Raising Butterflies: How To Get Started Today

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: November 25, 2021


Raising butterflies from the larva to the adult stage can be a satisfying and educational hobby. It allows you to observe the amazing transformational metamorphosis at home within the safety of a simple habitat. Because of their docility and the ease with which they can be handled, butterflies are among the easiest to raise and care for among all insects. But you should also keep in mind they’re not really pets. While they do tolerate captivity well and might even crawl on you if you let them, they’re there to be observed and admired, not to interact with all the time.

The process of raising them can begin from the moment the caterpillars first emerge from their eggs at some point in the spring and early summer. When they reach adulthood, the butterfly will need to be released from its habitat unless, of course, you have a more permanent enclose designed for adults as well as larvae. This article will cover some useful tips about raising butterflies, including which species to choose from and which supplies to buy.

What type of butterfly should you choose?

The first step is to pick the species of butterfly you want to raise. There are some 20,000 butterfly species around the world and hundreds in the United States alone. To say the least, this is a lot to choose from. Monarch, painted lady, red admiral, and swallowtail butterflies are the most popular and also happen to be some of the easiest to raise. But there is one factor you will want to consider above all: location. It’s highly recommended that you choose a species that already lives in your area. This will ensure that it can thrive and reproduce once it’s released into the wild.

There are generally two ways to obtain a butterfly. The first method is to capture one from the wild (either the egg or the larva is fine). You can even create your own garden at home and cultivate both suitable host plants and flowers for local butterflies to gather in. The other method is to purchase a butterfly or a dedicated kit from a store. If you pursue this route, then you should make absolutely certain it’s a local species. Otherwise, it could struggle to survive in the wild.

Another important factor to consider in selection: some species “overwinter” (or spend most of the winter in deep sleep) as eggs or larvae. These species include the brushfoot, copper, cloudless sulphur, and pine white butterflies. They are not exactly the easiest to raise because they special time and effort to get right. The best strategy here is to place them in a cooler or protected outdoor area with the right amount of humidity and airflow present. If you don’t want to deal with the hassle, then don’t select an overwintering species.

Raising Butterflies
A butterfly, Siproeta stelenes, feeding on oranges at the Butterfly House of Viagrande in Sicily.

What kind of supplies will you need?

The first and most important supply you will need is a suitable host plant upon which the butterfly feeds and lives as a young larva. Each species has a different host plant: the monarch requires milkweed or butterfly weed, the painted lady butterfly will require thistle, the giant swallowtail will require rue, etc. Always do your research first to make sure you’re pairing the butterfly with the right host plant. This could be the difference between life and death.

The second thing you will need is some kind of habitat. Some people prefer a simple tank (at least 10 gallons large) with a screen terrarium cover. Other people prefer to use a mesh pop-up habitat or another butterfly-specific container. The size should scale with the number of butterflies you’re raising within the habitat.

For serious butterfly enthusiasts, a glass-enclosed greenhouse or a big wooden butterfly house outdoors is an alternative option; this will allow you to raise multiple adult butterflies with plenty of space, food, and water for each one. The setup can run the gamut from a simple box to an elaborate greenhouse structure. It all depends on how much time, effort, and money you want to put into it.

Once you’ve chosen a suitable habitat, you should fill the bottom of the container with either soil or soft felt and then add a few sticks; also make sure the host plant is firmly secured in a pot or water-filled jar with an appropriate lid on it. Place the host plant into the habitat first and give it some time to thrive before adding the butterfly. In the early larval phase, the caterpillar will spend all of its time attached to the host plant. If it falls off, then you should make sure it can crawl back up on a stick or the wall. In the chrysalis phase, the butterfly will form a cocoon on the wall, the screen, or the stick.

If you’re just starting out as a butterfly hobbyist and still don’t know what to do, then you can always purchase a simple butterfly starter kit. These will have just about all the supplies you need to get started, including the habitat, the host plant, some water, and sometimes even the caterpillar itself. The butterfly starter kit will also come with instructions for what you should do to care for your butterfly.

How much does it cost to raise a butterfly?

It really isn’t all that expensive to raise just one or two butterflies at a time. The basic butterfly starter kit will probably cost somewhere in the range of $20 to $50. The cost is about the same (maybe even slightly less) if you gather all of the supplies and materials yourself. If you aim to construct a more elaborate enclosure, on the other hand, then it could easily cost you a few hundred dollars. It’s up to you how invested you want to be in raising and carrying for your butterflies.

Should you place the habitat indoors or outdoors?

It all comes down to personal choice. Outdoor habitats provide more natural sunlight but also mean exposure to potential predators and threats. Indoor habitats at home provide more protection and also give you a much better view of the butterfly. But keep in mind that some habitats, like a greenhouse or butterfly box, are better suited to outdoors than indoors.

How long does it take for the butterfly to transform into an adult?

The answer to that question really depends on the species, but in general, you can expect it to take anywhere between a few weeks and a few months for the butterfly to transform into an adult. Some hobbyists like to start out with the eggs so they can observe the entire life cycle of the butterfly. The eggs will usually take just a few days to hatch. However, the larval butterfly, also known as a caterpillar, is often the longest stage in its life cycle. It can last anywhere between a few days and a few months. During this time, it passes through several “instar” stages in which it molts the skin and grows progressively larger. The monarch butterfly, for instance, takes about three to five days to pass through each individual instar.

Once the larva is finished growing, it will enter the chrysalis stage, in which the butterfly wraps itself in a silk cocoon and transforms into an adult. This cocoon phase will usually last no more than a few weeks. Most species should complete the entire transformation into an adult by the summer or early autumn, but as mentioned previously, some species overwinter as eggs or larvae.

When the adult butterfly first emerges from its chrysalis, the wings will be damp and ineffective. You should allow for at least a few hours before setting the butterfly free. If necessary, you can provide the butterfly with a little bit of nectar or sugar water before release. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end of your butterfly adventures, however. If you want the adult butterflies to hang around your home, then consider planting flowers in your garden to which the butterfly will be attracted. Each species is specialized for different flowers, so you should do your research first.

Raising Butterflies
The life cycle of color segeant butterfly ( Athyma nefte ) from caterpillar and pupa to butterfly.

Is it a good idea to raise migratory butterflies in captivity?

Whether or not it’s a good idea to raise a migratory butterfly, especially indoors, is certainly a controversial subject. Previous studies appeared to show that raising butterflies in captivity has a negative impact on their ability to travel south for the winter. The butterflies become disoriented and unable to navigate properly. However, another study from June 2021 actually suggested that captive-raised migratory butterflies can find their way south once given enough time to properly orient their internal compass. More research is needed on this subject to be sure one way or the other.

The monarch is the most prominent migratory butterfly; it makes an annual migration to California and Mexico. But other species also migrate from time to time, including the painted lady, common buckeye, red admiral, and cloudless sulphur. Do your research first to make sure.

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