Monarch Chrysalis Problems, Surprising Solutions, and Normal Development
This should be the simplest part of raising monarchs, but sometimes unexpected issues can arise as the caterpillar enters the 3rd stage of monarch metamorphosis. Chrysalis Problems + Surprising Solutions to Save More Monarchs...
Once your caterpillars complete their 2000% growth spurt from day 1 hatchling to 5th instar caterpillar, it’s time for the 3rd stage of the monarch butterfly life cycle...the chrysalis or pupa stage.
When ready to form a chrysalis, they’ll start by spinning a silk hanging pad…hopefully on top of the mesh cage like these two:
So how can you tell when the big moment is about to happen for your monarch larva? Look for these telltale signs:The caterpillar skin splits revealing a vibrant green chrysalis underneath:
At the end of this transformation the old skin should fall to the floor, but sometimes it stays bunched up on top of the chrysalis...this will not be an issue for the emerging butterfly (2 weeks later) so you can leave it.
This should be the simplest part of raising monarchs, but unexpected issues can arise. The good news is, some of these issues have monarch-saving solutions you can implement…
Here’s how the process works with our suggested raising set up…
Mesh Pop-up Cages
- They are quite cooperative with forming their chrysalides directly on the mesh roof of the cage
- The side-opening door makes it easy for you to clean your cage and access other monarch caterpillars without bothering the chrysalides
You will find that the caterpillars like to congregate in corners when making chrysalises…sometimes, ominously close to one another. I have tried moving them to a different corner of the cage before they form their silk pupation pad, but many times they crawl right back. Perhaps, this behavior is a ‘safety in numbers’ instinct…
You don’t have to move chrysalises unless they’re touching and there’s a chance the two butterflies could emerge on the same day.
Cuttings or Plants
Unfortunately, sometimes we make plans…and caterpillars laugh! Some caterpillars will pupate underneath plant leaves. This is fine if there aren’t other caterpillars in your cage or if you can move the ‘J’ing caterpillars container to an isolated corner of the cage.
However, if other caterpillars are still eating the milkweed your poor caterpillar/chrysalis could soon come crashing to the cage floor.
To avoid this tragedy, move the floral tube cutting with the hanging caterpillar to its own floral tube rack and move it to the other side of the cage, away from munching mouths.
If that’s not possible, cut off a small leaf piece with the chrysalis attached, and tape/pin it up on your caterpillar cage roof or underneath a cupboard:
Advanced Raising Technique- Moving Chrysalides
You can also remove chrysalises and rehang them:
Moving chrysalises isn’t difficult, but it definitely takes practice. Over the past few seasons I have been introduced to some new ideas for accomplishing this nerve-wracking task with minimal risk to the monarch chrysalis and future butterfly.
Chrysalis rehanging is optional when raising monarch butterflies, but I do it for a few reasons:
1) Prevents overcrowding and chrysalis tampering from other caterpillars 2) Prevents hatching butterflies from spreading potential disease to feeding caterpillars below 3) Caterpillar pupates in inconvenient place (i.e. side of cage, plant pot) 4) to enjoy watching monarchs eclose from a convenient location…a fascinating experience!
In this instance, the cuttings container was on the cage floor and the caterpillar was almost touching. The emerging butterfly would not have had room (4″+) to dry its wings properly.
You could either place the container on an object (I used the bottom of a flat bowl) to increase the hanging height, or try this…
Option 1- Steps for Removing & Rehanging a Chrysalis
- Let chrysalides dry at least 48 hoursbefore transferring
- Carefully turn the cage, cage lid, cutting container lid, old style floral tube rack, or old style raised-edge poo poo platter upside down so the chrysalis is laying on the floor and can’t be accidentally dropped
- If removing the chrysalis from a hard surface like the rack or platter, spray the silk above the cremaster with water to make the next step easier…
- Use a needle-nose tweezers, pin, or a toothpick to gently loosen the silk attached to the top of the cage
- Pull up the silk/chrysalis together and set down in a safe place (e.g., a towel on a table)
- Leave a bit of silk (as shown below) and press it to the ceiling of the mesh cage
- Put the pin through the top of the cage and into the silk and back out through the mesh
Tip 1: Problems pulling up the silk? Spray the silk button and silk around the chrysalis with water. This makes it easier to pull up the silk.
Tip 2: Nervous about falling chrysalides? Place a towel on the cage floor to give it a soft landing…just in case.
Option 2- Steps for Removing and Rehanging a Chrysalis
- Carefully turn cage or cage lid upside down so the chrysalis is laying on the ground and can’t be accidentally dropped
- Use a needle-nose tweezers, needle, or a toothpick to loosen the thread attached to the top of the cage
- Pull up the silk/chrysalis together and set down in a safe place (eg: a towel on a table)
- Tie waxed dental floss around the silk above the cremaster (black part above chrysalis) OR
- Stick at least half of the white silk above the chrysalis on to a piece of scotch tape
- rehang the chrysalis- I usually tape ours under a kitchen cupboard with a soft towel underneath…just in case! OR
- Tape silk to the roof of your mesh cage- tape on the inside and outside of cage and press sticky sides together. If you’re raising in our tall baby or monarch tower cages, retape to the top mesh with the cage laying down in horizontal position to decrease drop height if it falls.
Hanging By A Thread
I’ve had caterpillars hanging by a single strand of silk. I thought for sure the strand would break and they would fall. Miraculously, one strand did the trick…it it a testament to how incredibly strong their spun silk is.
If a caterpillar or chrysalis is hanging by a thread, simply place a towel beneath it, so it has a soft place to fall…just in case!
Or, cut the thread and try this…
What If There Is a Problem Before The Chrysalis Is Formed?
I recently discovered this was possible and thought it might be being useful to somebody:
Amazingly, a caterpillar can pupate lying on it side!
If a soft chrysalis is left on the ground to harden, the side touching the ground can flatten slightly from the pressure, but the butterfly should still develop normally. I would still rehang the hardened chrysalis with dental floss (explained below underhard chrysalis down)
Soft Chrysalis Chrysalis Down!
If the chrysalis falls while it’s soft and still forming:
- If it’s oozing lots of green liquid after the fall and deflates, it’s probably not going to survive
- If it didn’t fall far, and it’s not oozing (too badly) rehang the chrysalis so it can finish forming properly and so the butterfly can eclose (hatch) and dry its wings normally
- Tape chrysalis by the white silk above its cremaster (black part above the chrysalis) to an overhang or another surface where tape will remain secure OR
- Try to get the wiggling black cremasterof the soft forming chrysalis to attach to a cotton swab or cotton ball and rehang that OR
- Guide the chrysalis on to a paper towel and let it finish forming at ground level
Hard Chrysalis Down!
If the chrysalis is already fully formed and hardened you have more options:
- Tie waxed dental floss around cremaster (black part above chrysalis) and tie it to a hook securely so it can hang down OR
- Put chrysalis on the bottom of a styrofoam cooler (which the butterfly can climb up) and put pantyhose over the cooler as a lid it can hang from OR
- Put chrysalis on the cage floor of your mesh cage near a side mesh wall and tape the silk above the cremaster to the floor to keep it in place. When it ecloses (hatches), a healthy butterfly should be able to climb the side of the mesh and hang itself to dry:
No chrysalis silk to tape to the paper towel? 😱 Use a clean microfiber cloth (no chemicals) instead and hook the cremaster (black stem) to it. The microfiber cloth can be hung up or laid on the cage floor by a mesh wall:
My Chrysalis Looks Funny
Sometimes chrysalis diseases, parasites, and pesticide exposure symptoms rear their ugly heads during this phase. If you believe your chrysalis might be compromised, check out the following links for more info about potential monarch chrysalis problems:
If your chrysalis has been completely dark for 48 hours or is visibly diseased, it’s best to euthanize the chrysalis. Some people have a hard time euthanizing monarchs, but if you release visibly diseased butterflies on to your garden plants, you are spreading disease to future monarchs.
Euthanize by placing the chrysalis inside a paper towel and squeezing inside a lined trash can or put it inside a plastic baggie and place inside the freezer for 48 hours before discarding.
If you’re unsure about chrysalis health, my best advice would be to separate the chrysalis from the others and watch it closely to see what happens. The chrysalis below was from a past Raise the Migration. It had two symmetrical black lines that looked worrisome.
The caterpillar pupated while a few others were crawling around the cage roof…could another caterpillar have done this? I wasn’t sure so I moved the chrysalis and waited for nature to take its course…
10 days later, this questionable chrysalis unveiled a healthy monarch butterfly. Yes, sometimes disease/injury concerns have happy endings! 🤗
People are sometimes horrified to find that chrysalises have been eaten by their cage mates. In 40 years, this is also something I have never encountered raising caterpillars. I have a theory to why this might be happening to some…
If you’re raising with waterless leaf or stem cuttings, they dry out quickly and the caterpillars will wander away to find fresh milkweed. Their milkweed quest will often take them to the top of the cage where they won’t find milkweed leaves, but milkweed chrysalis cookies instead…
Again, that’s just my theory…but, if you have issues with this, consider switching to stem cuttings or potted plants to see if fresher milkweed stops this disturbing behavior. 😱
SAFE reasons for a caterpillar to be on the cage roof:
- large caterpillar ready to form a chrysalis
- small caterpillar ready to form a chrysalis- monarchs (just like people) can come in smaller sizes. Undersized caterpillars are less common with the super-sized migration generation.
DANGEROUS reasons for a caterpillar to be on the roof and the catalysts for chrysalis munching:
- No milkweed in the cage
- Dried up milkweed in the cage
- Overcrowded cage
FUNNY reason for a caterpillar to be on the roof:
I’ve seen this behavior enough to know that others have seen it too. When there’s a group of caterpillars in the cage, the last caterpillar that crawls up sometimes isn’t ready to pupate, but rather, it doesn’t want to be left behind…perhaps that safety in numbers instinct again?
This just happened recently, so I gently peeled the bothersome, undersized caterpillar off the cage roof and back on to fresh milkweed, where the caterpillar feasted for another full day. 24 hours later, it was back on the roof finally prepared to enter the next stage of the monarch life cycle.
So, are you scared yet? Don’t be. These situations rarely happen in my experience, but I want you to be prepared if a pupation problem arises. Many of you will get through this part of the life cycle without any monarch chrysalis problems and, if lady luck is on your side, you may even witness this miraculous moment in monarch metamorphosis!
For more info on chrysalis problems and raising healthy monarchs through the butterfly life cycle, or ✬✬✬✬✬ rated How To Raise More Monarchs, with Less Effort book is available for purchase HERE <<< (choose paperback or PDF download)