Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Butterfly Hatchery

Yesterday the kids found 3 big monarch caterpillars on our milkweed, and since our old butterfly hatchery had disintegrated in the Florida heat and sun, it was time to make a new one.
The old one had been made of netting from the fabric store.  This time I had some extra screening leftover from rescreening a couple of ripped panels in our porch, so I put it to good use, in hopes that this one will last a little longer.

Want to make one?  Here's what you'll need:
  • 2 same-sized plastic plates (larger is better)
  • screen material, about 2 feet long and wide enough to encircle the plates with about 6" of overlap
  • enough screen material to cover one of the plates
  • 2 strips of scrap fabric, each about 5 inches wide, and long enough to go around your plates
  • ribbon

Start by drilling or punching 4 holes into your plate (we used frisbees from a restaurant that served their kids meals on them) and threading ribbon through it to hang it by.  Use your plate as a template to trace a piece of screening to cover the inside of the top plate with.  Chances are this is where the caterpillar will go to hang out and turn into a chrysalis, and the screen will to help the newly hatched butterfly hang on to the underside of the plate, which otherwise may be too smooth for it to cling onto while its wings harden.  Without it, you may have some fall casualties.

Hot glue the screen onto the plate.  You can easily do this by applying glue to the outside of the screen and just pressing it against the plate with the glue gun nozzle.  Any lumps of hot glue that cool before the screen is attached can be melted by holding the nozzle against it for a few seconds.  The finished edge will look something like this:

Next, cut your strips of fabric and screening.  The fabric needs to be about 5 inches wide, and long enough to encircle the plate.
Remember, you need to have your screen overlap by at least 6 inches to help prevent wandering caterpillars from escaping (or hungry lizards from getting in).  Wrap your cylinder of screening around the plate to check for size, then pin in place:

Sew a narrow casing on one long edge of each strip of fabric; this will become the drawstring ribbon closure.

Sew the other edge of the strip of fabric onto the tube of screening by placing it on the outside of the tube, right side down (towards the screen) and matching edges:

When you've done this to both edges, flip it up and thread your ribbon through the casing:

Slip your plates in and tighten the drawstrings:

A block of wood with a hole drilled in it is great for holding a vial of water with your sprig of caterpillar food in it. 

You can also use a covered yoghurt container with a small X cut into it to insert stems into.  Don't use an open cup of water - caterpillars can't swim.
Now go get your caterpillar, and feed it and watch it grow!  To add caterpillars and plants, just open along the overlap in the screen.  When your butterflies hatch from their chrysalides (a process called eclosion - hey, you learned a new word!), after their wings harden, release them by undoing the drawstring at the top and removing the top plate.

Unfortunately by the time I got the hatchery ready, 2 of the 3 caterpillars had disappeared.  So much for eating poisonous milkweed plants.  Here is the last one; in a couple of weeks we hope to have butterfly pics!

One last note; before you use this again for another set of caterpillars, clean it out, spray it with bleach, and rinse, to kill any bacteria that can infect caterpillars.

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