Discover This: Butterflies

Were you hoping to homeschool through the summer – only to find the lure of sun and fun too much? No worries, you can hatch a weeks-long summer experiment packed with all kinds of learning that’s cloaked in wonder and excitement – and not a whole lot of work for you.

Your kids already know some of the basic facts about the life cycle of the butterfly and how you should never touch their wings. Take their love for butterflies a step further by watching the life cycle in action.

Just remember, caterpillars are living creatures, just like your pet dog and tank full of fish. You wouldn’t skip feeding your puppy for 3 days, would you? Caterpillars need proper care and humane treatment, too.

Here’s some Do’s and Don’ts for raising caterpillars successfully inside your home.

Identifying Caterpillars


  • Do identify the caterpillar you’ve brought into your home.
    Use the Butterfly and Moth Regional Database to identify the living creature you are hoping to watch grow into a butterfly. This amazing resource will help you narrow down by geography and photographs, what caterpillar you found. This necessary information will allow you to properly feed the caterpillar so it can advance in its lifecycle.
  • Do create an appropriate terrarium environment for your caterpillars.
    If you are not using a butterfly hatching kit, you will need to make sure you place fresh leaves in your habitat tank daily; keep sticks in the tank so the caterpillars have someplace to spin their coccoon; and make sure the tank does not get too hot from direct sunlight.
  • Do clean the caterpillar poo in your tank daily.
    What can I say! Caterpillars are eating machines – and what goes in, must come out. A wet paper towels can easily do the trick to wipe out the bottom of your tank. And, if you must know, the technical term for what you’re cleaning is “frass”.
  • Do make sure your tank is big enough.
    Once your new butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it needs enough space to be able to spread its wings and flutter a bit. Even a giant size mayo jar will be too small.
  • Do release your butterfly within 24 hours of its emerging.
    After all that hard work of transforming into a beautiful butterfly, a creature has got to eat – and for a butterfly that means they’ll be looking for colorful flowers with some tasty nectar.
  • Do feed the butterflies.
    If you want to enjoy the beauty of butterflies after your release, give them a reason to stick around. Caterpillars are particular about the plants they eat for survival. Know what caterpillars you are raising and see if you can add the right type of plant to your garden.
  • Do keep a small wet spot or “puddle” somewhere in your garden.
    Butterflies drink muddy water for the essential minerals that are in the dirt.


  • Don’t take an already-spun chrysalis off a branch and bring it home.

    Cocoons and the metamorphizing larvae inside are very delicate. Handling an actual chrysalis may seriously harm or kill the butterfly-to-be. If you really need to bring a chrysalis home, gently cut the branch and be sure to remember which end is up, before you place it in your tank.
  • Don’t keep wilted leaves in your tank.
    Caterpillars get much-needed water from the fresh leaves that they eat. You can keep leaves fresh by sticking the cut end into a small jar of water. Cover the top of the jar with a plastic wrap kept in place with a rubber band. Poke a hole in the wrap so you can stick the branch into the water. This keeps the leaves fresh and the caterpillars from drowning.
  • Don’t touch or handle the caterpillars.
    Caterpillars are fragile creatures. Caterpillars are great climbers and they use their many legs to cling to branches. Trying to pull a caterpillar off of a stick may actually rip one of its legs off. If you must “pet” your caterpillars, be sure to wash your hands before and afterwards so you don’t pass on any bacteria.
  • Don’t worry if your caterpillar looks tired or turns a different color.
    If your caterpillar starts moving less and stops eating after it’s gotten big, chances are it’s getting ready to molt and spin its chrysalis. Pay attention because this is when the magic begins!
  • Don’t be disappointed if a butterfly never emerges.
    Some caterpillars never make it out of their cocoon. One reason may be because a fly or bee larva was living on your caterpillar without your knowing. If more than 4 weeks pass after the chrysalis forms and nothing emerges, you can carefully slice it open to examine what it looks like on the inside.
  • Don’t release your newly hatched butterfly too soon.
    When a butterfly first comes out of its cocoon, it’s wings are weak and wet. The baby butterfly must flex its wings to strengthen them. Putting a newly hatched butterfly outside to dry its wings and prepare for its first flight faster puts it at risk from attack by hungry birds. Trust me. Watching this part of the circle of life can be traumatic for a little one who has invested themselves in this project.
  • Don’t use insecticides in your garden.
    Butterflies are insects. Insecticides are designed to kill insects. See the problem?

Share Your Ideas
Have you ever raised caterpillars?
How did it work out for your family – and the butterflies?



Alessa Giampaolo Keener, M.Ed. homeschooled her children from kindergarten into college. Over the last 15+ years, she has also worked with families in creating individualized learning plans. As a professional curriculum developer, Alessa has created afterschool youth development programs for a Baltimore-based nonprofit, as well as teaching materials for homeschool parents and brick and mortar school teachers.