Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ready to Tag a Monarch Butterfly?

This was a neat sight recently in my monarch ranch--the beginning of the cycle (caterpillar in the "J" position before turning into a chrysalis) and the completion of the cycle (monarch butterfly ready to hatch from the chrysalis). Isn't it amazing the butterfly can come out of that little chrysalis?

Here's another picture of a monarch shortly after emerging. They will hang from the empty chrysalis shell for quite a while as they dry out and pump fluids into their wings and gain strength.

And here's the monarch we're going to tag and release today. As I was reaching into the ranch to retrieve her, she fluttered down to the bottom and sat there for a short while. This was good because I was able to see very easily that she is a female.

Here's the tagging kit I purchased from Monarch Watch (cost = $15). It consists of 25 tags and a tracking sheet for recording the butterflies you tag this season. You record the tag number, date it was tagged, male or female, reared or wild, and the city, state and zip code where the butterfly was tagged. Unused tags and the completed data sheet must be returned to the Monarch Watch folks at the University of Kansas by December 1st.All of the monarchs that I tag from the ranch are recorded as reared. If I have any tags left over and capture some butterflies in the backyard for tagging, they are recorded as wild.

The tags are really small and super sticky. I shouldn't have cut my fingernails so short the other day because it's nice to have a little bit of nail to stick them on to hold -- otherwise they have a tendency to get stuck to my finger and that's not good!

Here are the instructions and illustrations showing exactly where to place the tag on the monarch's wing.

And here's what we're looking for on the "real" monarch.

As you can see from the above photo, she didn't like me holding just her wings--the legs are frantically scrambling for something to hold on to. So when I hold and tag them, I usually try to hold them so they can grab on to one of my fingers during the process. That seems to calm them down a little bit too and they're easier to hold then.

Here she is now with her tag stuck on. It's upside down, but I figured that really doesn't matter--you can still read the numbers, right?

After I finish tagging a butterfly, I take it out to the wildflower garden in my backyard and release them in a sheltered area on some of the flowers. That way they will have easy access to nectar right away too. Isn't she a beautiful sight?
They don't hang around very long and I've never spotted a butterfly with a tag on any subsequent days after releasing them in the backyard. I guess they instinctively know what they're supposed to do with their life.

So there you have it -- how to tag a monarch butterfly. Pretty simple actually. If you think you want to try it yourself, Monarch Watch has a beginner's kit that contains only 5 tags. You don't have to raise the monarchs from caterpillars either.......if you have a butterfly net and catch a monarch in your backyard, you can tag that one as a "wild" monarch.

This is my third year of monarch tagging and I've always purchased the set of 25 tags but never used them all. However, I'm optimistic that 2009 will be the year that I actually get to use all 25 tags.....especially judging by the looks of things in my monarch ranch!

This afternoon, right before supper, I had the rare opportunity to watch 2 caterpillars complete the process of transforming from a caterpillar to a chrysalis. It was the coolest thing ever! Their striped outside skin actually splits and the light green chrysalis emerges from what would have been the inside of the caterpillar. Needless to say, the supper preparations were a little bit delayed while I watched this miracle on my kitchen counter!


  1. Wow, this is so cool Ruthie. Getting to watch the process up close is such a gift. Thank you for sharing this amazing process of life.
    I really couldn't figure out how you'd tag a butterfly. It really looks quite easy.
    Do you ever get feedback about one of your releases being found somewhere else?

  2. Wow!!! That is the coolest thing ever...I always wondered how a chrysalis formed. I didn't even know butterflies were tagged. I really enjoyed reading this post!

  3. SUPER pics, Ruthie! Any chance you could catch the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis in pictures? That would be something.

    The tag is bigger than I had imagined. But I'm sure still hard to work with. Do you ever net Monarchs in your yard to check if they're tagged?

  4. Again how interesting to watch all of this happen. Butterflies are so beautiful to see and watch. There are a lot hanging yet. Good luck tagging.


  5. Very, very cool Ruthie.

    I have a question though. When I was litle I was told never to handle butterflies as the powder (scales?) from their wings would rub off on my fingers and they wouldn't be able to fly. Is this an old wives tale?

  6. Thanks Gaelyn, glad you enjoyed it.
    No, I've never heard that one of the butterflies I tagged was ever found. My buddy Dave has been to Mexico and seen their wintering grounds. He told me the locals there collect the dead butterflies with tags and get paid for turning them in.

    Thanks Kelly. Are you ready to try it yourself next summer??

    Thanks Mama Pea. I tried to get a picture of one transforming this afternoon, but it was too hard to hold onto the cover of the ranch and take a picture at the same time.
    I've never netted a wild monarch that's already been tagged, but I have caught and tagged some wild monarchs (does that make sense??)

    Thanks Mom. When I added some more milkweed leaves to the ranch this evening, I see there will be 2 more butterflies hatching probably tomorrow morning.

    Thanks Lynne.
    Rick asked me the same question on FB this morning. Not an old wives tale at all. Rubbing their wings or handling them roughly will brush off the scales they need to fly. You have to hold them pretty gently to stick the tag on and not let them flap around. I still get a few scales on my fingers, but I think that's OK (at least they look OK when they fly away!)

  7. Okay, so what are butterflies supposed to do with their life?

  8. Absolutely fascinating. . . ! The tag doesn't throw off their balance and make flying more difficult?

  9. I almost feel like I am butterfly ranching. Thanks for sharing these photos!

    So how did you know the tagged one was female?

  10. I found two more today at a local park, so they are munching away in the kitchen as we speak!
    I'm too late for this year, but I will be tagging next year...I hear that the tagging project is having financial problems, so if anyone wants to do this, they should jump on it (and donate some $$$)!
    The guy I have been going out with bird banding also does monarch tagging, and he is going to try to do some tomorrow. Blog-worthy!

  11. Hi Julie,
    Well, monarchs get to do lots of cool things with their life: pollination, procreation, beautification and migration.

    Thanks Mary. I don't think the tag weighs enough to be a problem, but I'm sure that's the reason why it's placed in that specific area of the lower wing also.

    I hope you give it a try some day Danielle. To answer your other question, the males have a spot on each of their lower wings that helps to distinguish them from the female. I'll try to get photos of the next male that hatches and share them on the blog.

    Yea Susan! I bet your girls love watching them too! Have fun tagging the's much easier than bird banding anyway.

  12. Very informative post. I have yet to find a single caterpillar but am still looking. Last year at this time I had several.

  13. I am loving all this Monarch stuff!
    The information is wondeful..and the photos showing what u are doing really add to the whole post!
    Great post.


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