rearing red admiral butterflies

Laurel Godley godley at
Thu Sep 7 12:59:04 EDT 2000


I have successfully reared red admirals during the winter here in the San 
Francisco area of California.  We at times have quite mild winters being 
near the ocean but at times our temperatures get frosty too.

I'm not familiar with the species you mention here, so do not know exactly 
how similar their behavior would be to the red admiral.  Here's what worked 
for me though.  I'm a hobbyist, so this will not sound exactly scientific 
but please feel free to ask questions.

I started my culture in the February of 1998.  It was a bumper year for us 
here, is it was a very wet and warm winter.  I gathered a large batch of 
caterpillars from the nettle growing in the lagoons.  I work for a 
wastewater treatment plant and the stuff had volunteered it's self along the 
edge of the sludge ponds.  Nutrient soil, I guess.  This is the Urtica eunes 
(sp?) I believe which is a non-native annual variety with a gentle bite.  
Our native type is a perennial called Urtica holoseria and this stuff hurts! 
  I have found though, that the red admirals seem to prefer the annual over 
the perennial, which is more likely to host satyr anglewings.

At any rate, I was quite successful at continuing to line throughout the 
spring and summer.  When winter came, I simple moved them into my apartment 
bathroom.  By using the overhead heat lamp, and keeping the door closed I 
was able to provide them with a nice warm, well lit environment.  They would 
have received perhaps 14-15 hours of light per day, given that I would turn 
the light on in the morning when I woke and would turn it off at night while 

The nettle itself will grow quite well here in the winter and can be induced 
to survive during our hot summers by providing shade and daily watering.  As 
Ms. Daniels suggested, they will eat another non-stinging plant called 
pellitory (which she gave me my first one, thanks again!)  I personally have 
found that they don't generally like to lay on it in captivity and the 
smaller caterpillars don't like the cut leaves so much.  What I do is use a 
potted nettle for egg laying, feed the first two instars on nettle and then 
switch the later instars to pellitory.

As far as the actual mating process went, I didn't bother them.  For me, 
they were quite happy to cooperate all by their selves.  What may have 
contributed to this is the density.  I was using small homemade hanging 
cages at the time.  These were constructed of 9-10" hoops and bridal 
tulling.  I would estimate that I generally kept around 35+ adult in a cage 
at the time.  I think that crowding them a bit is what helped, since they 
really couldn't get away from each other.  I say this because I've had 
trouble with egg laying at other times when I kept a smaller number 

At any rate, I was able to keep both red admirals and buckeyes going 
throughout the winter in this manner.  I lost the colony later the following 
summer due to troubles with a bacteria in my caterpillars (hygiene, hygiene, 
uugh).  Bad luck that, but I would estimate that I had 10-12 continuous 
generations before this occurred.  I've been working on chalcedon 
checkerspots and pipevine swallowtails since, so I'm not certain that I 
could duplicate my luck with red admirals again.

Hope this helps and best of luck...  Laurel

>From: "Barron, Mandy" <BarronM at>
>Reply-To: BarronM at
>Subject: rearing red admiral butterflies
>Date: Mon, 4 Sep 2000 10:38:42 +1200
>Does anyone here have any experience in raising red admirals (Vanessa
>atalanta) in captivity?  I am about to start a PhD project on the closely
>related New Zealand red admiral (Bassaris gonerilla) and would appreciate
>any tips you could give me.  I hope to get a continuous lab culture going 
>I can do experiments during the winter, but I can't find anyone that has
>managed to rear a second generation in captivity.  They seem reluctant to
>mate and don't lay eggs in captivity.
>Mandy Barron
>Lincoln University
>New Zealand

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