Sometimes even with the best intentions of feeding the caterpillars well, they get lost finding food. Especially the little guys (1 and 2 instars). I’ll check on the caterpillars first thing in the mormourning(my dog realizes he doesn’t come first anymore..at least during butterfly season) and usually I find one or two caterpillars who are wandering to find food even though it was right next to them. Instead of picking them up, I put a set of fresh milkweed leaves right in front of the caterpillar. It can smell the fresh new leaves and move over soon enough. Simple.
But some of them are stubborn and it can be tricky to move them from where you don’t want them to where you want them. Transferring technique all depends on what surface they are on and what stage and size.
If the caterpillar is small (1 instar) and is on a dried out single leaf (usually the leaf it is born on), I just put the dried leaf on a new stalk in a new tube and make sure it doesn’t fall (try carefully bending the dried leaf in half and place it securely on the new milkweed). Tip: I have an inkling the young ones prefer thinner younger leaves on top vs. older hardier leaves of an more established plant.
Easiest scenario is when the caterpillar is already on a stem tube. If it is already on a mostly eaten milkweed leaf or stem, the best way is to get a fresh new stalk of leaves in a water tube and over lap the leaves (see picture A). Some move over right away and some prefer to finish the existing leaves and stems until they are done.
If the caterpillar ends up on the ground, I put a fresh milkweed in a stem tube and place it next to the caterpillar. Leave it there and come back in a few minutes and most likely it would have climbed on to the milkweed. Take it and prop it up on the marble container. (I don’t like them eating on the ground because they get mixed up with their own poop and they don’t like it themselves. I’ve seen a 5 instar throwing poop that was in its way!)
Due to bacteria on your hands, you don’t want to pick up a caterpillar with your hands. Most importantly though, their poor suction legs will get hurt if you pull them off the surface. You can try to gently nudge their butts using a leaf and they will eventually get moving. (scootch!) And if they are not moving with gentle prodding, they are most likely molting …. in that case, you want to leave them be.