How to breed admiral butterflies

Our admiral butterflies have had a hard-time of late.  In an ongoing operation to eliminate any plant that is prickly, or stingy we’ve pretty much obliterated their youngin’s only food source: nettles.

Red admiral, Photo: Rod Morris

Red admiral, Photo: Rod Morris

Slowly, over the years, our admiral’s nettle-filled grazing ground has been replaced with a vista of grass, roses, palms, and all variety of unedible plants.

However, you can return these winged-wonders to our skies. Here’s how -

1. Firstly, read up on our butterflies and get to know how they live and what they do. Eliminate as many paper wasp nests as you can. More southern climes are thankfully not so afflicted by these particular beasts but remember, there is whole suite of nasties that eat and parasitise our admirals from egg through to chrysalis.

2. Join the Monarch Butterfly Trust so you can ask questions and share information. Egg and caterpillar stock are generously shared.

3. Get some nettle and grow it outside. Native nettle is ironically harder to grow in the back-yard. Euro nettle is vigorous and easy to transplant if you take some earth & roots with it. It can be found on semi shaded rich pasture edges, but it is officially a weed so wear a balaclava.

4. Build yourself a protected cage. A box of any sort will do as long as the caterpillars can't get out and nasties can't get in. Airflow and some sunlight are important so a fine insect mesh should be used on at least 2 sides, preferably 3. The bigger the box, the more caterpillars it will accommodate. I keep about a dozen or more caterpillars in a 60cm x 40cm x 40cm wooden affair and top it up as they pupate.

5. Either put growing potted nettle in the cage or cut branches and put them in water just like you would with a bunch of flowers. They stay fresh for days. Add caterpillars.

6. Keep their food supply abundant and clean out their poos regularly. They should crawl up to the roof of your box when they're ready and hang like a J and then turn into a chrysalis. All going well they will hatch in a couple of weeks. Don’t despair of a few failures. Some can get stuck trying to emerge and they’re gonners if they can’t fly well.

7. Release the butterflies when hatched and flapping about. You might want to tempt them with a little fruit juice to set them off fuelled up. Keep an eye out for eggs and little caterpillars on your outdoor nettles. They make little tents out of the leaves and like to chew from the inside. You will probably spot their little black dot poos first. Return to point 5.