Video: How to Care for Painted Lady Butterflies
From our education partner, Carolina Biological Supply
1. Getting Started
• Always handle the cup of caterpillars gently.
• Remove the cup from its plastic bag. There should be 3 to 5 caterpillars in the cup, ¼ to 1 inch long.
At least 3 should become healthy butterflies.
• Do not remove the lid. The food on the bottom of the cup is all the caterpillars need.
• Allow caterpillars at least 24 hours to become active. They should start growing quickly within a few days.
• Stand the cup upright at all times; place it in a warm spot, out of direct sunlight.
• Caterpillars may suspend themselves in gray-white webbing. This is good!
Troubleshooting: If food has shifted from the bottom to the side of the cup (which may happen when caterpillars are delivered in hot weather), turn the cup on its side, food down, and wait 2 to 3 days to see if at least 3 caterpillars are alive. Call 800-698-4438 if you need a replacement.
2. Caterpillar to Chrysalis
• When caterpillars crawl to the top of the cup they are ready to pupate.
• Caterpillars will attach to the paper under the lid and hang from their tail ends.
• They will shed their final caterpillar exoskeleton and form a pupal exoskeleton: the chrysalis.
• Within 2 days after all the chrysalises form, remove the lid from the cup, lift the paper gently, and transfer it to the butterfly house. Tape, paper clip or pin the paper securely to an inside wall (chrysalises hanging down and facing in).
Troubleshooting: If a chrysalis detaches from the paper, roll it gently out of the cup onto a small piece of paper towel on the floor of its house. Position the chrysalis so that the emerging butterfly can easily crawl onto a wall of the butterfly house.
• Butterflies will emerge from chrysalises in approximately 7 to 10 days.
• It will take them an hour or two to dry off and stretch their wings.
• After wings harden, butterflies are ready to fly. Release them now or feed them.
• Nectar: 1 teaspoon sugar dissolved with ½ cup tepid water in a small cup. Roll a 5"x 7” piece of paper towel to make a wick long enough to hang over the edge of the cup.
• You may also feed with fresh fruit. Slices of orange or watermelon are best.
• Butterflies can live as long as a month or more indoors, but it’s best to release them within a week.
Troubleshooting: If a butterfly doesn’t emerge completely from its chrysalis, there is—sadly—nothing you can do to help. Carry the chrysalis outside and place it in a bush or other plant. The insect will die a natural death and will probably be eaten by another animal. Remember: caterpillars and butterflies are important parts of your local food web.
4. Release Outdoors
• Celebrate! Share healthy snacks during your afternoon recess and release butterflies as a special gift to the Earth. Outside temperature should be at least 55º.
• Open your butterfly house and allow a butterfly to crawl onto your hand (or a student’s).
• The butterfly will borrow heat from your body to warm itself up to 68º. It must be at least this warm to fly.
• If your butterfly is reluctant to fly away, help it by gently pushing it onto a bush or other plant.
• Repeat with remaining butterflies.
• Your butterflies may live all summer and well into the autumn.
Good Things to Know
• FRASS—the little balls that appear all over the cup—is caterpillar excrement.
• Caterpillars shed their EXOSKELETONS several times. You may see small black balls of exoskeleton in the cup or attached to the end of the chrysalis.
• WEB is sticky and dense. It helps caterpillars hang onto leaves in windy or wet weather and protects them from predators.
• The chrysalis may QUIVER or TREMBLE. This discourages predators.
• MECONIUM is the reddish fluid that butterflies expel when they emerge from their chrysalises. It’s a waste product left over from metamorphosis.
• If you have both males and females, females may lay EGGS before you release them. If eggs hatch, you might want to try feeding the caterpillars thistle, parsley, or hollyhock leaves.
Are painted lady butterflies a native species in my state?
Painted ladies are native almost everywhere, from Canada, Iceland and the United States to Europe, Asia and South Africa. Their worldwide distribution accounts for one of their common names, “Cosmopolitan Butterfly.”
Where can we find painted ladies in the wild?
Painted ladies prefer sunny, open habitat with lots of small flowering plants—fields, meadows, marshes, dunes, grassy parks and yards.
Do painted ladies migrate?
Painted ladies are one-way migrators. Every spring, they fly northward from warm regions near the equator. Most of the painted ladies we see in the United States have arrived from the deserts of southern Arizona and Mexico.
Where do they go in the fall?
After two or more generations, adult butterflies enter a hibernation phase and may survive the winter. For the most part, populations in temperate areas are drastically depleted in freezing weather and depend on spring migrations to restore their numbers. Occasionally, painted ladies survive winter temperatures in their chrysalises, suspended between caterpillar and butterfly.
What are those little balls in the bottom of my caterpillar cup?
Those are caterpillar excrement, called “frass.” Frass and webs are signs of healthy caterpillars.
Why do caterpillars spin webs?
A caterpillar’s web is its defense against many dangers. For example, despite the hooks on the bottoms of their prolegs, caterpillars can easily be blown off host plants, especially when they are molting. Their sticky webs hold painted lady caterpillars to the leaves they feed on. Also, caterpillars are vulnerable to many predators. Webs help protect them from animals that hunt them for food and from insect parasites looking for caterpillars to host their own larvae.
What is that black thing hanging on the bottom of the chrysalis? Is it the caterpillar’s head?
Nope, it’s the caterpillar’s last exoskeleton, crumpled into a ball and stuck to the chrysalis. Painted lady caterpillars molt—shed their exoskeletons—five times, the last time just before they pupate. Often the exoskeleton doesn’t fall completely away from the pupating caterpillar but gets stuck on the outside of the chrysalis as it hardens.
What happens in the chrysalis? How does the caterpillar get to be a butterfly?
Inside the pupal exoskeleton, the caterpillar’s organs liquefy in a process much like digestion. Some tiny cell clusters, called “imaginal buds,” remain intact. These growth centers contain the chromosomes that carry the butterfly’s genes. They have been inactive throughout the caterpillar’s life, protected deep inside its body. Now the caterpillar body excretes a hormone that signals them to start growing and form all of the butterfly’s body parts. As they develop, imaginal buds absorb nutrients contained in the liquefied caterpillar body. In a few days, the pupa becomes semi-transparent, and the colorful butterfly begins to appear faintly inside. A day or two later, the butterfly emerges.
Is that blood dripping from our emerging butterflies?
No, that bright pink fluid, called “meconium,” contains the last traces of the caterpillar’s liquefied body and some other wastes that have collected during metamorphosis. The butterfly expels meconium through its anal opening.
Are painted lady caterpillars environmental pests?
Painted ladies are “defoliators”: periodically large caterpillar populations infest plants of the thistle family and consume all of their leaves. Adult butterflies may lay their eggs on soybean, sunflower, canola, mint and other crops, but painted lady caterpillars thrive best on weeds. In most countries, painted ladies are not considered pests—in gardens or in fields.