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It’s cabbage looper season here again. In some places cabbage loopers might be considered to be pests, but in our yard they are considered to be pets. They are hardy, will eat a wide range of foods, and they show up every year.

cabbage looper

The looper gets its name from the fact it “loops up” in the middle while walking. The caterpillar has two sets of appendages. Its six true legs are right behind the head. Towards the rear is another set of fleshy, wider appendages called “prolegs.” Scientists don't count the prolegs, so the caterpillar still has the six legs characteristic of insects.

cabbage looper

The caterpillar holds on with the true legs and brings its back end forward. The prolegs meet the true legs, and the back forms a loop. Then it releases the true legs. The head and front spring forward. The looper holds on with its true legs and the process repeats.

This one was nibbling my mint, but I'm not too concerned. The mint is prolific and the caterpillar has a lot of enemies. It is eaten by birds, wasps and parasitic flies. So, loop on little buddy.

Edit: The cabbage looper moth is featured in a later post.

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I was asked a question last week about what white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars eat. I had read that they eat wild relatives of the four-o'clock, a garden plant. A few weeks ago we visited Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park and I got some great first-hand information about what kind of plants the caterpillars feed on.

At the arboretum we found caterpillars on a native plant that is being used as a landscape perennial called pink guara (Guara lindeimeri). I noticed, however, the caterpillars were only eating the flowers. Often the flowers lack toxins or feeding deterrents found in the leaves or stems, although I don’t know for sure this is the case here.

whitelined sphinx moth

Some of the caterpillars were working on a plant called white ratany (Krameria grayi).

whitelined sphinx moth

whitelined sphinx moth

I needed a friend’s help to identify that one. The plant has pretty purplish-pink flowers, but they are inconspicuous. She said the plant is a partial parasite that takes food from the roots of fellow desert plants like bursage or creosote bush. I also found out that the flowers produce an oily substance rather than nectar (weird!), but that some native bees will take it to mix with pollen.

whitelined sphinx moth

Finally, we cheered the caterpillars when we found this batch eating the noxious weed, spotted spurge. Go white-lined caterpillars, go! (Sorry, the photo isn't all that great).

For more information about white-lined sphinx moths and their caterpillars, check these previous posts:

Raising Caterpillars, which also has a photo of the adult

More About White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillars

Bug of the Week:  White-lined Sphinx Caterpillars

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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