Grow Your Own Butterfly Armada

by Remo on April 6, 2010

About a year and a half ago when we started this site, I wrote a review of the Live Butterfly Garden and how much the boys loved getting the butterfly caterpillars in the mail and then watching and waiting for them to crawl up and start making their cocoons.

Waiting for the butterflies to hatch, feeding them and finally releasing them is a great learning activity for kids and prompted a ton of questions about where they come from, what do they eat, how do they spin their cocoon and on and on and on.

With spring finally here, it’s a great time to start thinking about outdoor toys for kids and growing your butterflies is a great way to get kids interested in nature before the summer hits.

If you’ve been planning a summer outdoor event such as a graduation party or wedding, ordering a small number of live butterflies will cost you a small fortune, at around $250 for 25 butterflies shipped.  Bah! Raise hundreds of your own instead for under $75!

We’re talking about a 30 day lifecycle from larva to butterflies, and you’ll want to go through 2-3 life cycles, so plan ahead for that big day!

Start Small With A Butterfly Growing Kit

First, your best bet is to start with a butterfly growing kit.  While you can order butterfly larva directly from a number of sites without buying a kit, you’ll need somewhere to hang them after they form their cocoons as well as somewhere to keep them for a few days before letting them go outside.  Plus the larva you can order through the mass produced kits are less expensive than just ordering directly.

The Live Butterfly Garden is a good kit and the one we used with the boys a few years back.  At around $15-$20 online, it’s a good deal considering what you get.  In fact, if you’re looking for a refill on a butterfly growing kit that you already purchased, it’s actually cheaper to order a new one. Reordering a refill of 5 larvae from the company is $14.99 plus shipping vs a kit for $15 that includes a coupon for the larva with free shipping in many cases.  Sad that it’s cheaper to buy a new kit and a whole new butterfly home, but we can always re-purpose the old one as another spot for toy storage for those smaller stuffed animals..

Here is how it works.

  1. THE BUTTERFLY LARVAE DO NOT COME IN THE BOX.  This seems to be a common mistake that people make when they give this as a gift.  You buy the kit and use the coupon to order the butterfly larvae from the Insect Lore company via a provided form or the company phone number, which costs $3 for shipping if you have the coupon.  If you’re giving it as a gift, you can crack open the box and call the company to order the caterpillars ahead of time.
  2. The butterfly larvae arrive in the mail a few weeks later.  They are quite slow and hardly move at all.  Don’t assume they’re dead, because they really only move an inch a day.  Keep them out of direct sunlight and don’t disturb them.
  3. A week or so later, they’ll climb to the top of the container and form chrysalises.  Wait a few days after they do this.The Chrysalis form...
  4. Transfer them to the Butterfly habitat, where they’ll hatch about a week later.  Feed them with fruit and sugar water after they hatch.

Grow Your Own Small Butterfly Army

Now the fun begins! You could just release your five butterflies and watch them fly away. But what fun is that! Instead, spawn and grow a couple generations for your very own butterfly armada and let them go all at once on a nice summer day

What you’ll need:

  • A Butterfly kit from above.  Again, the Live Butterfly Garden is your best bet.  Cost ~$20
  • A bunch of Hollyhock plants or seeds.  The Painted Lady variety of butterflies that come with the Live Butterfly kit like thistle, hollyhock, daisy and burdock plants.  Of all those, hollyhock is their favorite, is a bi-annual (will grow twice a year) and the easiest to grow.  Be careful going down to your local garden center and buying plants, sometimes they are treated with insecticide to prevent caterpillars from eating them!  To be sure to prevent this, order some hollyhock seeds and make another project out of growing them.  Cost ~$5
  • A pile Painted Lady Butterfly larvae food culture.  The larvae can live off the hollyhock plants, but seeing as how the numbers of larva we’re talking about would devour a small hollyhock in a few days, and if you go away for the weekend they’ll die, you’ll need some extra artificial food.  The larvae feed both during the day or at night, so if you are the type of person (read: me!) who would forget to feed your caterpillars fresh hollyhock leaves 2-3 times a day for weeks, then go this route.  This is the right stuff to feed about 80 larvae from birth to hatching as butterflies, so it will feed a heck of a lot more as a supplement to the Hollyhock leaves.  Cost ~$20
  • A Tent to store the final butterfly masses – check here for a list of good indoor tent options here, including one for about $20 shipped. Cost ~$20
  • A bunch of glass or transparent plastic jars – to store the larvae as they grow.  Cost ~$20.  You can always go cheap here and use plastic cups, plastic wrap and some rubber bands instead and save some cash. If you have any old glasses or jars lying around, you can use those. Just don’t forget to poke holes in the lids!

What to do:

  1. Plant a bunch of the hollyhock plants, both inside and outside.  The inside ones are caterpillar food, the outside ones are important to keep the butterflies hanging around after you let them go.  Reuse some of the hundreds of plastic containers you recycle (you do recycle right?  RIGHT?) as pots for the indoor hollyhocks.  Don’t forget to make drainage holes in the bottom or they’ll drown when you water them.
  2. Order the larvae from the kit, follow the instructions above and included with the kit to hatch the butterflies.
  3. After the butterflies are hatched, place a couple of hollyhock plants in the bottom of the habitat.  This allows the existing butterflies to lay their eggs on their natural food.  Once you notice a bunch of eggs on the plants, you can let the butterflies go outside.  Check this page for images of the butterfly eggs and larva so you know what to look for.  You’ll be in good shape if you get 30-50 eggs.
  4. Ideally, you would let the butterflies go outside to enjoy the rest of their lives out in the open.
  5. Prep the plastic jars or cups.  Make lots of SMALL air holes in the top of the lid and secure the lids loosely with a paper towel underneath each lid for the caterpillars to attach to when it’s cocoon time.  Add a 1/4 inch of butterfly larvae food culture to the bottom of each cup by microwaving the food until soft (or following the instructions included with the food if you go with a different source) and pouring into each cup.  Prepare around 7 cups.  Use only one of the cups of the larvae food culture.
  6. Once the eggs hatch, use a toothpick or matchstick to VERY GENTLY transfer ~6-7 larvae into each jar.  It’s easier if you wait a few days for them to grow bigger, but by then they may have acquired a “taste” for live hollyhock and may ignore the artificial food if you go that route.
  7. Try to feed them fresh hollyhock 2-3 times a day.  The leaves dry out very quickly and then the caterpillars won’t eat them.  Ideally make a small “vase” for each hollyhock leaf out by wrapping a small amount of paper towel around the stem and then a small amount of aluminum foil over that to keep the water in.  This will keep the leaves alive and edible for days.
  8. Follow the same steps as the original kit once the caterpillars cocoon themselves.  With luck you should have ~50 cocoons at this point.  Put all of them into the original Butterfly Pavilion.  It’ll be a tight squeeze, but they’ll fit.

Butterflies: The Next Generation

  1. Once they start to hatch, break out the tent and set it up inside somewhere.  Open the now full Butterfly Pavilion inside the tent and give the butterflies some breathing room.
  2. Same as before, but this time place a bunch of hollyhock plants inside the tent.  Be careful here.  Without sunlight the hollyhocks will die but with too much sunlight the tent will heat up and the butterflies will cook.  Try to rotate the plants out if possible a couple of times a week and don’t forget to water them.
  3. Same as before, collect the larvae and put them into jars.  You could go the “feral” route at this point and allow the caterpillars to roam free around the tent and devour all the hollyhocks if you wish, but you’ll very likely get more butterflies in the end by preparing another larger round of the jars with the butterfly growth medium.
  4. Again, release the butterflies after you see enough eggs to suit your butterfly army needs!
  5. Hang the cocoons on the sides of the tent this time, there will be far too many for the old Butterfly Pavilion
  6. With luck this time you could have upwards of 200-300+ butterflies in this generation.
  7. If you want, rinse and repeat the whole process for an ongoing butterfly extravaganza.  Or just open the tent on a nice summer day and enjoy!

Now that you have all the equipment, doing the same thing next year is far cheaper, only the cost of the extra food and another starter set of larvae.

We’ll post some pictures later in the summer once the third generation hatches.

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