07 Oct My Guide to Catching Monarch Butterflies
Throughout my internship experience researching monarch butterflies, I have been trying to encourage people to become monarch butterfly citizen scientists. A citizen scientist is someone who isn’t a professional scientists but can still contribute to important research. In the case of monarch research, citizens can be involved with about everything, including catching and tagging monarchs for migration research. The more citizen scientists there are reporting tagging monarchs, the more we can learn about migration. As such, everyone reading this blog should become a citizen monarch tagger, whether with the Southwest Monarch Study, Monarch Watch, Monarch Alert, or another organization that provides tags.
I’m here to provide you with a few tips on how to catch monarchs so you can get into tagging. Of course, nothing substitutes for experience and hands-on learning, so I hope interested people go out and try netting monarchs themselves. Most North American monarchs should be migrating south now, so maybe you can catch a few migrators. If not, you can work on catching and tagging next summer. Study these tips to learn how to catch monarchs.
Find your study site
To catch and tag monarchs, you need a place that is going to have a decent number of monarchs. In my experience, patches of flowers draw in the most monarchs. Further, I had my best luck catching monarchs when they landed on flowers to drink nectar, not when they were flying around. You may have to get out and scout a bit to find a place with monarchs or connect with others in your community who know where monarchs might be.
Time it right!
If I’d written this for you back in August, I would have told you to wake up early and get to your site at 7:30 am or so if you wanted to catch monarchs. Doing so would position you to catch monarchs when they are waking up for the day and beginning to feed but before they have warmed up to much and gotten too quick. However, if you’re trying to tag later in the year – say September or even October – you need to wait until a little later in the day when the sun is out and shining, warming up the monarchs and encouraging them to start moving. It seems like the ideal weather for monarch catching is probably somewhere in the 60s with the sun out and no wind. Your ideal catching time will depend on where you are and what time of the year it is.
Watch for Monarchs
When you get to your site and get out your net, start scanning around through the air, any nice patches of blooming flowers, and tree branches where monarchs may have landed. Keep watching until you see a big, bright orange monarch float around and land on a flower or some other vegetation. Realize that any efforts to chase a flying monarch will likely prove futile. Monarchs can fly very fast to get away from you. Unless the monarch is actively flying toward you, you’ll want to be patient and let it land somewhere. Then, start making your move.
This is something I tried to perfect throughout my internship. You’ve got to got close enough to the monarch to be able to net it, but not so close that you startle it and cause it to take off. (The netting distance will depend on whether you have a super extendo net like me or a shorter one). Move quietly and smoothly up behind the butterfly at a deliberate, but not necessarily slow, pace. Try not to stomp too loudly or swish around too much vegetation. Monarchs get pretty busy eating and sometimes they’ll open and close their wings a few times, maybe in delight at some wonderful nectar. They hardly expect to be netted if they haven’t heard or felt you come up. Meanwhile, you also don’t want to wait too long before you swing because the monarch might notice you and fly off. As Wayne Gretzky (and maybe Michael Scott) may have said, “You miss 100% of the monarchs you don’t even get the chance to swing at.” Anyway, when you’re close enough to the monarch, don’t delay. Take a breath and…
Again, monarchs are pretty good at evading being caught, so you’ve got to swing fast, like you really mean it. You’re not going to catch a monarch with a slow swing. I usually swing from high to low to put the net over a butterfly. You can also swing horizontally at the butterfly, especially if it’s flying and you can’t go over it. If you miss on the first swing, you’ll still have a second for a quick second swing to try to get the monarch before it’s gone. On the swing, make sure you follow through. When I was a little kid on the court learning to follow through on my tennis and basketball strokes, I don’t think I ever would have imagined the follow through is also critical in butterfly catching technique. It certainly is though. You’ve got to swing through the butterfly, not chop at it, to get it all the way to the back of the net. Then, twist to “close the door” on the net, preventing any escape. Nothing’s going to hurt your heart more than having a butterfly in the net for a second only for it to escape and fly off at dazzling speed. You can also pinch the net closed with your free hand for extra safety.
This one is quite important for a new catcher. It’s not that easy to catch a monarch. I’ll be honest, even I whiff or scare away several monarchs for every one I do net. So, you’ve got to celebrate a little when you do get one. I liked to throw out a fist pump and maybe a “Let’s go!” This is serious research business on a species in decline. But we’re also out there catching butterflies like kids after butterflies, so you might as well have a little fun with it. Never get complacent about how cool it is to catch a migratory monarch butterfly and never stop feeling like an excited kid. And, never forget to tag your monarch, take notes on it, and to send your data to whatever organization provided your tags.