Moving and Relocating Monarch Caterpillars

Moving tiny monarch caterpillar on a leaf

Monarchs on the move? Sometimes a little lift is required for health and safety in the garden (and beyond). Supporting the caterpillar stage of life is a big part of monarch gardening. We’ve expanded caterpillar hosting and helping segment of the mini-series to break out more detail on hosting, including moving and relocating monarch caterpillars.

Why Monarch Caterpillars May Need to be Moved

In our garden, we often use netting to protect caterpillars from paper wasps, but this also blocks butterflies from laying eggs. With netting, either the eggs (whole plants or cuttings) or the young caterpillars need to be moved under cover. This is our most common reason for moving caterpillars.

Caterpillars may also need to be moved due to environmental hazards, plant care and pruning, sharing caterpillars with friends/neighbours who have lonely swan plants and impatient kiddies (or grown ups!), rescuing hungry caterpillars from nibbled nubs, or other special circumstances.

Paper wasp hunting monarch caterpillars

Safety Considerations During Caterpillar Movement

Physical Contact

When transporting caterpillars, my aim is to never touch them. They can, with care, be handled, but it’s safer and less stressful for both of us to avoid direct handling. Small young caterpillars are particularly delicate for handling. I think its best practice to minimise direct handling of caterpillars at all stages of development, if possible.

Chemicals and Contaminants

Even with no contact as the aim, it’s best to ensure that hands, gloves, and anything else in close proximity is clean and free of any potentially harmful chemicals that could accidentally harm the caterpillars.

Moving Options 

Ideally, caterpillars are moved on a large cutting or with mobile plants. They can keep nibbling on the current host plant and slowly make their transition to their new host plant.  For practicality when frequently moving caterpillars over short distances, something more efficient is often needed. That’s when I use to individual leaves or small cuttings for transport.

CATERPILLAR CAUTIONS! Don’t relocate molting, freshly molted, or dangling J caterpillars. 

Molting or freshly molted caterpillars should not be moved. Monarch caterpillars getting ready to molt use their silk to secure their current skin in-situ so, when ready, they can walk out wearing the new skin beneath. If a caterpillar seems unwilling to move its rear (anal prolegs), it’s best left alone. Immediately after molting, the newly exposed skin is soft and the caterpillar is particularly vulnerable.

Mature monarch caterpillars who have gone into their dangling J in preparation for forming a chrysalis should not be disturbed, if possible. They may not be able to reattach, and that will lead to an early death instead of ongoing transformation.  If possible, wait until the chrysalis has formed and hardened before any movements. See the movement section of our monarch chrysalis post for more.

Monarch caterpillar dangling in a J from milkweed (swan plant) seed pod
Green in Real Life blog space bar small right flower

Moving Caterpillars Over Short Distances

To avoid touching, I use a leaf or small stem as a short-distance caterpillar carrier. We jokingly refer to it as catching an Uber. I prefer this method to using my hands or something like a paintbrush, since moving on a leaf causes as little contact and disturbance to the caterpillar as I can manage. 

Where possible, I use the leaf that the caterpillar is already on. I cut or pinch it from the plant, then carry it and its caterpillar passenger to the new plant. They’re pretty good at holding on, but I still like to keep a safety hand underneath the carrying hand, just in case!

Gloved hand transporting small monarch caterpillar on a swan plant leaf

At the destination, I either hold the leaf on the new plant and wait until the caterpillar strolls off or carefully leave it at the base of the new plant. The latter is most convenient, but I sometimes prefer waiting just to be sure the transfer is safely completed.

Monarch butterfly crawling off a leaf at the base of a swan plant

Moving Caterpillars Over Longer Transits

For slightly further transits, larger cuttings in a jar of water or potted swan plants make good carriers. Caterpillars can be transferred from elsewhere onto the cutting or plant before transit, if needed.  

If you’re making a long journey, you may want to enclose the pot or cutting in a box to catch frass. Caterpillars are pooping machines! It will also help to contain the caterpillars if anything gets jostled in transit or someone decides to take a little wander. Minimise enclosed time, make sure temperature is maintained, and that the enclosure has some small ventilation holes or mesh. Keep things as stable as possible during transit to reduce the risks of tumbling, toppling, or squeezing anyone.  
If caterpillars are being moved onto another plant at destination, they usually make the move on their own if the two plants are placed together and left for a while. Letting the caterpillars make the move on their own is usually preferable, if possible. If time is an issue, caterpillars can be quickly transferred off on their current leaf using the same short distance methods as above. 
Moving and Relocating Monarch Caterpillars

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