Don't let Mother Nature have all the fun!
1. Monarch Butterflies
Raising monarchs is super easy. If you don't have a patch of milkweed handy, order the plants online and plant them outside in clusters of three or more plants. Check the undersides of the leaves for eggs and tiny caterpillars. When you find a caterpillar, dig up the milkweed plant, wrap it in tulle netting from the fabric store so the caterpillar won't get away, and bring it inside to watch it develop. (You can order the caterpillars online, too.) It will eat like crazy for about ten days until it pupates. If you're raising more than one, you'll need additional milkweed plants. After the butterfly has emerged from the chrysalis, release it outside. Monarch Watch has detailed instructions about rearing monarchs, and you can order tags for your butterflies if you want to help track their migration.
Silkworms need mulberry leaves to eat, or you can order powdered artificial silkworm chow online along with the eggs. I asked around until I found a friend who had raised silkworms before, and she gave me a batch of eggs to keep in my fridge during the winter. When the mulberry tree in my yard started leafing out, I removed the eggs from the fridge. They hatched about nine days later. They should start to spin cocoons in a few weeks. This site shows a nice set-up using plastic deli trays and toilet paper rolls.
Flickr: Ivan Walsh
Remember the children's book, The Cricket in Times Square? Crickets are charming and have been kept as pets in China for hundreds of years. If you can't catch a cricket in your house or yard, most pet stores carry them as food for larger animals. You can order a little cricket cage online, or use a jar with holes punched in the top. Place a piece of damp sponge in there so they can stay hydrated, keep them in a warm spot, and feed them scraps of fruits and veggies. Voila. Pet cricket.
Whether you catch a ladybug yourself or order ladybug larvae from the internet, these are also pretty easy to care for indoors for a short time. Like crickets, adult ladybugs need a damp paper towel or sponge to drink from. Aphids are their favorite food, but if you're only keeping your ladybug for a few days it can get by on fruit. Tip: Milkweed tends to get covered in aphids. If you're already growing milkweed for your monarchs, bam. Ladybug food.
5. Black Swallowtail Butterflies
These gorgeous creatures like to lay their eggs in common garden herbs, including parsley, dill, and fennel. If you want to try to observe their life cycle, plant a big clump of parsley in a pot and keep an eye out for caterpillars, which are green with yellow and black markings and just as beautiful as the mature butterflies. If you have cats, tie some tulle netting around the pot so the caterpillars won't get eaten or crawl away. The black swallowtail chrysalis looks like a piece of bark or a small stick, so they can be hard to spot. I haven't had terribly good success with these, but a friend of mine raises them successfully every year.
6. Praying Mantises
These guys are crazy. Not only does the female often devour the male after mating, but the babies devour each other if given a chance. I bought a couple of praying mantis egg cases (they're about the size of a small marshmallow, and beige in color) at a garden fair once. I kept them in my garden shed and checked them regularly until I saw a million billion babies in the container, and then I set them free in my garden in hopes that they'd keep pests down. You can raise them in a small aquarium too, or buy a kid-oriented kit. Like betta fish, they need to be kept in separate containers to prevent a fight to the death. Other requirements: Sticks to climb on, and plenty of bugs to eat. This is a little involved for me, but if you're into carnivorous beasts, knock yourself out.