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Care Guide Series 2:

Butterflies and Moths

Care Guide 2.1:

Tropical Butterfly Overview

Written by Mark Nelson and Harriet Nelson 

Introduction

Butterflies make up a tiny snippet of the order Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths). They are perhaps one of the more likable groups of insects known for their daytime activities and beautiful array of colours and patterns. With this guide we hope to help you understand how to properly care for tropical butterflies so you may successfully keep these wonderful but delicate creatures. 

How to care for tropical butterfly pupae

The reason we are starting with how to care for pupae is that all our tropical butterflies are supplied in the dormant pupae stage. This makes it possible for us to post them, as we are able to tell roughly how far away they are from hatching. So the first thing you will need to know is what to do with your butterfly pupae once you have received them. 

First of all you will need to have a pupae / emerging cage ready, so you can hang your butterfly pupae once they arrive. This provides all the correct conditions to give you the best chance of the butterflies hatching. It also gives the butterflies somewhere to emerge and dry their wings without being disturbed. All pupae are checked thoroughly by us before being shipped and we are trained to check them for parasites and diseases etc. However it is possible for a perfectly healthy looking pupae to develop health problems further down the line (for more information please see our pupae health checking guide). So the emerging cage can also act as a quarantine area to prevent the spread of any such disease or parasites.

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Setting up an emerging cage is fairly straightforward. Here is a picture of the emerging cage used at the Stratford-upon-Avon butterfly Farm. Here they deal with 1000's of pupae a week! So for the purposes of hatching just a few pupae we just need a miniature version of this.

Equipment required to make your own emerging cage

  • Plastic faunarium - size will depend on the number of pupae you need to house but it is important that it is in the tall faunarium range, not the flat. 

  • Several wooden dowels approximately 1cm in diameter cut to the same length as your faunarium.

  • 1 x piece of capillary matting cut to the size of the faunarium floor

  • 1 x heat mat suitable for the size of the faunarium (unless the room already has an ambient temp of 26⁰C)

  • A thermostat to regulate the temperature of the heat mat if you are using one. 

  • An accurate thermometer and hygrometer to measure the temperatures so you know your equipment is doing its job properly. 

Setting up pupae in the emerging cage

  • Set up the heat mat and thermostat (if you are using one) so that the heat mat is underneath the faunarium. 

  • Set your thermostat to 26⁰C

  • Cut a piece of capillary matting to size so that it fits the bottom of the faunarium. 

  • Soak the matting and then gently ring it out so that it is still damp, then place in the bottom of the faunarium

  • Cut down pieces of dowelling so that they will tightly wedge from one side of the faunarium to the other without falling down.

    • They also need to be suspended high enough in the faunarium that the butterflies wings can pump up without touching the floor.

  • Place the doweling on a flat surface

  • Place blobs of glue along the dowel so they are evenly spaced, around 1 inch apart.

    • We use Copydex glue but PVA or another non solvent glue will work fine

    • Do not use superglue or hot glue!

  • Place pupae along the dowel, one pupae per one blob of glue. Making sure to only glue the silken cremaster (See diagram below). 

  • Once all pupae are in place, you can then place one more blob of glue on top of each cremaster.

  • Leave to dry (This can take a few hours depending on the temperature) 

  • Once dry move the dowels to the faunarium so that the are hanging head down, by wedging the dowel from one side of the faunarium to the other.

  • Remember that the head of the pupae needs to be suspended 4-5 inches above the ground to allow the wings to hang and dry, without touching any other surfaces.

  • Place the faunarium over the heat mat (if using one) or in a room at 26⁰C

    • DO NOT PLACE THE PUPAE IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT! THEY WILL GET TOO HOT AND DRY OUT! 

  • Check daily spraying the matting once in the morning and again in the evening (without getting the pupae wet). This will also give you chance to health check the pupae and move any emerged butterflies to their enclosure.

    • See video below on how to safely move your butterflies without hurting them!

  • Most pupae will hatch within 7-14 days but this does vary a lot from one species to another, so if unsure contact us to ask!

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Pupae cage diagram.png

Disclaimer about failed pupae emergence and euthanasia

Emerging

Once metamorphosis is complete and the butterfly begins to emerge from its chrysalis, it will only take a few minutes from the moment it initially breaks open the chrysalis to it being fully emerged. At which point they will still have shrivelled up wings, which will then have to be 'pumped up' and dried before they are able to fly. This process can take 30 - 60 minutes. 

If a butterfly begins emerging but is struggling to emerge fully, and spends longer than 5-10 minutes breaking free of its chrysalis in the first instance. Then it is unlikely to emerge successfully which makes it impossible for it to live a normal and healthy life. When its wings do eventually set it is likely that they will not open up at all or only partly open. Causing them to dry in unnatural positions which make flight impossible. Although this isn't a very nice subject to talk about, it is important for anyone wanting to keep butterflies to understand. Not every single pupae will produce a healthy butterfly that is able to emerge successfully. Even if you provide all the correct conditions some butterflies may still not make it. 

There are many ways in which you can humanely euthanise a butterfly that has failed to emerge. We find the fastest and most effective way, which kills them instantly and does not prolong their suffering, is to crush their head and thorax between your thumb and index finger. 

 

Successful emerging rates vary hugely from one species to another. We cannot guarantee what percentage of the pupae we sell will emerge successfully. Especially as we are not in control of the rearing conditions. We will provide a rough guideline along with the species description on each species product page to show the percentage one should hope for, from that species. 

If you are finding that you are experiencing higher number of losses than you would expect then please contact us and we will do our very best to help you figure out the underlying problem. Usually though, failure to emerge / getting stuck in the chrysalis is caused by low humidity. 

How to safely move your butterflies from the emerging cage to their enclosure

Its important to remember the order in which butterflies belong, Lepidoptera. Which means scaled wings. This means that both butterflies and moths wings are made up of thousands and thousands of tiny microscopic scales. Every time the butterflies are handled it runs the risk of removing scales without which, the butterflies will be unable to fly. So moving them from the emerging cage to their enclosure is the one and only time we recommend handling the butterflies. It is possible to do it by other means but they run the risk of allowing the butterfly to escape. 

The method we use is to approach the butterfly, with your index and middle finger held apart, while the butterfly is sitting with its wings in the closed position. Place your index finger on one side of the wings and your middle finger on the opposing side. Then gently close your index and middle finger together which will then create a firm hold of the butterfly while preventing it from flapping and damaging its wings. The Butterfly can now be moved to its enclosure. Once there you can simply let go of the butterfly and it will fly away. 

Video of butterfly being moved from emerging cage to flight area

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Enclosure Requirements

  • Daytime temperature of 26⁰C

  • Night time temperature of no lower than 18⁰C

  • Humidity of 70-80% - When misting try not to spray the butterflied directly

  • As much natural sunlight as possible but make sure there are shaded areas so they aren't forced to sit in direct sunlight all the time. 

A number of enclosure types can be used, provided these conditions are still met. A basic set up can consist of a netted enclosure with leaf litter in the base to aid with the humidity. Many of our customers however have converted unused greenhouses / conservatories to allow them to house butterflies in larger numbers and variety. 

Feeding Butterflies

Tropical butterflies feed on fruit, nectar or pollen, or a combination of the three. For fruit feeding species simply slice some ripe fruit to expose the juicy centre and place face up on the floor of the enclosure. Replace every 3-4 days. For Nectar feeding butterflies you can provide a mixture of sugar water as a substitute. The solution should be 1 parts sugar to 9 parts water.  

When providing sugar water it should be offered to the butterflies in a shallow dish, with a small piece of sponge, cut to fit the dish. The sponge will soak up the sugar water and prevent the butterflies from getting stuck or drowning in the solution. Alternatively provide nectar plants such as asclepia which are beautiful, cheap and easy to cultivate. Others include clerodendrum, hibiscus, jasmine and more. Pollenating plants for those that feed on pollen include tithonia verbena, lantana, pentas, zinnia and more. 

Lifespans

The lifespan of butterflies varies an awful lot from one species to another. Nectar feeding butterflies tend to be the shortest lived usually lasting between 3 and 6 weeks. Fruit feeding butterflies usually live a little bit longer, between 4 and 8 weeks. Whereas pollen feeding butterflies like the longwings will live much longer. There have been records of longwings living up to 8 months! Though the average is more like 3 to 4 months.

 

We are unable to guarantee the lifespan of the butterflies. They are short lived creatures and their lifespans will be affected by a number of factors including whether all the correct conditions have been provided. So, although we include adult life spans in the information section of each species product page, this is a guideline only.

Breeding Tropical Butterflies

In order to breed tropical butterflies you must have a good understanding of the species you are dealing with. Each species has a particular plant that its caterpillars will eat, known as the host plant. Some species will accept more than one plant but most are so fussy that they will simply starve if the correct host plant is not available. 

So once you have established a good supply of the correct host plant you can begin your breeding project. Caterpillars eat a lot so you will need several plants to see the caterpillars all the way through to pupation. Although it is possible to tell the sex of some butterfly species by examining their pupae under a microscope, this is a very time consuming process and so we do not guarantee the sex of butterfly pupae. If you start with 5 - 10 pupae there is a good chance that you will hatch at least one male and one female. Once they have emerged and have been introduced in their enclosure, leave them to fly and feed for a few days. you may not actually see them mating but make sure the host plant is in the enclosure. Then once they have mated the females can begin laying eggs on the plants. You can either leave the plants in the enclosure or remove them to restrict the number of eggs the females lay on one plant. If removed they must be housed in the same conditions as you keep the adults. once the caterpillars hatch they will begin to feed on the plant. When the plant has only a few leaves remaining, we introduce a new plant next to the eaten one and the caterpillars will move over to it once they run out of food. This saves you from having to handle the very delicate caterpillars. When the caterpillars reach their final instar they will fatten up and eventually stop eating. At this point they will find somewhere suitable to pupate and the whole cycle will begin all over again. 

The time taken for the eggs to hatch and caterpillars to grow will vary from one species to another. This is just a general guide to give you an idea of the work involved in breeding butterflies. 

Thank you for reading! If you have any questions please feel free to send us a message via our contact us page!

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