Page 1 Raising Caterpillars Page 2
Why raise a caterpillar?
Julia Butterfly Caterpillar
{Because they tickle your fingers when they walk across them, and it's fun. The caterpillar on my fingers on the left is a Julia Butterfly Caterpillar}

One reason to raise a caterpillar might be to enjoy watching the butterfly life cycle close-up. The first time a butterfly emerges from it's chrysalis right in front of you it's amazing! The second time is just as fabulous...

Another reason might be the parasites and bacteria in your garden. Raising caterpillars inside helps protect them from some of the more unfortunate endings that outdoor caterpillars are subject to.

My best reason is that it's the only way to get a good look at (and thus photograph) some butterflies. For example: Zebra Heliconian Butterflies flitter about slowly near the ground. They'll land right in front of you, sometimes even on you, and let you have a close up look at them, but Giant Swallowtail Butterflies tend to zip about high overhead, zoom along really fast, and never let you play with them. I raised this Giant Swallowtail from a caterpillar, and you can see that it's posing on my finger while it's wings finish drying. [I was going to say 'happily posing', but butterflies don't have a mouth, thus they can't smile, so it's difficult to say for sure if they're happy, or just waiting for me to go away and leave them alone.]

How Do You Raise A Caterpillar?
Giant Swallowtail Butterfly
1) Find Your Caterpillar

See my Host Plants page to learn what plants to look for a caterpillar on. I only have the plants I've found caterpillars on, so you might have to look elsewhere too. Butterflies and Moths is a good site to help you find Butterflies and Butterfly Host Plants in the US. They have a map search feature that allows you to click on your state, and then your county; then it gives you a list of the butterflies near you. If you know of a similar resource for other countries, email me and I'll add it here.

Some of the plants I've listed, such as Milkweed, grow in lots of places, and the Monarch Butterflies that lay eggs on Milkweed are widespread, so that might be a good plant for you to start looking for to check for caterpillars. Half chewed leaves are a good clue that there might be a caterpillar on the plant.

Another approach, one that works very well for me, is to simply follow the butterflies. Many female butterflies fly low to the ground "tasting" various leaves with their feet when they're ready to lay an egg. Watch one that's acting like that for a while, and if you see her curl her abdomen toward the leaf, look at that spot very carefully after she's done and you might find an egg.

This Zebra Heliconian Butterfly is laying an egg on a Passiflora Suberosa vine. Zebra Heliconian Butterflies lay their eggs in a group on the tender tip of the vine; you can see an oval yellow egg she's all ready laid next to where she's laying another, and those yellow dots in the background above her are another group of eggs.

Zebra Heliconian Butterfly Laying An Egg
You could pinch off the leaf, stem, or vine that the egg is on and try to raise them when they hatch, but I don't recommend it. The caterpillars are SO small when they hatch that they're too easy too lose. They'll crawl right out through the slots in the bug box (tips on fixing that shortly). They also don't tolerate crispy food as well. If you come home late one day, or forget to give them fresh food, you're more likely to have dead caterpillars than if you start with a partly grown one. Unfortunately, I know this from experience.
2) Contain Your Caterpillar
My favorite way to keep a caterpillar is in one of these handy (inexpensive) little bug boxes:

If you're tempted to toss your caterpillar in a cup and cover it with plastic wrap, check this page first! Use a paper towel or a bit of cloth instead.

Once your caterpillar gets ready to make a chrysalis or cocoon (it makes a chrysalis if it's a butterfly, a cocoon if it's a moth), it will need a stick to crawl up; sometimes they use the lid, but you can't count on that.

If you know what critter you have, and are SURE that it makes a cocoon or chrysalis on or in the ground, skip the stick, but be VERY VERY SURE! Butterflies MUST hang upside-down to expand and dry their wings. If they emerge from their chrysalis, and can't hang upside-down with enough space to expand their wings, their wings will harden all crumpled and they will never be able to fly.
This fuzzy little Utetheisa Moth caterpillar seemed big enough to go in my bug box, but when I went to feed it after work it was GONE! My daughter found it crawling up her desk the next day, over 40 feet away from the bug box it escaped from! If you even think it MIGHT escape, put a paper towel over the top of the bug box (which is why I buy one of the smaller two sizes) before you put the lid on.
3) Feed Your Caterpillar
Your caterpillar needs to be fed daily; twice a day is better. At first, when they're smaller, they won't eat too much. Then, suddenly, they eat so much it's scary. One Monarch Caterpillar can eat every leaf off of an entire two foot tall Milkweed plant, and might eat more. Be sure that you have an adequate supply of food close to home before you bring the caterpillar home.
It's safer for the caterpillar if you wash the plant you bring in to feed it. Imagine that it's salad for people, and wash it just as well. A quick shake in a loosely wrapped paper towel to dry it before you stick it in the bug box is a good idea too.

What goes in must come out: they poo, so you need to dump their debris out of their container frequently. It's a good idea to set the caterpillar aside and wash and dry the container every day or so too. I dump my caterpillar poo on my plants outside. [If you need a science project, and you're raising caterpillars, try feeding some plants caterpillar poo, some fertilizer, and some nothing. Let me know if the poo feeds the plants, and I'll post your results here.]

Things can go wrong. I suggest that you limit each container to one caterpillar if you can. To find out why, and learn more about what can go wrong, go to Raising Caterpillars Page Two.

Julia Butterfly Caterpillar
Utetheisa Moth Caterpillar
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