The chrysalis of the tiger is in the photograph above. Keep it in a cool place for the winter and, about once each week, put a drop of very clean water on the head-end of the pupa. It needs to absorb moisture. Don't put it on the tail end or you could drown it!

Sometime in about February or March, you will find a nice butterfly flying around your house. The kids will be delighted and, most likely, so will you. Any questions, Email us.

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Polyphemus Giant Silkworm Moth

polyphemus larvaPolyphemus cocoonmale polyphemus mothmale polyphemus moth

This creature is, by far, my favorite! It is a most regal animal and has a very gentle disposition. It will tamely sit on your finger and impress you with its wonderful beauty. The Lord created much beauty among the giant silkworm moths!

The very large caterpillar of polyphemus can be found in the woods in late summer. We have found all of ours at a favorite camping spot in Upper Michigan called J.W. Wells State Park, in late August.

The caterpillar is a pretty shade of translucent, pale green with a buff-colored head and little raised dots of yellow and orange on the segments of its body. Each dot has a spike of hair sticking out of it. The caterpillars tend to be around 2.5 inches long and quite fat. The body segments are not rounded but rather, folded--like an accordian. It has a very distinct look. These larvae also feed in trees so you won't find them until they are close to pupating.

Place your larva in a container with a cover and give it a large, dry, curled leaf--it loves to pupate in these and will spin a beautiful cocoon for you--golden silk with a nice sheen. If you pick it up and handle it, you will feel the frightened creature banging around inside!

On the inside, the caterpillar will molt its skin and form a big, fat, black pupa. Don't peek by cutting the cocoon open--you will see the skin of the pupa after the moth emerges--many months later.

Caring for this guy over winter requires some effort and patience. If you want to keep it until its mating season, you will need to put it in the refrigerator (not the freezer!!!). Place it in a box lined with paper toweling and leave the cover open a bit to allow air to circulate around it. About once each week, you need to spray the cocoon with lukewarm water. If you do not do this, the creature within will dry out and die. It will absorb the water it needs if you spray it regularly, no more than once per week.

Check it periodically to make sure it is still alive. A cocoon containing a dead pupa will feel weightless but a live one will have some substance to it.

If you do not want to wait till mating season for your moth, just keep cocoon in a cool corner of the house. Do everything else the same way as a refrigerated cocoon: box, water, etc. A non-refrigerated moth will emerge sometime in March or April. A refrigerated one will emerge a few weeks after you take the thing out of the refrigerator. I believe there is a southern mating season in April. Here in the frigid north, moths mate in June so you will want to remove from refrigerator in mid-May.

When your wonderful moth emerges, you can let it go or keep it as a specimen. Get a book on mounting moths from the library. The moth deteriorates quickly so you will want to preserve it soon after it emerges. It's hard to destroy the creature but, keep in mind, it only lives a few days as an adult moth anyway.

For questions on mating a female moth and raising larvae, please Email us. Enjoy your temporary pet!

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