What Does a Monarch Caterpillar and Chrysalis Look Like?

Updated: Dec. 22, 2023

A monarch caterpillar isn't hard to find if you know what to look for! Here's how to spot a caterpillar and chrysalis in your garden.

Bnbbyc17 Diane Baillargeon 1Courtesy Diane Baillargeon
Monarch caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly

If you love butterflies, chances are good you’ve wondered how to spot a monarch caterpillar. If so, you’re in luck! Monarch caterpillars aren’t difficult to find in your garden if you know what you’re looking for. Here’s what they look like and how to identify them.

Discover 11 fascinating monarch butterfly facts.

What Does a Monarch Caterpillar Look Like?

A monarch caterpillar crawls across a milkweed leaf.Courtesy Jenny Miner
A monarch caterpillar crawls across a milkweed leaf.

Covered in yellow, black, and white stripes, a monarch butterfly caterpillar is instantly recognizable. Look for two sets of black filaments as well, with one on either end of the caterpillar. There are several monarch caterpillar stages in their life cycle, and they molt several times, growing larger with each.

Here are the monarch butterfly parasites and predators you should watch for.

253637225 1 Cassandra Lowery Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Cassandra Lowery
Hungry monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed plant

When they first emerge from an egg, they’re only a few millimeters in length. In their final growth stage, they measure about three inches long. Learn more about their growth and physical changes from Monarch Joint Venture.

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What Do Monarch Caterpillars Eat?

This answer is short and sweet. Monarch butterfly larvae only eat milkweed plants. This is the only host plant for monarchs, though there are dozens of varieties you can choose from. Try common milkweed, swamp milkweed, showy milkweed, tropical milkweed or butterfly weed, among others. Contact your local garden center or a native plant expert to select the best types of milkweed for your growing zone and region.

Adult butterflies need nectar plants. Discover the best monarch butterfly flowers you should grow.

Where Can You Find a Monarch Caterpillar?

 monarch caterpillarCourtesy Carla Dotts
Caterpillar alongside an adult butterfly

It’s not hard to find one, because they tend to hang out in one place—on milkweed plants. To tell whether you have caterpillars in your butterfly garden, check your milkweed for signs of being munched on. If you have monarch caterpillars, you’ll likely spot holes in the leaves. And if you’re looking for monarch eggs, check the undersides of the leaves, since that’s where the female butterfly usually lays them. You also might also find the eggs or caterpillars on milkweed stems or flowers.

Thinking of raising monarch butterflies? Here’s what you need to know.

How to Attract Monarch Caterpillars

“I have planted milkweed for the past three to four years, but I have never had any monarch caterpillars. I do not use pesticides, and most of the plants border a horse pasture. Have I planted the wrong type or is something else wrong?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Lynn Hammond.

Gardening expert Melinda Myers writes, “Try growing several varieties of milkweed and other native nectar plants to increase the food and habitat for migrating monarchs. Include a variety of plants with different bloom times, flower colors and shapes to increase the butterfly, bee and hummingbird appeal. Add a shallow water source, flat warming stone and damp puddle for butterflies to lap up moisture and minerals. To create a damp puddle, fill a shallow container with sand. Sprinkle on a bit of sea salt or wood ash, and watch for the butterflies and bees to gather.”

Psst—Where do caterpillars come from?

Larva or Caterpillar

Larva is the juvenile form of all insects that undergo a metamorphosis. Only butterflies, like monarchs, and moths are called caterpillars during their larval stage.

What Does a Monarch Chrysalis Look Like?

252160546 1 Cindy Courtney Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Cindy Courtney
The chrysalis looks green while the butterfly is developing

You might have more trouble spotting a monarch chrysalis in the wild, since they blend in well. The smooth, green shell with gold accents is almost indistinguishable from milkweed leaves. You might find one hanging from a branch or on the underside of a leaf. Sometimes, though, you’ll find a chrysalis in an unusual spot, like on the side of your house!

Discover 3 butterflies that look like monarchs.

Bnbbyc16 Rachael Nicholson 001Courtesy Rachael Nicholson
A monarch chrysalis turns transparent before the butterfly emerges

The caterpillar becomes a butterfly while the monarch is in the chrysalis. At that time, it grows its lovely orange wings and the muscles it needs to flap them. Other changes occur, too. When the monarch is ready to emerge, the chrysalis becomes transparent. After a few hours of drying its wings, the butterfly soars away into the world to begin its incredible migration journey.

Did you know—monarch butterflies are listed as endangered. Learn how you can to help them.