The Butterfly Effect 

It’s Not That Hard to Breed Monarch Butterflies In Your Home. Just Feed Them. 

When I was ready to buy a house in Coral Gables, my realtor asked what my dream home would be. I thought instantly of Swiss Family Robinson. She laughed saying, “I’m sure permitting would have an absolute ball with that.” At the very least she understood I wanted more green than concrete, and with my dog Benny’s approval that’s what we got – 1,500 square feet of 1930s Spanish style home on a 6,500 square foot lot. 

Ready to create my outdoor retreat, I saw acrobatic squirrels, blue jays, and cardinals in my backyard. But where were my bees, caterpillars, bird nests, lizard eggs, and my most sorely missed, butterflies from my childhood? 

Unsure of how to proceed, I started with a vertical herb garden that has since thrived for 6 years in my narrow side yard. I then invested in a large, raised plant bed to go alongside it, with the aim of growing food. My first start, planting peppers, was met with immediate defeat. 

Arriving at a local nursery I met Alex, who suggested I work backward. What did I want to eat or attract in my yard? I was clear about the butterflies but declined his first suggestion to purchase milkweed, which appeared boring to my (then) ignorant self. Alex insisted I reconsider. I was unconvinced until a large yellow and black monarch caterpillar caught my eye. Milkweed was no weed at all, it turns out, but their sole source of food. I named the caterpillar Chunks and asked if it came with the plant. Alex said “sure,” insisting that even without my new friend, if planted, they would come. 

Milkweeds in the Raised Plant Bed

Alex said milkweed does well planted in the ground, a pot, or a garden bed so long as it gets sunlight. Home now, I filled the bed with chemical free soil for Chunks’ new penthouse suite. Being elevated meant I could keep a watchful eye. Chunks munched away nonstop until nothing but a stem was left, with Chunks clinging to it like a life raft. The Very Hungry Caterpillar from the classic children’s book was before me so I raced to the nursery saying my plant was dead. They said it was not and with a good trim of the stem, it’d grow right back. I returned home with 12 milkweed plants to stock Chunks’ new digs. To my surprise, an entourage of mini-me Chunks soon arrived. It turns out female monarchs have no problem finding this their ideal nursery. With no magnifier to assist I was able to spot their pin-sized, cream-colored eggs. This marks Stage 1 of a butterfly’s life, beginning the process of metamorphosis. 

Pin Sized Cream-colored Eggs (Stage 1)

Aspiring to witness all four stages, I patiently waited the 4 to 10 days for them to emerge from their eggs to Stage 2 as larva (a.k.a. caterpillars). After a first meal (their eggshell) they munched nonstop on their all-you-can-eat milkweed buffet, molting as they grew to about 2 inches in length. This takes about two weeks; the caterpillar then wanders off to a safe place to pupate for Stage 3 known as chrysalis. I was therefore not surprised when a missing Chunks was found safely underneath the garden bed. Having spun its silk pad, it hung upside down in a “J formation,” ready to form into chrysalis. For that, its skin is shed, revealing a green chrysalis, an exoskeleton that begins soft and fragile before hardening to allow the adult butterfly to form inside. The exoskeleton becomes translucent a day or so before the butterfly emerges. Chunks took 12 days in chrysalis before leaving its now empty casing behind. 

The Butterfly Effect 
The Larva Caterpillars Emerge (Stage 2)

Chunks no longer seemed an appropriate name, as before me now was a stunning adult butterfly extending and retracting its wings. This would mark Stage 4, the final stage of an adult butterfly’s life. No flying lessons required, it flapped off to find native nectar plants from which to feed. Butterflies reach sexual maturity in 4-5 days and live for 2-5 weeks; in a future story we will cover native pollinator plants that attract a variety of butterflies, birds, and bees, like my tall firebush that even hummingbirds found. 

The Chrysalis Hangs Under the Bed (stage 3)
The Monarch Butterfly (Stage 4)

In the meantime, get thee to a nursery and purchase milkweed plants; the Almanac 2022 reports that monarch populations nationwide have declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years, with milkweed habitats virtually gone. Up for some homework? Explore and Need more inspiration? Visit Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden’s butterfly gardens.

*Photos by Grace Carricarte