Suzannah's Voice

Butterfly Diary: A Week in the Life of a Monarch Mama

My photojournal entries for the last nine days show how even when I resist the urge to amass a caterpillar condominium of mesh enclosures filled with monarchs and milkweed, I still get hooked.  It’s hard work to protect monarchs from predators and disease, especially now in my Florida back yard, where the August and September temps soar.  I spent four hours outside yesterday doing butterfly work.  My husband looked up at the sky and announced, “She’s back!”  


Monday, 8/24 – All summer, I’ve found tiny holes eaten into the milkweed by monarchs, but no monarchs. Wasps are fierce, methodical predators. Lizards prey on monarchs, too. A few days ago, I moved some potted milkweed plants to the pool deck, away from lizard hideouts. Yesterday, I checked them for eggs and found a treasure trove. I moved the plants to the lanai, where wasps are less likely to hunt. And today, look at all of the little wigglers!


Thursday, 8/27 – So happy to have saved these monarchs from the wasps and lizards. They’re raising themselves. All I will have to do is provide more plants after they’ve eaten these— and it won’t take them long. Look! More eggs hatched, too!


Friday, 8/28 – My, how they’ve grown in four days!  Yesterday and today. I counted, and when I got to 30 caterpillars, I ran out to buy ten more milkweed plants. I’ll need more than that. The rough rule is you need 15-25 milkweed leaves per caterpillar. These plants are small, so I may end up needing one plant per caterpillar. That means it costs $6 to try to raise one butterfly— unless you grow your own milkweed. (I do that, too.)

Mama monarch is busy laying eggs in the garden. The milkweed out there is covered with eggs— future lizard and wasp fare, I’m afraid. I can’t take on any more than what I have on the porch now. The way I look at it is that every butterfly I help into existence is one more butterfly that wouldn’t be here without me. I’ve tucked awaythe  new food supply on the lanai so no eggs will be laid on it.


Saturday, 8/29 – We have 42 monarch caterpillars munching out here at #ᴍᴏᴛʜᴇʀɢsᴍɪʟᴋᴡᴇᴇᴅʙᴀɴᴅʙ, and I’ve had to chase away two mama monarchs who were laying eggs in my milkweed stash. There’s plenty of milkweed in the garden for them to lay eggs on. I got my butterfly net out. If another one comes, I’m going to catch her and test her for O.e., the parasitic spore that sickens and kills monarchs. It is to them what COVID is to us.

My husband calls these “butterfly prisons,” but they keep the caterpillars safe from predators.  I locked the little wigglers away because they’re not very smart. I had to protect them from their tendency to wander. I found two of them fifteen feet away on the lanai floor and another one on the outdoor sofa. So they’re in new digs tonight, and despite that this is a bed and breakfast, I provide them with a steady stream of milkweed all night and day. In this heat, they develop faster. I expect the first chrysalises in three or four days.

Sunday, 8/30 – I caught a mama monarch laying eggs on the milkweed I had stashed to feed these hungry, hungry caterpillars. I took a sample of her abdomen scales, and checked for O.e. spores. She was clean! She’s laying healthy butterfly eggs! Hurray! O.e. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) is a parasitic spore that is one more threat monarchs face, including breeding habitat losses (milkweed), overwintering habitat losses (forests), predators, pesticides, and climate change. Save the monarchs. Plant milkweed. Test them for O.e. Protect them from predators. VOTE BLUE. Trump claims over 300 miles of new border wall built. Like everything he says, that’s a lie. Only 5 miles was new wall; the rest was replacement wall. Yet he authorized the DESTRUCTION OF A MONARCH HABITAT near the border of Mexico, where monarchs overwinter. The overwintering monarchs are the parents of the entire migrating monarch population each year. When their numbers decrease, the new monarch population decreases. Vote for someone who respects our earth and its inhabitants. Vote blue.

This morning: bare stems. It took me a while to transfer the caterpillars from the six bare plants to the six lush plants. After I’d done it, I looked down and found this little caterpillar on my hand. And it pooped on me! Just another Sunday at #ᴍᴏᴛʜᴇʀɢsᴍɪʟᴋᴡᴇᴇᴅʙᴀɴᴅʙ

Six days’ growth. Crazy, right?!


Monday, 8/31 – Yes, they did it again. I put 8 giant milkweed leaves out there for them for now. Should I buy 20 milkweed plants today? 10 didn’t last long.


We will have some J-hangers tonight and chrysalides tomorrow!


Tuesday, 9/1 – Twenty J-hangers and a chrysalis awaited me this morning. This evening, there will be 21 chrysalides and more J-hangers.


Wednesday, 9/2 – I counted over thirty chrysalides. There are still more caterpillars. I didn’t buy more milkweed; I’ve been feeding them leaves from my giant milkweed. But another trip to the nursery is in order: three eggs that were laid on my milkweed stash on the lanai have hatched. I won’t take on over forty caterpillars this round. I’d like to give my my many potted milkweeds a chance to sprout new leaves first. I gave them Miracle-Gro yesterday. Yes, it’s safe for fruits and vegetables and it’s safe for butterfly host plants.

The real miracle of growth, however, is that it only took these caterpillars eight days to Zoom through their larval stage and pupate into chrysalides. This sweltering Florida heat (91, feels like 102) helps.

Next week, we will have butterflies.











5 replies »

  1. This thrills me, Suzannah. I’m a fellow lepidopterist (I’m a novice). You clearly have determination, passion, and a knack for raising these important butterflies. A monarch BnB. I love it.

    We have milkweed in our pasture, yet because of the wasps I have yet to find caterpillars (other than one beautiful, chubby single caterpillar in its fourth instar we found a few months ago). We do see one to three monarchs flitting and bouncing around every day or two, so they’re eclosing somewhere. I just don’t know where! I have an old net cage so maybe next year I’ll try your method. Sounds like I need to be scrupulous about preventing the spread of O.e. I’d never heard about it until I read something else you’d written about it on Instagram. Do I need to sanitize the net? You know so much. Lots for me to learn.


  2. Hi Suzannah, It is funny to find you here on this site. I was looking for advice on Monarch Butterflies because I noticed that there were large caterpillars ravishing on my Italian Parsley. I didn’t know what they were but now thanks to you. Everything is connected by some miracle of life. I was looking to find out if I could raise Monarchs in my brand new greenhouse. Do you know if butterflies can live in greenhouses and what might be the ideal temperature if they can. We built the greenhouse because I have been trying to nurture white cattleya orchids and gardenias. I guess I am a product of all those 40’s and 50’s sirens with their corsages attached to their white fox chubbies. Anyway, imagine how lovely it would be to have a candlelit dinner in a greenhouse with the scent of gardenias and orchids and butterflies in the middle of winter in the middle of Illinois.


    • Hello, JoAnn! It’s good to hear from you. I haven’t checked my comments in quite a while.

      Caterpillars feasting on your parsley are swallowtails, not monarchs. Swallowtails make rough, brown chrysalises, unlike the green jewel-like monarch chrysalis that has gold (yes! gold!) and black details. Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed plants, because that’s the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. Besides host plants for butterflies, you also need some other flowers that produce nectar (milkweed flowers produce nectar, but caterpillars like to eat the flowers), which is what butterflies eat.

      Butterflies and caterpillars need warmth to grow and thrive. The warmer it is, the faster the cycle goes from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Above 60 degrees is the minimum. If your greenhouse is warm enough for orchids, it’s certainly warm enough for butterflies, and it would be a temperature they would enjoy. Also be sure to have a little water the butterflies can land in/next to to sip. In our yard, an upturned magnolia leaf catches enough water for butterflies to be attracted to it. You don’t need a bowl or a birdbath.

      As long as there is food (nectar), water, and an optimal temperature, butterflies can indeed live in a greenhouse. The candlelit dinner with gardenias (one of my favorite scents) and orchids and butterflies sounds absolutely heavenly— and it’s very much You and Billy. (For others, I should clarify that your husband is a Billy, too!)

      Much love and good luck!


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