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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

Did anyone try the smells science experiment with your cat last week? Did your cat have any preferences? How did it react to the catnip?

My cat was not crazy about the white sheet of paper I was using as a mat. Eventually I had to dampen the tips of my fingers, dip them in the spice or herb, and then present the finger to the cat. She got excited about cinnamon, and pretty much ignored the rest. I didn’t have any catnip to offer her, but in the past she has rolled in it, eaten some, and then she gets kind of wacky. She’s definitely in the 70% of cats that react.

I wanted to write up a science experiment about cat sound communication, but I found a couple of other websites to share, so I think I’ll hold that until next weekend.

The first website is from Germany. Instead of a person taking pictures of a cat, this website shows pictures taken by Fritz the cat while he is wearing a webcam around his neck. Some of the pictures are what you would expect, the underside of a car and someone’s feet. I was totally blown away by how much the cat was apparently looking at the sky and the trees. I guess I never realized a creature so close to the ground would be interested in the sky. Take a look at Fritz’s “Cam-Galerie” and see what life looks like from a cat’s eye view.

The Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog has a brief, but interesting post on blinking in cats. You might want to take a look around this site, because there are regular Friday posts called “Friday Cat Fun.”

Finally, here is an easy experiment to find out whether your cat is right or left pawed at the Scholastic Science World website. To tell you the truth, I hadn't thought much about it. I'll have to go ask my cat. Let me know what you find out from your cat, too.

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For those of you introducing young children to science, have you caught an episode of "Peep and the Big Wide World" yet? Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the premise of this television show is that three animated bird friends ask questions and explore the world as budding scientists. After the humorous cartoon segment, there is live-action video of preschoolers performing age-appropriate science activities.

I have to admit I wasn't that impressed the first time I saw this show. The simple round figures seemed a bit ridiculous. But it has really grown on me after watching a few episodes, and my tween son is definitely hooked. The characters are surprising complex for being circles with stick legs. From what I’ve seen, the television show seems to attract viewers on both sides of its target audience, both younger and older.

I am not a big fan of young children spending a large part of their day sitting around and watching television. There are times, however, when a little educational television comes in handy, like when your child is under the weather, or when you can’t get outside. You may want to use it as a jumping off point to inspire new discoveries, or kick start explorations.

The creators of this series have a great attitude about how to introduce kids to science. When asked, "What is the best way to introduce science to young children?" Peep Science Adviser, Karen Worth, responded "For young children, science is about active, focused exploration of objects, materials, and events around them. We introduce them to science by offering an environment where there are interesting materials to explore.” Read more here at the "About Peep" section of the “Peep in the Big Wide World” website.

Even if you aren’t interested in the television program, you might find the “recommended books” section useful. For each episode, they have picked two wonderful science-related books for further exploration of that topic. You may also follow the resources link from the website.

If you want to take a look at an example cartoon episode, here is a clip from YouTube.

Overall, I would say that "Peep in the Big Wide World" is one of those rare television shows for children that is able to teach science in a humorous and entertaining way.

More Resources:

"Peep in the Big Wide World" is available on DVD.

You might want to pick up some of the books for preschoolers based on the series. These books are not word-for-word rehashes to the television programs, but stand on their own. Two-year-old children seem to find them particularly fascinating.

PEEP Who’s Hiding? By Laura Gates Galvin.

Quack’s Masterpiece by Laura Gates Galvin.

Discovery Travel Pack by Laura Gates Galvin.

What’s That Sound? By Laura Gates Galvin.

A Very Good Smell By Laura Gates Galvin.

Animals and Nature Activity Book By Laura Gates Galvin.

Chirp’s Colors By Laura Gates Galvin. This one comes with a magnetic Chirp character to move around.

Please let me know if you find this information useful.