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Budding Scientist Projects: Raising a Monarch

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Our pet Monarch caterpillar

Two weeks ago, I set out in search of milkweed hoping to find an egg laid by a Monarch butterfly. With no previous egg-hunting experience, I was armed only with what I had read in the terrific book “My Monarch Journal” by Connie Muther and Anita Bibeau.  The book gives step-by-step instructions, accompanied by detailed, close-up photos, of how to raise a Monarch butterfly whether from a kit or from nature. It also includes space on nearly every page for children to write or sketch their own observations about the butterfly’s life cycle.

I came home from my expedition with what looked like a wart on a leaf. I was only 50 percent sure that what I had was in fact a Monarch egg, but we decided to watch and wait. Among a Monarch egg’s distinguishing features are tiny vertical ribs. At first I couldn’t see them, but then my daughter spotted them by holding the egg at just the right angle while looking through a magnifying glass.

Since then, we’ve gotten to see the egg hatch, a green, barely visible, wiggly speck emerge and grow with shocking speed into a fat, yellow, black and white-striped caterpillar.

The rearing process can be a little nerve-wracking. Monarch caterpillars, unlike Tussock Moth caterpillars, which we have also raised, eat only milkweed, and there’s no milkweed near our house.  I drive to a nearby patch each week and cut fresh stalks that I keep in a vase of water. We give our caterpillar a fresh leaf just about every day and clean out its ever-larger amounts of poop, known in the caterpillar world as frass. Once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we plan to tag and release it to help researchers track the annual Monarch migration from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico and back.

For more details on Monarch rearing, visit the Monarch Watch Web site.

In October, look out for the IMAX documentary “Flight of the Butterflies,” which follows the Monarch migration in 3D and tells the story of zoologist and Monarch Watch founder Fred Urquhart.



About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Neeroc 9:26 pm 08/17/2012

    I was hoping to do this with my 4 year old this year and have been cultivating a few of my own ‘noxious weeds’ but sadly haven’t found any eggs. I can’t wait to read of your progress.

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  2. 2. Anna Kuchment in reply to Anna Kuchment 10:02 pm 08/17/2012

    Thanks for your comment. It took me a while to find an egg, too, and I was hunting in a pretty large patch of milkweed. My daughter is 6, so you’ve got many egg-hunting years ahead of you. I’d encourage you to keep trying and then try again next year. And I can’t recommend My Monarch Journal highly enough. A couple of years from now, your child will actually be able to write in it, so the timing will be even better.

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