What to Feed Caterpillars?

Science, Tech, Math Animals & Nature What Do Caterpillars Eat? Host Plants for Moth and Butterfly Caterpillars Share Flipboard Email Print Getty Images/Matt Meadows Animals & Nature Insects Butterflies & Moths Basics Behavior & Communication Ants. Bees, & Wasps Beetles Spiders Ticks & Mites True Bugs, Aphids, Cicadas, and Hoppers Amphibians Birds Habitat Profiles Mammals Reptiles Marine Life Forestry Dinosaurs Evolution View More By Debbie Hadley Entomology Expert B.A., Political Science, Rutgers University Debbie Hadley is a science educator with 25 years of experience who has written on science topics for over a decade. our editorial process Debbie Hadley Updated January 18, 2020 Caterpillars, the larvae of butterflies and moths, feed almost exclusively on plants. You will find most caterpillars munching happily on leaves, though some will feed on other plant parts, like seeds or flowers. Generalist Feeders vs. Specialist Feeders Herbivorous caterpillars fall into one of two categories: generalist feeders, or specialist feeders. Generalist caterpillars feed on a variety of plants. Mourning cloak caterpillars, for example, will feed on willow, elm, aspen, paper birch, cottonwood, and hackberry. Black swallowtail caterpillars will feed on any member of the parsley family: parsley, fennel, carrot, dill, or even Queen Anne’s lace. Specialist caterpillars restrict their feeding to smaller, related groups of plants. The monarch caterpillar feeds only on the foliage of milkweed plants. A small number of caterpillars are carnivorous, usually feeding on small, soft-bodied insects like aphids. One rather unusual moth caterpillar (Ceratophaga vicinella) found in the southeastern U.S., feeds exclusively on the shells of dead gopher tortoises. Tortoise shells are made of keratin, which is tough for most scavengers to digest. Determining What to Feed Your Caterpillar Whether a caterpillar specializes on a specific type of plant or feeds on a variety of host plants, you will need to identify its food preferences if you’re going to raise it in captivity. You can’t put a caterpillar in a container with grass and expect it to adapt to eating something different than its usual diet. So how do you know what to feed it, if you don’t know what kind of caterpillar it is? Look around the area where you found it. Was it on a plant? Collect some foliage from that plant and try feeding it that. Otherwise, gather samples of whatever plants were nearby, and watch to see if it chooses a certain one. Also, keep in mind that we often find caterpillars when they’re wandering away from their host plants, looking for a place to pupate. So if the caterpillar you collected was crossing a sidewalk or trudging across your lawn when you picked it up, it might not be interested in food at all. Oak Leaves: The (Nearly) Universal Caterpillar Food If your caterpillar won’t eat anything you’ve offered it, try collecting some oak leaves. An incredible number of moth and butterfly specieswell over 500will feed on oak leaves, so the odds are in your favor if you try Quercus leaves. Other foods that are preferred by many caterpillars are cherry, willow, or apple leaves. When all else fails, try leaves from one of the powerhouse perennials for caterpillars. Host Plants for Caterpillars to Eat in Your Garden If you want to plant a true butterfly garden, you need more than nectar plants. Caterpillars need food, too! Include caterpillar host plants, and you’ll attract a lot more butterflies as they visit your plants to lay eggs. When you plan your butterfly garden, include some caterpillar host plants from this list. A well-designed butterfly garden supports not only this year’s butterflies but generations of butterflies to come! Common Garden Butterflies and Their Host Plants Butterfly Caterpillar Host Plants American painted lady pearly everlasting American snout hackberry black swallowtail dill, fennel, carrot, parsley cabbage whites mustards checkered whites mustards common buckeye snapdragons, monkey flowers eastern comma elm, willow, hackberry emperors hackberry giant swallowtail lime, lemon, hoptree, prickly ash grass skippers little bluestem, panic grass greater fritillaries violets gulf fritillary passion vines heliconians passion vines monarch butterfly milkweeds mourning cloak willow, birch painted lady thistles palamedes swallowtail red bay pearl crescent asters pipevine swallowtail pipevines question mark elm, willow, hackberry red admiral nettles red spotted purple cherry, poplar, birch silver-spotted skipper black locust, indigo spicebush swallowtail spicebush, sassafras sulphurs clovers, alfalfa tiger swallowtail black cherry, tulip tree, sweet bay, aspen, ash viceroy willow zebra swallowtail pawpaws Featured Video View Article Sources James, Beverly. Wildlife Connections: Moths and Butterflies. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment | Urban Forest Initiative. Cite this Article Format mla apa chicago Your Citation Hadley, Debbie. “What Do Caterpillars Eat?” ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat-1968177. Hadley, Debbie. (2021, February 16). What Do Caterpillars Eat? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat-1968177 Hadley, Debbie. “What Do Caterpillars Eat?” ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat-1968177 (accessed December 6, 2021). copy citation How to Feed and Care for a Caterpillar How to Keep Fall Caterpillars Alive Until Spring Tussock Moth Caterpillars What Do Monarch Butterflies Eat? Are Those Pests Sawfly Larva or Caterpillar? 12 Plants That Butterflies Love Butterflies and Moths, Order Lepidoptera Perennials for Caterpillars in the Butterfly Garden 10 Ways to Identify an Insect Elephant Hawk Moth Facts 10 Fascinating Facts About Moths Plan Your Trip to a Butterfly House 10 Threats to Monarch Migration Top 10 Beneficial Garden Bugs 22 Common Insects Pests That Are Harmful to Trees A Guide to the 29 Insect Orders Home Learn Something New Every Day Email Address Sign up There was an error. Please try again. You’re in! Thanks for signing up. There was an error. Please try again. Thank you for signing up. Follow Us Facebook Facebook Flipboard Flipboard Science, Tech, Math Humanities Languages Resources About Us Advertise Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Careers Editorial Guidelines Contact Terms of Use California Privacy Notice ThoughtCo is part of the Dotdash publishing family. 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What can I feed wild caterpillars?

Caterpillars, the larvae of butterflies and moths, feed almost exclusively on plants. You will find most caterpillars munching happily on leaves, though some will feed on other plant parts, like seeds or flowers.

What do you feed caterpillars at home?

When the caterpillars are small and do not eat a lot, you can feed them either by offering their food plants in a glass of water or by just placing the leaves on the floor of the enclosure. When you put the leaves in a glass of water, like cut flowers, the leaves stay fresh for a long time (around one week).

How do you keep a caterpillar alive?

The basics that a caterpillar needs are fresh food from its specific host plant, safety from drowning in water, ventilation, and a safe place to pupate or become a chrysalis. While the caterpillars are eating and growing they will stay on the host plant as long as the food source remains.

What can I feed my caterpillars to eat plants?

As a ready-to-use spray, apply Yates Baythroid Advanced Garden Pest Insect Killer. Works on contact to kill caterpillars – as well as a wide range of other chewing and sucking pests – and is suitable for use on Ornamental Plants, Beans, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, Cauliflowers, Peas, and Tomatoes.

Lots of people mistake caterpillars for worms. They look a lot like worms, they are cold-blooded animals like worms but unlike worms, caterpillars are the larvae of moths or butterflies where worms (or larvae to be specific) will turn into beetles or will stay worms throughout their life cycle as with earthworms.

All species of caterpillars hatch from eggs, grow and feed as worms, turn into pupae and emerge as moths or butterflies. They usually prefer soft green plants that have lots of moisture since they usually dont have access to water.

They bore holes in the living wood and feed in the tree for about two years before they emerge as adult moths. Not all caterpillars do eat clothes but some species enjoy the taste of hair and natural animal fibers. In countries like Botswana, South Africa, China, and East Asia, certain caterpillars are harvested daily as a delicacy.

Discovering which caterpillar foods you can bring to your garden to support new and interesting native butterflies offers an opportunity to try out different types of native flowering plants. The more caterpillar food you have in your yard, will also attract different types of birds.

Most butterflies and moths can only rely on certain plants, shrubs or trees to feed their young. For example, the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly can only eat milkweed leaves to survive.

In one of natures unique designs, the plant toxins are safe for the caterpillars, but are a poison to the caterpillars predators. To learn which species of butterflies and moths are native to where you live and to find the native plants that host them, go to the Native Plant Finder and type in your zip code. Acmon Blue – buckwheat, lupines, milkvetch American Painted Lady – cudweed, everlast Baird’s Swallowtail – dragon sagebrush Black Swallowtail – parsley, dill, fennel, common rue Coral Hairstreak – wild black cherry, American and chickasaw plum, black chokeberry Dun Skipper – sedges, grasses including purpletop Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, willow, sweetbay, basswood Giant Swallowtail – prickly ash, citrus, common rue, hoptree, gas plant, torchwood Gray Comma – gooseberry, azalea, elm Great Purple Hairstreak – mistletoe Gulf Fritillary – maypops, other passion vines Henry’s Elfin – redbud, dahoon and yaupon hollies, maple-leaved viburnum, blueberries Monarch – milkweeds Painted Lady (Cosmopolite) – thistles, mallows, nievitas, yellow fiddleneck Pygmy Blue – saltbush, lamb’s quarters, pigweed Red Admiral/White Admiral – wild cherries, black oaks, aspens, yellow and black birch Silver-Spotted Skipper – locusts, wisteria, other legumes Spicebush Swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush Sulphurs – clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters Variegated Fritillary – passion flower, maypop, violets, stonecrop, purslane Viceroy – willows, cottonwood, aspen Western Tailed Blue – vetches, milkvetches Western Tiger Swallowtail – willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hoptree, ash Woodland Skipper – grasses Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw

This article was co-authored by Samuel Ramsey, PhD. Dr. Samuel Ramsey is an Entomologist and a researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture. Dr. Ramsey has extensive knowledge of symbiosis and specializes in insect disease spread, parasite behavior, mutualism development, biological control, invasive species ecology, pollinator health, and insect pest control. He holds a Bachelors degree in Entomology from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Maryland. Dr. Ramseys research on bees has enabled researchers to develop targeted control techniques to restore honey bee populations worldwide. He also hosts a YouTube series called Dr. Buggs.