Releasing butterflies for the fall migration is one of the greatest joys of raising. Think about it, the monarchs you release will be making an incredible journey that could take them thousands of miles from your butterfly garden to wintering grounds in Mexico or coastal California. And without you, their journey would have likely ended before it began…
In the olden days, I used this 6-step process for releasing butterflies. While it was effective, I have discovered a new release method that makes a huge difference in the energy level of butterflies when I release them. But, for those without mesh cages…
The Old Way
1. Let your monarch’s wings dry before moving it- before your release it outside to fend for itself, make sure the butterfly wings are dry so it can fly away from potential predators or other territorial monarch butterflies. About 2 hours dry time
Two hours is enough time for them to dry sufficiently, but should still allow you to move them without taking flight.
2. When transporting your monarch outside, move your finger toward the butterfly’s head so it can crawl on
3. Once your monarch has climbed aboard the finger express, bring your hand in toward your body…pull gently to fully remove your butterfly from the chrysalis.
4. Cup your other hand over the butterfly so it doesn’t try to fly away.
4a. This is an alternative method of picking up the butterfly, and a more secure way of doing it so the butterfly can’t fly off prematurely:
5. Bring the butterfly outside so that it can warm its wings in the sunlight. Wait to release your butterfly if it’s raining, or if the forecast high temp is less than 60° fahrenheit. They can hang from the top of a butterfly-only mesh cage, or an indoor plant until the weather improves.
If the temperature is close to the 60° minimum, conditions should be sunny with calm to light winds. Butterflies can even take flight with highs in the 50’s if that ‘s your only option…
6 . Here are some potential places to hang your new butterfly, that should keep it (somewhat) safe until it takes flight:
- a rope provides an easy surface for the caterpillar to attach its feet and is most likely free of any lurking predators
- small tree branches– just make sure there are no predators like spiders or ants in the immediate vicinity
- garden plants it can easily hang down from- again, check for predators
- Your new butterfly does not need to feed right away, so don’t worry about hanging it from a nectar flower. However…
- Migration butterflies need to stock up on nectar for the long journey, so include later summer and fall blooming nectar plants on your garden menu.
A Better Way
This is so simple, and the only reason I didn’t start doing this sooner is because I used to take a lot of photos of newly hatched monarchs. In fact, if I’m snapping photos for this blog, I’ll still use the old method with a watchful 👁.
However, if you want to release more active monarchs, that can easily elude predators (and territorial male monarchs) try this:
- Bring your mesh enclosure outdoors with your new butterflies hanging inside (I suggest having a second mesh enclosure for keeping and releasing butterflies)
- Set the cage in a sunny area or hang it from a shepherds hook in calm conditions
- Windy? Lay tall cages down horizontally so they don’t blow over and lay cube style cages down any which way. I always put 2-3 large rocks or a paver block in the bottom of the cage to keep them in place.
- If your cage has a PVC window, turn this side away from direct sunlight 🌞
- Leave the butterflies to dry for up to 3 hours- the sun energizes monarchs and is a key component to insuring their safety from predators
- Open the door, let them crawl on your finger and then hold them toward the sky or
- Let them fly out on their own
Delay Release IF
- High temps below 65° F or 60° if sunny and calm (if the 60’s aren’t an option, monarchs can still fly in sunny conditions in the 50’s)
- Rain (light rain isn’t a problem for butterflies with day-old dry wings, but it’s not prime conditions for first-day newborns)
- Late hatching (if butterflies eclose too late to get 3 hours in the sun, keep them overnight)
- Storms in the forecast? If there’s at least 4 hours of good weather beforehand you can release them…otherwise, I would wait. If extreme weather (like a hurricane) is forecast in the next 24 hours, keep them safe until the🌪 passes. 24 hours+ should provide them ample time to find shelter from the storm
Still not sure whether to release? Keeping them overnight won’t hurt them. In fact, their wings will be stronger in day 2, which will give them a better chance to escape predators.
Feeding Adult Butterflies
If keeping butterflies more than 24 hours you can offer them:
- Fresh cut nectar flowers (the floral tube/rack set up works well for this)
- Orange, watermelon, or other fruit slices
- Place cotton balls/cotton pads soaked in gatorade, juicy juice, hummingbird nectar, honey water (9 parts water to 1 part honey) or sugar water (9 parts water to 1 part sugar) on the mesh cage roof so butterflies can feed hanging from inside
- Don’t worry if butterflies go on a hunger strike…we’ve had butterflies reject food for days and they were fine. They’ll eventually eat when hungry enough or after they are finally released.
- Serve monarchs all food options at room temperature, as butterflies are sensitive to cold.
If flightful butterflies are not kept in a secure cage, they will start flying around and will not be easy to catch unless you have a butterfly net. Please be careful not to hurt them while in pursuit…
Alternative Release Ideas
While releasing monarchs in your garden is a joyful experience, you can multiply your joy by sharing this amazing experience with others. Where else could you release your monarch butterflies?
- Elementary school
- Nursing home
- Local park
- Sunday school or church
- Local wedding or funeral
- Host a butterfly release party
- Can you think of other places? Please post your ideas in a comment below
By spreading the joy of monarchs, you might find others who are interested in helping to raise the struggling monarch population.
Optional Step Before Releasing
Monarch Watch is a non-profit organization that engages citizen scientists in large scale research projects. Citizens who raise migration monarchs have a unique opportunity to help Monarch Watch gather research on the monarch migration.
How? You can order tracking tags to attach to your butterfly. When the butterflies are retrieved, those who find them can call a number on the tag to report information about the butterfly. For further information about this program click the link below:
The University of Michigan is developing an innovative digital tagging program that will reveal more info about butterfly flight behavior on the way to Mexico. Learn more about this program and how you can get involved :
Please read through the comments below for more info about Safely Releasing Butterflies. For further assistance raising healthy butterflies, a ✬✬✬✬✬ rated PDF download on How To Raise More Monarchs, with Less Effort is available for purchase HERE