Chrysalides: The Good and the Bad

I often get many questions and people email me photos of their chrysalides that they are not sure about. I thought I would share my knowledge and experience with chrysalides with everyone.  These chrysalides below are all healthy, you will notice the wings of the monarch a couple of days before emergence begins. It just so happens I must take most of my photos after the rain has stopped, this is not the chrysalis sweating!

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The rule of thumb is that it shouldn’t be black for more than 3 days, its likely the monarch inside the chrysalis has a bacteria or disease, or a predator has laid its eggs inside and killed the chrysalis.  If the chrysalis has been very dark for at least five days and you cannot see the orange wings through the transparent casing, the monarch butterfly inside is dead and it will then dry up. Dispose of your bad chrysalis to avoid disease spreading. 

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When the time comes to pupate, the caterpillars will find a sheltered, safe spot in which to  transform into an adult and form their chrysalis (hard green case) which will protect them through this process. If your caterpillars are outside, they will usually hang from the roof of the cage or branch and turn into a chrysalis. They should be left in this position until the monarch emerges. Make sure your chrysalis is out of direct sunlight. The word ‘chrysalis’ comes from the Greek word for gold, and you can see an amazing line of gold dots around the top once the chrysalis is fully formed. This is the start of the process of metamorphosis. Chrysalises cannot fly, bite, sting or run away if discovered by a predator, they are completely helpless.  One of the main reasons the chrysalis is green is to blend in with the surrounding environment.

What is the difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon?

This question will come up a lot and people do get confused until they read about it.  The chrysalis is a butterfly pupa, which is a hard case which appears after the caterpillar’s final shedding of its skin. It attaches to a leaf via a silk pad spun by the caterpillar.  A cocoon is just a constructed silk casing used by moths and certain other types of insects. We have all read “the hungry caterpillar “ book it states a cocoon not a chrysalis which is wrong but that caterpillar also eats ice cream and strawberry. It’s not a guide book just a story.

Taking care of your chrysalises

Your chrysalis doesn’t need food or water. If your swan plants are inside then an occasional misting of the swan plant will help keep the environment humid, which is necessary for a healthy chrysalis.  Caterpillars will stop eating and start crawling away from their host plant trying to find the safest place to form a chrysalis, mainly hiding under other plants in the garden. They like part shade as the chrysalis sometimes burns and drys up in the sun’s rays in peak summer.  I still get blown away by the way gold dots appear around the top of a healthy chrysalis. I have found caterpillars half way down my driveway, many metres away from their original home, that I have had to rescue and put safely on a suitable plant before someone steps on them.

In summer, metamorphosis from caterpillar to monarch butterfly (ie the chrysalis stage), takes up to two weeks. Late forming monarch butterflies will stay in their chrysalis throughout winter but I have experienced monarchs emerging from this state after 10-12 weeks as healthy adult butterflies. Remember that your diapausing chrysalises are still alive.  If the chrysalis has fallen off a stick, you can hang it by placing a dot of hot glue on a piece of paper and then placing the tip of the chrysalis in the slightly cooled (but still liquid) hot glue. Hold the chrysalis on the paper for a few seconds to allow the glue to harden.  I have also tied cotton around the cremaster which is the black hook that hangs to their silk matt and then hung this up somewhere safe with cellotape.

A chrysalis will become darker and then look transparent a couple of days before the monarch butterfly is ready to hatch. Keep a careful watch, as it only takes a few minutes for a monarch to emerge from of its chrysalis! In some cases, it can take up to 45 minutes, but these monarchs are likely to have irregularities or diseases and will be weak. 

3 Comments on “Chrysalides: The Good and the Bad

  1. thank you.Having trouble starting milkweed in Sacramento. Do Monarchs come this far east?

  2. Hi I have a question I just started to plant milkweed in Torrance California and I found one monarch caterpillar and it did make a pupa but it is black at the top and I noticed a small hole in the top and I am worried a little critter got in there and ate the poor thing.I go out every day to see if the crysalis is getting darker all the way down but do you think it has been eaten.? Is it normal to have a hole in the top right? Thanks Cindy

    • Hello Cindy, lovely to hear from you. Sounds like another insect or bug has made the hole, its nature Im afraid over here in New Zealand wasps like to suck the inside of the chrysalis. If this happens a lot bring the chrysalis inside until the monarch emerges, just pull gently on the silk around the top of the black hook (cremester).

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