Guide to the Butterfly Raising

Purchase kits at without caterpillars or at with caterpillars.


We have enjoyed raising butterflies. We want to share this joy with you. Each new generation and each new species will widen your knowledge about a most special creation, butterflies.

This kit will help you learn about butterflies in ways that you may not have imagined. A sampling of the information that you will discover is listed below. 

1) Learn how long it takes a caterpillar to hatch from an egg.
2) Learn to recognize each caterpillar and the different colors of their instars.
3) Notice the varying personalities of different caterpillar species.
4) Learn where to find or purchase the host plants of each butterfly.
5) Learn how long it takes a caterpillar to change into a chrysalis and the adult to eclose from a chrysalis.

The information you learn goes on and on. No matter how many times you raise butterflies, you will always learn something new.

We began in 1999 as novices. We now have had the opportunity to have had guests at our seminars and internships from 13 countries and many states. We hope that this kit will start you on a journey that will change your life, as it did ours.

Please read this pamphlet in its entirety. It will help eliminate common mistakes.

How to use this kit

There are several ways to use this kit. Three of the most popular ways are listed below. The first way is to acquire eggs from a wild butterfly. You then raise the caterpillars from eggs, to chrysalis, and then to adults. We recommend this way as it provides the greatest educational experience.

Remember some moth caterpillars will sting. When you come into contact with these caterpillars, their stings could send you to the hospital. Before you gather caterpillars, make sure they are the non-stinging species. We do not know of any butterfly caterpillar that will sting in the U.S.

1) Begin with a wild female butterfly – First you catch a female butterfly of the species that you choose to raise. Place it in your habitat with its host plant and coax it to lay eggs. (Instructions for this process is at Before long, you will have enough eggs to start your butterfly raising experience. We will go over this process in depth later in this guide.

2) Buy caterpillars from a butterfly farm or a biological house - Shady Oak Butterfly Farm offers many species of butterflies as caterpillars. The farm's website is . They can ship any Florida native species if you live in Florida. The USDA controls which species can be shipped out of state. The website shows photos of species that can be shipped out of Florida.

Another option would be to find another butterfly farm. You can find these farms by going to the Association for Butterflies and/or the International Butterfly Breeders Associations web sites. There are many farms that sell caterpillars, but farms out of your state are restricted by the USDA on the variety that they can ship you.

3) Hunt for butterfly caterpillars in the wild – Hunting for caterpillars can be very entertaining and just plain fun. Become familiar with your butterfly host plants and where the butterfly caterpillars are likely to be found and grab your mini habitat and go hunting.

The next section will show you how to begin your butterfly raising adventure starting with eggs laid by a butterfly in your habitat.

Before you start, read the butterfly information below.

Host Plants - Butterfly caterpillars can only eat certain plants. This is very important to remember. The plants they can eat are dependent on their species. This plant is called their host plant or larval food plant. A butterfly caterpillar cannot eat and will not eat plants other than their host plant and survive. They will usually starve before they will eat another plant.

Cuticle - The butterfly’s outer covering is called a cuticle. The cuticle is not living and does not grow. When the caterpillar grows too large for its cuticle, the caterpillar must shed its old cuticle. Underneath a new, loose fitting cuticle is already formed. This shedding of the old cuticle is call molting. The period between each molt is called an instar. Most butterfly caterpillars will have 4 to 5 instars. During the molting process the caterpillar will anchor it rear prolegs to a mat of silk and crawl out of its old cuticle. Whenever the caterpillar molts the new cuticle is very fragile. We recommend not touching your caterpillar for at least one hour after it has molted. The entire molting process takes 18 to 24 hours

The Butterfly Life Cycle - Butterflies go through four distinct forms in their development. This is called complete metamorphosis. These forms are: egg, larva (the caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and the winged adult.

Egg – Eggs are laid by the adult butterfly. The adult lays eggs on or near their host plant. Eggs are usually laid on the underside of the leaf. Some butterflies will lay anywhere on or near the host plant. Gulf Fritillary butterflies will sometime lay eggs on you. Eggs hatch in 3 to 10 days, depending on the temperature and species.

Larva – When caterpillars hatch, they are very small. Remember, they had to fit inside the tiny egg. Most species will eat their egg shell upon hatching. Caterpillars will eat until their cuticle becomes too tight. Then they will molt and start eating again. This process will be repeated 4 or 5 times until the caterpillar reaches pupation. Caterpillars will grow up to 3,000 times their hatching weight before they pupate. Upon reaching their full size, they will create a silk button where they will pupate and attached themselves to the button. There the caterpillars will hang in a ‘J’ or ‘C’ shape. Caterpillars may also have a tiny girdle of silk to help suspend their bodies. This pre-pupa stage is called ‘J-ing’. The Caterpillar stage last around 13 to 28 days. The J-ing stage lasts only around 16 to 24 hours. There are some exceptions. Many moths take three days to pupate. Some moths will spin a cocoon and pupate inside the cocoon. Other moths will pupate under ground or in a curled leaf.

Pupa/chrysalis –The actual pupation will take place in as little as 3 to 4 minutes. In many species, on the morning of the pupation, the caterpillar will start to move up and down in an accordion fashion. A tear will appear in the cuticle and the chrysalis body will emerge as the old cuticle is pushed up, toward the attached end. When the old cuticle is almost to the top of the new chrysalis, the chrysalis will extend its cremaster and anchor itself to the silk button. The cremaster has hundreds of little hooks that fasten to the silk pad like Velcro. Some chrysalides do not have a cremaster. A fresh chrysalis is easily injured. Do not touch them until they dry, roughly 12 hours after pupation.

Adult – The adult butterfly will eclose (emerge) from the chrysalis in 5 to 15 days depending on temperature and species. In the fall, swallowtail butterfly chrysalides will go into diapause (similar to hibernation). They will remain in diapause through the winter months. Adult butterflies will live from two weeks to several months depending on species and time of year. The actual process of eclosing takes only a few seconds. Then they will inflate their tiny wings until the wings are full size. The butterfly will then hang motionless while their wings harden. This process will take around 2 to 6 hours. The butterfly is then ready to fly. After about three days the butterfly will pair and begin laying eggs. Pairing may last for several hours. The male butterfly will transfer a sperm sac or spermatophore. This sac will fertilize many eggs. A female may pair several times during her life time. The female butterfly will lay eggs whether or not they are fertile. Infertile eggs will collapse within a week.

Diseases – Just as in any other animal, butterflies are subject to disease. In Nature, 98% of all butterfly eggs will never make it to become adults. This is a good thing, because each butterfly will lay hundreds of eggs and the planet could not support enough food to feed that many caterpillars. Disease is just one of the many ways butterflies are kept in balance. In your habitat, you should have a much higher percentage reaching adulthood than nature will allow in your yard.

Even in your habitat, disease can occur, brought to the caterpillar on the host plant, in the air, or even the butterfly parent you obtained the eggs. Following the five steps below and tips elsewhere in this guide will greatly reduce your risk of disease.

1) Limit the number of female butterflies that lay the eggs.
2) Keep the habitat free of mold or decaying material.
3) Remove any caterpillar that has died, and dampen the area with a mild bleach solution. If two caterpillars die in your habitat, it is advisable to start over again, after you sanitize you habitat. 
4) Keep the population of caterpillars within acceptable levels. The more caterpillars you have in a container the more likely one will become sick and infect others.
5) Always wash hands before and after feeding your caterpillars.
6) Disinfect the habitat after each batch of caterpillars, before using it for a new batch of caterpillars.

Listed below are a few of the most common caterpillar diseases:

1) NPV virus – this also know as melt. Caterpillars generally crawl upward, hang by their middle or back legs, and liquefy. NPV is accompanied by a bad odor. . This is one of the worst diseases that can infect your caterpillars. If you suspect your caterpillars have this, take the habitat outside, humanely destroy any caterpillars that are still living, and disinfect the habitat right away. 2) OE – This is a protozoan parasite that is found on Monarch and Queen butterflies. It occurs in a large percentage of Monarch butterflies. It is more prevalent in the south, due to a longer butterfly season allowing more time for OE to spread. Caterpillars do not transfer OE one to another. The caterpillars become infected by eating spores that fall from the adult butterfly’s body as it flies over the host plant or while it lays the eggs. OE is sometimes fatal in heavily infected butterflies. The best action is to a check your adult female for OE before you use her to obtain eggs. You can find out how to do this by going to www.butterfly-fun-facts.

3) Serratia – Bacterial infection characterized by caterpillars or chrysalides dying and having a reddish tint to their bodies. This pathogen is highly contagious. Cleaning is mandatory as soon as it is spotted. Sometimes, the non-infected caterpillars can be saved. To control Serratia, pay added attention to proper sanitation practices.

4) Mold and Fungus – The presence of mold or fungus can kill caterpillars. The best method of minimizing this problem is hygiene and dry food. It is good practice to remove excess frass or decaying plant material from your habitat. Remember, mold requires moisture. Avoid feeding your caterpillars damp food.

5) Parasitoids – Parasitoids are flies or wasps that infect by depositing their eggs in the caterpillar or chrysalis. This egg hatches and its caterpillar feeds on the host eventually causing the host to die. In nature this is probably the number one cause of all caterpillar and chrysalis deaths. Our habitat screen is fine enough to prevent this from being a problem.

Questions to ask before you get started.

1) Which butterfly will you raise? - To begin raising butterflies you must first decide which butterfly you WANT to raise and which butterfly you CAN raise. If you want to raise the Blue Morpho butterfly of South America, sadly, you can forget it. USDA laws will not allow you to do so. You can only raise the butterfly species that are naturally found in your state. Also there are some protected butterflies that you are not allowed to raise, even if they are in your area. The reasons behind these laws are many, and most are valid.

Which butterflies are in your state or area?

Unless you are already a butterfly enthusiast, you may not know the answer to this question. To find which butterflies are in your area you may want to look at the informational resources mentioned below. Remember you can raise butterflies not found in your area of your state, as long as they are found in your state. You should not catch butterflies from another state and raise them.

Informational resources

1) Go to the web site Butterflies and Moths of North America. On this site you can learn which butterflies are seen in your area. 
2) Use local Lepidoptera and gardening clubs. They will be glad to furnish you with information.
3) Read butterfly books featuring your area of the country. It is great to have a hard copy to use in identification of butterflies found in your garden.
4) Lastly and perhaps the easiest way is to look at your garden or visit a large local nursery and see which butterflies you can find there.

Can you obtain enough safe host plant?

Another question you need to know before your start is: “Can you obtain enough host plant to feed your caterpillars”? Caterpillars eat a lot. A one gallon pot size plant of some species of butterflies will only raise 1 to 2 butterflies. Some smaller butterflies you maybe able to raise five or six on the same size plant. You will learn more about this as you go along. Remember, before you start, have access to enough host plant.

Where to get your butterfly’s host plant?

Once you decide on the butterfly you wish to raise, check to see if you can obtain their host plants. Make sure you can get SAFE host plants. Many of the host plants will not be offered for sale because they are considered weeds. Below are a few tips on getting your host plants.

Tip: If your butterfly caterpillar eats tree leaves you can make a cutting of a small stem and stick the stem in a floral water pick. The pick will help keep the leaves from drying out as fast. You can also wrap the bottom of the stem with wet paper towels and wrap aluminum foil over that. This will also keep it from drying out.

1) Buy at a local nursery. – Local nurseries are a great place to buy butterfly host plants. Make diligent inquiries about the safety of the plant. Some systemic insecticides can make the plant lethal to caterpillars for up to 8 weeks. If you happen to see caterpillars on the plant at the nursery, your caterpillars will probably be safe.

For more information on Safe plants for caterpillars go to this link - . If in doubt we recommend that you test the plant with a few caterpillars at first. If the plant is toxic it usually will kill the caterpillars within three days.

2) Collect host plants in the wild. - Do research on the host plant of your butterfly. Learn how to recognize the plant and where the plant is found and go look for the plant along the right of ways around where you live. Remember, don’t look for a plant that likes moist soil in a dry area. A great place to ask, before you start looking, would be your local Lepidoptera or Garden Clubs. They will be glad to tell you where you can obtain your host plants.

3) Purchase your host plants online. - Check out or . These plants may be too small to raise caterpillars when you receive them, but you can place the small plant in a larger pot and wait for the plant to grow to adequate size. Remember, as stated earlier, caterpillars eat a lot. You will need a full one gallon potted plant to raise 2 monarch sized butterflies.

Raising Butterflies - starting the process

You have made the decision on which butterfly to raise. Now let us move on and start the process. Questions to ask that need answering are below.

Which size of habitat do you decide to use? If your kit has both the small and medium size (24”) habitat, choose the habitat by the size of the host plant. The plant should touch or be close to the top of the habitat. Once you have decided which habitat to use, it is time to prepare the habitat.

How do you prepare your habitat? - We recommend that you cover the bottom with one layer of foil. On top of the foil, place two layers of paper towels. This will form a barrier to moisture and debris and makes it simpler to keep your habitat clean.

Where the habitat should be placed? - We recommend that you place the clear side of your small habitat up. If you are using a medium size habitat, place the clear side toward the brightest part of your room. Do not place the habitat in direct sunlight or hot air flow. This would cause your plant and butterflies to dehydrate.

Where to place the host plant in the habitat? - Before you place your host plant into the habitat, water it and place aluminum foil over the bottom of the pot. This will contain the water in the pot and keep it from soaking the paper towels that line the bottom of your habitat. Keep the plant watered.

Your host plant should be placed in the habitat so that brushes the brightest side of the habitat. Remember, butterflies have an instinct to go toward the brightest area. It is therefore important to position the host plant on the brightest side. This will encourage the butterfly to touch the host plant. Butterflies taste with their feet and from this touch they know the plant is suitable to lay eggs on.

Once the habitat is prepared you now can acquire the butterfly.

Needless to say, the first thing you need to be able to do is to recognize your butterfly in the female form. Many butterfly species are easy to differentiate between the sexes. In other species of butterflies it is not as easy. Of these, hard to tell species, you can catch several and put them in the habitat to ensure that you have at least one female.

You generally need only one or two females to end with enough eggs. Female butterflies, flying in nature, have normally paired and are fertile. Some butterflies will lay up to 500 eggs in the few weeks of their adult lives.

How should you use a butterfly net?

Netting a butterfly is easy if you know how. Slowly approach the butterfly and wait for her to get in a good location. She should be on the outside of a plant, not deep in the stems of the plant. When the butterfly is where you can get a good swing at her, swing across and upward with the net. The butterfly net should be rotated approximately 90 degrees right after it goes over the butterfly.This will capture and retain the butterfly in a small pocket of net. The net can be brought back to you for you to slip your hand into this pocket. Be careful that a wasp was not also trapped in the pocket!

Once you have captured your butterfly, gently transport it to and place her in your prepared habitat. Allow the butterflies to settle down for about 30 minutes. Then gently give the habitat a small jostle to excite the butterfly into moving around. This is important. It makes the butterfly move about and come into contact with the host plant. It is advisable that you spritz the habitat sparingly with water once or twice a day. This will also excite the butterfly into moving around and laying eggs. It will also supply a little moisture to prevent dehydration.

Remove the host plant after 24 hours and examine it for eggs. If you do not have eggs, the butterflies may have been infertile. You can catch more and try another batch or keep the first batch for another day. If you wish to keep them, you should feed them. To do this take a shallow container and fill with paper towels or cotton balls and pour in a sports drink. Place this container into the habitat, on its brightest side. Gently place the butterflies’ feet on the damp surface of the cotton balls or towels. They should unroll their proboscis and drink.

When you have enough eggs it is time to release those butterflies again, to continue laying eggs in nature.

How many eggs are enough?

If you are using a 12” habitat you raise up to 15 caterpillars of large butterflies or 25 caterpillars of smaller butterflies. The 24” habitat can handle up to 50% more. We recommend that you raise only 5 or so at first, until you know more about the process. Figure the amount of eggs you need from these numbers. Remember that not all eggs will hatch. If you want to purchase more habitats you can do so at the store where you bought your kit.

Caterpillars eat a great amount of foliage. Smaller butterfly species do not eat as much as larger species.

Hatching the Eggs and Rearing the Caterpillars

Eggs laid on a living host plant - When you have enough eggs and the butterflies have been released, remove the host plant, remove the feeding dish (if used), change the paper towels, and clean the habitat. Place the host plant with the eggs back into the habitat. Keep the plant’s soil moist but not wet, and wait for your eggs to hatch.

Eggs laid on plant cuttings - If you used cuttings to obtain eggs, clean out the habitat as above. Then place the cuttings with eggs on the new paper towel bottom. Butterfly eggs take anywhere from 3 days to 10 days to hatch. Your job during this time is to make sure the cuttings do not dry. If they dry out, supply a small amount of fresh cuttings. You will know the eggs are hatching when you see a dusting of frass on the paper towels or see little holes eaten in the leaves.

Rearing the Caterpillars:

1) On live plants

If you are rearing your caterpillars on live plants, your job is to keep the plant watered and, when it is almost eaten, put in a new plant. If you have room you can gently lift and set the old pot to one side of the habitat and place a new plant in the habitat. Make sure it is easy for caterpillars from the old pot to move to the new plant. The host plant leaves should always touch one side of the habitat. If a caterpillar leaves the plant to molt, it may have trouble finding it again if it is not touching the side.

When necessary, remove the old potted plant from the habitat. Examine it for caterpillars and replace it with a new plant. Your caterpillars will normally grow to the size of pupation in one to three weeks. Swallowtails may take six weeks. They mature quicker in warm temperatures and take longer in cooler temperatures. If the room temperature is below 70, it is too cold for caterpillars. They may die. If you are raising 30 large butterfly caterpillars you will probably go through 12 to 15 gallon size plants during this time.

2) On cuttings

After the eggs hatch, continue to add in fresh new cuttings as the old cuttings are eaten or they dry out. Caterpillars will not eat much when they are small. Try to give them only as much as they will eat in a day. Give tender leaves for small caterpillars. As the caterpillars grow, they will be able to eat old tougher leaves. Some species of hatchling caterpillars will actually starve if fed old leaves. Your caterpillars will grow to the size of pupation in one to six weeks, depending on the species. Monarch caterpillars take about two to three weeks. Swallowtail caterpillars take three to six weeks. Large silk moths may take up to three months and grow larger than your thumb.

When it is possible, remove the spent food cuttings as soon as you can. Check carefully for caterpillars on these cuttings. Use scissors to snip the piece of plant on which the caterpillar is sitting and place this piece on the new cutting. Leaving the old cuttings and frass in the habitat for too many days is a sure way to develop a mold problem.

Pupation As stated earlier, the caterpillar will pupate in one to six weeks (depending on species and/or temperature). You will notice that the caterpillars will migrate to the top of the habitat or to a branch and hang in a J or C shape. This is called J-ing. The caterpillar will be in the J-ing form.

Pupation normally (though not always) occurs in the morning. You will first notice that the filaments or other protrusions will droop. Then the J-ing caterpillar will start to undulate up and down in an accordion fashion. You will see its cuticle split and the chrysalis will start to appear. This old cuticle will be forced upward on the new emerging chrysalis’s body. When the chrysalis is fully exposed, the fresh, soft cuticle will harden over the next several hours. The fresh chrysalis is very fragile and is easily damaged by the slightest touch. The chrysalis will hang for 5 to 15 days before the adult emerges, depending on species and temperature.

Eclosing of adult butterflies.

When all of the caterpillars have pupated, it is time to clean the habitat and prepare for the last stage of the metamorphosis process. The last stage of metamorphosis is the adult butterfly emerging from the chrysalis shell. It is important that you put in fresh paper towels to absorb the meconium (a liquid from their digestive tract) that will be expelled after the butterfly ecloses.

It is important to remember that 1) butterflies will move toward light and 2) adult butterflies can not crawl up the plastic side of the habitat. With this in mind, we recommend that you turn the clear side of the habitat toward the darkest place in the room. The reason for this is that if the new adult falls from its chrysalis shell, it will not automatically crawl toward the plastic side where it can not climb. If they can not climb, their wings will fail to fully expand and the butterfly will not be able to fly. If the clear side is on the top, that is fine. Butterflies that fall will instinctively crawl up the side and inflate their wings. Small butterflies are sometimes able to inflate their wings without climbing.

As you watch the chrysalis you will eventually notice the chrysalis will start showing the wing pattern of the butterfly through its cuticle. This usually happens the day before the butterfly ecloses.

When the butterfly ecloses, the cuticle of the chrysalis will split and the butterfly will emerge. It only takes a few seconds. The butterfly must hang to pump its wings full of hemolymph, their equivalent to our blood. The hemolymph is necessary to properly inflate the wings to their correct shape and size. Their wings swell to several times their original size.

The new adult butterflies will take several hours to dry their wings. They are helpless during this time. They will not feed the first day. The next morning you can release them, if you desire. If the temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit we recommend that you feed the butterflies daily until the temperature is above 60 degrees.

Cleaning the Habitat

When the butterflies have all been released, it is now time to sanitize your habitat to prepare for another generation or for storage.

Do not moisten the habitat at this time as it will cause debris to cling to the sides. Take all plant debris and larger objects out of the habitat. Open the zipper fully and remove the paper towel and aluminum foil bottom. Now vigorously shake the habitat to make any debris that still remains to fall out of the habitat. Look for any debris left and clean with a paper towel the best you can. Then the habitat should be immersed in 1 part bleach to 19 parts water. Soak the habitat for 10 minutes. Wash your hands well. Following this, the habitat should be rinsed 3 to 5 times in tap water to wash out the bleach solution.

Bleach solution left on the habitat will cause premature rusting of their memory wires. If the wires rust and break, the habitat should be discarded. When the rinsing is finished, expand the habitat and let it dry. The habitat is now ready to use again or to store.

Which new species do you plan to raise next?


Larva - caterpillar 

Chrysalis – a butterfly pupa
Chrysalides - plural for chrysalis

Claspers – a male appendage used to hold the female while pairing

Cocoon – A covering of silk, sticks, or leaves, that surrounds a moth’s pupa. 

Cremaster – a hardened appendage of the chrysalis that has barbed hooks at its terminus.

Diapause – a prolongation of a stage or system of a butterfly. Sometimes butterflies will over winter as an egg, a caterpillar, a chrysalis, or an adult, depending on species. This prolongation of each of these stages is called diapause. Some butterflies go through a sexual diapause that interrupts their reproductive processes. 

Eclose – the process of an adult butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Frass – caterpillar droppings

Hemolyph – The blood like fluid of butterflies. Butterfly and moth hemolymph is green.

Instar – the growth period between molts. Most caterpillars go through 4 – 5 instars.

Hand Pairing – the process of bringing a male and female butterfly together by holding each in your hand to facilitate in their pairing.

Host Plant – or larval food plant. The host plant is the plant that a caterpillar of a particular butterfly or moth species needs to eat and grow. 

J-ing – the stage of growth in a caterpillar that they fasten themselves to an object with a silk pad and prepare to form a chrysalis.

Lepidoptera – scientific group of butterfly and moths

Meconium – left over waste from the chrysalis stage that the young adult butterfly eliminates shortly after it ecloses.

Methuselah generation – the generation of Monarch butterflies that migrate in the fall. 

Molt – is the process of a caterpillar shedding its old cuticle.

Pairing –mating of butterflies or moths

Prolegs – these are non-articulating leg-like appendages located on the mid and hind part of the caterpillar. There are usually 5 pairs of prolegs.

Pupa– chrysalis- the metamorphosis form that transforms a caterpillar into an adult butterfly.

Pupation – the process of changing from a caterpillar to a chrysalis. 

Sanitize – disinfect or the process of eliminating most pathogens

Spermatophore – a sack of sperm that the male inserts into the female while pairing.