What Do Woolly Bear Caterpillars Eat?

It made for a memorable Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when we sat down for turkey and all the fixings and a large orange moth seemingly appeared out of nowhere, haphazardly fluttering above our heads.

Their abundance, wide distribution and flexible diet make banded woolly bear caterpillars an ideal choice for a home school science project. Caring for woolly bear caterpillars is fairly easy in comparison to some other species of butterflies and moths whose larva has limited host plant preferences.

Aside from providing your woolly bear with fresh food daily, youll also need to take its life cycle into consideration if you want to avoid it emerging from its cocoon before the end of winter. When it starts feeding less or even stops, you might consider getting some plant debris leaves, bark, hollowed out stems and twigs and piling it in your habitat with the fresh food, so it has somewhere to hibernate.

What should I feed my woolly bear caterpillar?

Woolly bears prefer to eat low-growing, seed bearing plants that have leaves instead of blades. These plants include lambs quarters, violets, clovers, dandelions, nettles, burdock, yellow dock, curly dock and many native plants.

Do woolly bear caterpillars eat fruit?

Their diet may include any wild grasses as well as the leaves of cultivated grains including corn and barley. These caterpillars eat the actual leaves, not the stems or flowers, so they need grasses in their leafy green stage, not their fruit-bearing straw or hay stage.

What do woolly bear caterpillars eat in winter?

These nondestructive caterpillars feed on corn, asters, birches, and sunflowers among other things. They leave their plants as third instar larvae then look for a cool, dark place, usually underneath leaf detritus to overwinter. They survive the freezing winter by producing “antifreeze” in the form of glycerol.

How long does it take for a woolly bear caterpillar to turn into a moth?

Once it spins its cocoon it may take from 1 to 3 weeks to emerge as a Tiger Moth. Some Woolly Bears may spin their cocoon and remain inside that over the winter. Remove any droppings that start to build up in the container while the caterpillar is active.

Recently, I was walking through a local park near Promega, when I spotted my first woolly bear of the season. As this furry brown and black caterpillar wandered along in front of me, I recalled the old wives tale about the width of their stripes being indicative of the upcoming winter fury. Spotting that little fellow in the sidewalk piqued my curiosity, and I decided to see what I could discover about my friend, the woolly bear.

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology by Marshall and Sinclair points out that climate change and decreasing snow cover may be exposing woolly bears and other freeze-tolerant insects to repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

Where to find woolly bears

Woolly bears are relatively easy to find because of their prevalence and willingness to eat any number of low-growing, broad-leafed plants. You might just as easily find one crawling across your lawn as you would in a field, pasture or prairie. So maybe the better question to answer is when to find woolly bears.There are two generations of woolly bears every year. The first hatches in May, eats during the summer and changes into moths during the fall. The second generation hatches in the fall, eats a little, hibernates over winter, eats some more in the spring and turns into moths. Spring woolly bears can be found where food is plentiful in lawns and fields. Fall woolly bears can also be found in lawns and fields, but may also be found seeking shelter crossing roads or under dead plant debris where they frequently hibernate. Plant debris offers enough protection from the weather for many insects to hibernate.We have typically found our woolly bears in the yard while raking leaves or under bark that’s fallen off logs near the wood pile and log splitter.

Resources

Caring for woolly bear caterpillars is fairly easy in comparison to some other species of butterflies and moths whose larva has limited host plant preferences. For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars only feed on milkweed and are completely reliant on that host to survive and pupate. In contrast to the monarch, woolly bears will feed on a wide variety of plants.Some of the plants woolly bears feed on include:Aside from providing your woolly bear with fresh food daily, you’ll also need to take its life cycle into consideration if you want to avoid it emerging from its cocoon before the end of winter. When it starts feeding less or even stops, you might consider getting some plant debris – leaves, bark, hollowed out stems and twigs – and piling it in your habitat with the fresh food, so it has somewhere to hibernate. Then move your habitat to a garage, porch, patio or somewhere sheltered but cooler so it can hibernate over winter.Make sure to check on it frequently to ensure it has access to fresh food when it comes out of hibernation. If everything goes as planned, you’ll get to release a beautiful tiger moth this spring!