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I often get questions about how to raise caterpillars. One of my first jobs during college was raising caterpillars, which lead to similar jobs throughout the years. Why raise a caterpillar? Not only does successfully taking care of another living thing lead to insights into its biology and behavior, but also when a beautiful butterfly or moth emerges, it is an amazing experience.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars.

whiteline caterpillar

In the update I mentioned that I had placed a caterpillar in a terrarium with moist potting soil (about five inches deep). The caterpillar immediately disappeared, but I knew where it had gone. Large moth caterpillars, like white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars or tomato hornworms, dig into the soil before pupating. Their pupa looks like a dark reddish-brown cigar. Saturday I found the moth sitting on the cloth I had used to cover the terrarium. It had successfully emerged.

Here it is.

whitelined sphinx mothwhitelined sphinx moth

Because white-lined sphinx moths are big and active, they need a lot of nectar to keep them going. After taking a few pictures, I immediately let it go. Here’s a link with some amazing pictures of white-lined sphinx moths. This entire website is full of great information and photographs.

What do you need to raise caterpillars? It does depend on what kind, but here are some general guidelines.

1. Unless you are using a kit that supplies special food, you will need large quantities of fresh plants. And not just any plant, most caterpillars will only take one or a few kinds of plants as food. Once a tiny larva has started eating one kind of plant, they often will refuse to take anything else, even if other members of its species will. A good rule of thumb is only bring home caterpillars that you are absolutely sure you know what they eat, and you have lots of those plants available to feed them. Edit: What white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars eat.

2. Provide a clean, safe container covered with screen or cloth to allow for air circulation. It is best to keep the container outside in as natural conditions as possible. Insect life cycles are extremely sensitive to light and temperature. If you bring the critter inside where it is cool and dark, it may emerge days or even weeks after wild members of its kind and may miss critical windows of opportunity to perform necessary behaviors like mate or migrate.

3. Keep only one or a few in a container. Crowding insects into small containers greatly increases the chances for disease. Insects can get viruses, bacteria and fungi, which can make them sick, just like those things can make humans sick.

Scientists have suggested that monarch butterflies may migrate because of a parasitic infection. This parasite (a protozoan) causes the butterfly to be weak but not die. By going on long migrations, the sick individuals are left behind. When we handle monarchs, we risk spreading the disease even more. Let me know if you’d like more information about this.

4. Provide sticks for butterfly caterpillars to climb on when they are about to make their chrysalises. Moth caterpillars will need plenty of moist soil to dig into. Other caterpillars may like to have different substrates to pupate in, like cloth or egg cartons.

5. Insects are also sensitive to humidity, especially when they are molting. It can be tricky, but try to keep the humidity up without getting the container too moist. Too much humidity can cause things to get moldy.

I hope these guidelines doesn’t sound too negative. Having a lot of experience, I have a better idea of all the things that can go wrong and I wanted you to avoid the problems. And oh yes  here's one more:  don't leave the lid off the container once the caterpillars have pupated. My son did this, and we had cabbage-looper moths all over the house. (It was actually a hoot!)

One great way to raise caterpillars is to plant butterfly and moth plants in a butterfly garden. (Check out an earlier post on butterfly gardening.) Then the caterpillars do all the work themselves.

Also, don't forget to take a look at some of the butterfly and caterpillars books for children.

And finally, my friend Debbie called again. Her passion vine plants now have gulf fritillary caterpillars on them (see last week’s post for details).
gulf fritillary caterpillar

For those interested in butterfly gardening and caterpillars, here are a few more children’s books to consider.

2015 Edit:  For our most complete and up-to-date list of butterfly books for kids, visit  Science Books for Kids website.

moth-and-butterfly-books-for-children-list

Nonfiction

Nic Bishop Butterflies and Moths by Nic Bishop just came out and it is fabulous!

The butterfly book : a kid's guide to attracting, raising, and keeping butterflies by Kersten Hamilton.

This butterfly book for older children is full of scientific information and suggestions for activities, such as making a butterfly net. It starts out with a “getting to know” section that covers much of the complex vocabulary children will need to read this and other books about butterflies. Then the author covers many aspects of raising and keeping butterflies, as well as butterfly behavior and biology. A butterfly guide on the edges of each page has extensive photographs and accurate illustrations of common butterflies, and includes a map of where they are found. The resource guide and “glossarized index” at the end help children find out more. If you are interested in raising butterflies or butterfly gardening, this book is an excellent resource.

It's a butterfly's life by Irene Kelly.

This nonfiction book has many lovely illustrations. If you are looking for a book for a child to read, be aware that the font looks like hand lettering and the sentences wave up and down across the page, almost like the pattern of a butterfly flying. This looks lovely, but may be hard for a beginning reader to read. It has many interesting facts, and covers the butterfly life cycle in detail.

Creepy, crawly caterpillars by Margery Facklam and illustrated by Paul Facklam.

All the terms used throughout the book are defined in the text in the first two pages. The second page of this book has an absolutely amazing illustration of a caterpillar with all its parts labeled clearly and accurately. The rest of the book is two-page spreads of specific common and interesting caterpillars, for example the woolly bear and the cecropia moth caterpillar. Most of the caterpillars chosen are actually moth caterpillars, rather than butterfly caterpillars, but it is still fascinating to learn about them. This book has a glossary.

Face to face with caterpillars by Darlyne A. Murawski.

The author is a photographer who talks about how she got some of her stunning photographs next to the actual results. She starts out with the story of a caterpillar that eats ants and how she photographed the caterpillar through glass. This and some other parts of the book feels as if the photographs drove the text, rather than vice versa. There is a great deal of information on caterpillars, however, to accompany the wonderful, one-of-a-kind photographs. The end contains a glossary: a “find out more” section with articles, books and websites; an index to help children search the text; and a sidebar of research and photographic notes.

Fiction

The girl who loved caterpillars : a twelfth-century tale from Japan adapted by Jean Merrill and illustrated by Floyd Cooper.

It is hard not to love a book that is so beautifully written and illustrated. The overall tale is of a lovely young Japanese girl who defies the traditions of her time. She prefers caterpillars and centipedes to butterflies, and collects and raises them. This story is incredibly complex, and even makes adults who read it think deeply about it. One issue is the fact that the story is probably only the first chapter of a much longer tale, but the rest has been lost. Some people may wonder why the author didn’t construct her own ending. Rather than detracting from the book however, for me it only made it more interesting.

There are more butterfly book reviews at the end of the white-lined sphinx moth post.

Imagine a garden full of brightly colored flowers, oranges, yellows and blues. Your children are squealing as they find yet another caterpillar hidden on a plant. Then their attention is diverted as they spot a yellow butterfly fluttering nearby. As they race to get a closer look, a bright orange and black butterfly glides into view. Everyone points and cheers as they spot the first monarch of the year.

Seem like an impossible dream? Actually with a little research and a small plot of ground, almost anything is possible when it comes to butterfly gardening. Plant a few food plants and some well-chosen flowers, and your garden can become an outdoor paradise for learning about butterflies and other insects.

What do you need to do to start a butterfly garden? The first step is research, research, research. Every region has its own unique blend of plant and butterfly species, and what works in one place may not in another. You and your children will need to look for species of butterflies that occur locally, and then find out what plants the adults use for food (nectar usually), and plants the caterpillars feed on. Fortunately in most areas there are individuals and organizations that are interested in butterfly gardening, and they have probably done some of the research for you. Try an Internet search for butterfly gardening in your region. Visit your local botanical gardens or arboreta. Look for regional books on butterflies and butterfly gardening. Also, keep records of what kinds of butterflies you see when you are hiking or walking through your neighborhood. Try to figure out what plants they seem to prefer.

In general:

buckeye butterfly
Scientists have shown adult butterflies prefer flowers that are yellow or blue. They also prefer flowers that are flat, so they have a platform to stand on while feeding, like this buckeye butterfly.

lantana

Neat fact:  Ever look closely at a Lantana flower? The center is often yellow and the outside dark pink. The yellow flowers are the fresh ones, with plenty of nectar and pollen. Once each individual flower in the cluster has been pollinated, it turns dark pink and is no longer attractive to butterflies.

butterfly weed

Butterfly weed is a common plant that will attract many butterflies.

moth eggs

The adult butterflies lay their eggs on the plants their caterpillars will eat. (These are the eggs of a large moth, by the way).

fritillary caterpillar

The caterpillars or larvae feed on the plant once they hatch from their eggs. Some caterpillars feed only on one or a few plants. For example, fritillary caterpillars feed on passion vines.

Other caterpillars may use a number of different plants as food. Also, some species may use one group of plants in one region and a different set in another region, depending on temperature, plant availability, etc. You only need to provide one or a few of the correct plants to attract butterflies.

Adult butterflies may be attracted to feeders, or pieces of certain kinds of fruit. There are some simple butterfly feeders that are easy to make.

male blues puddling

Adult butterflies may also be attracted to patches of mud, particularly the males. This behavior is called puddling.

After you and your children have decided which plants will work for your area, decide where to plant them. If you have a large enough space, you might want to develop a formal design. If not, plant them where you can. Just take care that if the plant requires sun, that it is a place with adequate sun and vice versa with shade-loving plants.

If possible, include your children in the planning and planting of the garden. Giving them ownership of a project is great for children’s self-esteem and helps maintain their enthusiasm. If things don’t go as planned, celebrate the mistakes as learning opportunities.

painted ladywhite butterfly

Once the plants are in, the ideas for projects will begin to flow. Planting a butterfly garden with children is sure to take you into directions you never dreamed possible.

Here are some books about butterflies and caterpillars in a later post. There are also some books listed in the white-lined sphinx moth post.