How to Raise Painted Lady Butterflies

Do you want to witness a miracle? You’ll be surprised how easy & educational it can be to raise a butterfly. Since I love nature’s magic I wanted to share this experience with my bug-loving grandson! Let’s explore how to raise Painted Lady Butterflies and why one will have to take the bus…

What is a Painted Lady Butterfly?

The painted lady (scientific name: Vanessa cardui ‘Butterfly of Thistle’) is the most widespread & common of all butterflies in the world. It is found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Central America. The other great thing is that there are many who supply enthusiasts as well as classrooms with the larvae. I got mine from a local breeder who assured me the process was pretty foolproof. It came with all I would need and take about 3 weeks and simple instructions. Kits are available by mail in their caterpillar cups.

First Day – Tiny Caterpillars

This kit comes with 2 tiny caterpillars; (also called larvae) in their container complete with a supply of food. It would sustain them with all they needed since I would not have to hunt down any plant material.

This little creatures would eat and eat, doubling in size each day! The pellets that I thought were food are actually not; they are their waste product; ‘poop’.

The caterpillars are said to shed their exoskeletons 5X in the entire process but I did not see evidence of them. It makes for a very interesting process to watch and discuss with my grandson.

Day 7 – The start of the Chrysalis:

After they have grown quite a bit they start to form some protective silk around them and attach themselves to the top of the container lid. They hand upside-down in the signature ‘J’ shape.

Quite remarkably they create a chrysalis also called a pupa. Much squirming was happening as the new outer shell just seemed to magically appear and work itself upward. I have read that they shed the outer layer but could not observe and discharge.

Setting into the next habitat:

Once both of the Painted Lady caterpillars made the transformation of turning into a Chrysalis they need to be moved into a larger habitat where they will be able to manage the next stage of the life cycle. Moths on the other hand make a cocoon rather than a chrysalis.

The kit comes with a collapsable screened container that will be great for other bug observations. It is suggested that the paper used in the lid which now has the chrysalis’s attached be pinned to the top with supplied safety pins.

As I decided that I wanted a glass ‘house’ as a butterfly habitat for better observation I had a sad mishap! Yikes, due to the moving of the paper (I think it was parchment paper) the Chrysalis fell off… I was very sad but as I am determined I knew it had to be hanging from something to be viable. I used some thread and carefully attached the top end and tied it to a branch. It worked great.

Do not touch these creatures if at all possible since oils and salt from out hands can damage their sensitive parts.

Day 18 – The Chrysalis starts to change:

As it becomes ready to molt the wing patterns become more visible through the skin of the chrysalis. During this process the caterpillar goes through a histolysis where he/she liquifies and reforms as a butterfly. How magical is that?! This is called a metamorphosis.

Day 19 – Welcome Butterflies:

I was determined to watch as the butterflies would emerge from their pupa… but a few minutes away and I missed them both. I think it a very quick exit. They do need to hnag and uncurl their wings to have them harden flat.

When I was counting legs I realized that this specie has 4 major legs and the 2 front ones are small and wrapped around the neck like scarf so often not visible. ‘Whew, I was shocked but thankful it wasn’t a mutation.

Here you can see the long proboscis; the curly tubular mouth tongue that they use to feed and suck with.

Nature’s Magic to Behold:

Once the butterfly decided to open it’s wingspan I was flabbergasted at how amazing the designs are! Such amazing symmetry and soft fur-like accents. I will definitely need to incorporate this into some art! I had fun making a fibre moth but this fellow is much better!

The only sad part is that the companion butterfly after emerging had a mishap of falling to the bottom of the cage . I think the paper did not allow a good enough grip. Since he did not hang his wings would not harden flat. I did try to coax him to hang but to no avail.

At first I thought that the red liquid/fluid was some sort of injury; a blood, but it is part of the process as the abdomen releases the leftover colouring meconium. Since I did not want to upset my grandson I did suggest this butterfly would just need to take the bus as he could not fly… 😉 Sadly he may become a meal for predators like my robins who are raising some young as well.

I was happy to realize that perhaps my tieing of chrysalis ensured that the butterfly could grip the branch.

Before releasing my butterflies I did provide food. A feeder solution of sugar water (boiled cup of water 1/4cup sugar) soaked into a sponge can be offered. Cut/slices fruit like apples, bananas, watermelon and oranges are another option. Hollyhock, mallow and thistle plants are also their favourite.

I let my grandson enjoy releasing the butterflies (see it in the video). After releasing our butterflies I see one come back every evening to my backyard! I bet they are out finding a mate but come by for a visit! Soon the natural instinct & egg laying will start the butterfly metamorphosis cycle all over again! I will always look at these differently when I see them now.

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  1. how amazing and brilliant for children to take part in. I wonder if i can get similar in the uk?

    1. Perhaps there is! If not, you can find examples of the stages if you plan to look carefully and educate through observation as well. We sometimes just need to slow down and look… much is available for us to recognize.

  2. Hi Barb, while captive rearing of butterflies can have some learning opportunities there are many negative aspects to doing so. Much research has been done on the harms of rearing Monarch butterflies, many of these issues would be the same for Painted Ladies. Besides the harm to the butterfly, it makes me wonder what lesson the children take away? That we can simply buy butterflies, raise them in a cage and all is good? We all need to be concerned about the loss of species and biodiversity. A better approach would be to educate on the need for host plants for specific species of butterflies and bees to name but two. Painted Ladies have many host plants they can feed and lay eggs on where a monarch has one, milkweed. Without host plants they can’t complete their lifecycle. By ensuring you have the required host plants growing in your garden and hopefully gardens surrounding you, that released butterfly will have a chance of completing its lifecycle and laying eggs for future generations to come. No host plants, no butterflies.

    1. You’re absolutely right! Understanding and protecting biodiversity is crucial for the health of our planet. While raising butterflies at home can be a fun and educational experience, it’s just a small piece of the puzzle. Sometimes this will spark an interest that will carry forward…

      • Healthy Ecosystems: A diverse range of plants and animals creates a balanced ecosystem that supports all life forms.
      • Natural Food Chain: Butterflies play a vital role in the food chain, pollinating plants and serving as food for other animals. Disrupting their natural habitat can have a ripple effect.
      • Wild Butterfly Struggles: Captive-bred butterflies might not have the same survival skills or disease resistance as those raised in the wild.
      Here are some ways to make a bigger impact for butterflies:

      • Support Habitat Conservation: Look for organizations working to preserve natural areas that support butterfly populations.
      • Plant a Pollinator Garden: Create a haven for butterflies by planting native flowers that provide them with food and shelter.
      • Reduce Pesticide Use: Pesticides can harm butterflies and other pollinators. Opt for natural pest control methods whenever possible.
      By understanding biodiversity and taking steps to protect it, we can ensure that future generations can continue to witness the wonder of wild butterflies flitting through healthy ecosystems.

    1. That will depend on your location. I like the idea of being able to pick up so you may check here to see if they will be in your area at all. There are others if you search online. I believe that Monarch’s are illegal to be used. In the Niagara area there is also a butterfly conservatory that would have info…

  3. Great post – I had no idea something like this was available. Hope to get a kit or two for my grand nephews!

  4. Isn’t the MIRACLE of life AMAZING!!! Thank you for peaking your grandson’s interest in the miracle, and vulnerability of nature! As another poster mentioned, I bought native Milkweed host plants—native to my area-and planted them in large pots (they can be invasive to a TINY urban garden). My take-away: IF YOU PLANT IT, THEY WILL COME! Though I don’t have Painted Lady eggs, I have had many years of joy watching wild Monarchs fly in and lay their eggs on the milkweed each year! Then we collect the leaves that hold the eggs, let them hatch, feed the caterpillars (or ‘cats’) fresh Milkweed, protect them from endless predators, and release them as butterflies to make the long trek to Mexico (if they are the 4th generation)! My grandkids, my adopted grandkids, and all my neighborhood kids have learned endless life lessons when learning about the life cycle of butterflies, AND the connections to the larger world around them! If it is something you wish to continue, there are many resources to help you know what to do—and to become a community scientist to count and record butterfly numbers for research! It’s a whole new world I didn’t know existed until I retired. It is essential that we peak our children’s interest in nature and the world around them—they are the key to healing the world! **Sorry this message is so long–it’s just one of my passions!

    1. Such a great story! I am aware of the milkweed as I am close to the lakeshore where they are very abundant. My property would not support the milkweed but it’s close by in the parksland. My dear friend does help the Monarch each year. Now that I’m aware I can also get more involved.

  5. Hello Barb,
    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful experience! How fortunate your grandson is to have such an opportunity to learn with his grandmother. You are an inspiration! I learned so much. My brother-in-law is a high-risk pregnancy obstetrician, each year he cares for and releases numerous monarchs as a hobby. What you have shown has brought me closer to understanding his annual obsession!

    1. I’m so glad! I’m going to keep an eye out now that I know what is involved… Thankfully the lakeshore near me has much Milkweed so I am hopeful to find Monarch eggs!