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How to Raise a Caterpillar Into a Butterfly or Moth

Updated on June 22, 2016

Raising a Caterpillar -- What You Need to Know

My many years if experience can help you as you try to raise the caterpillar you found into an adult. It's not a particularly difficult pursuit, but there are several pitfalls in the process, and you don't get a second chance -- once you're caterpillar is dead, that's that. But if you're careful and thoughtful and follow this guide, your little companion at least has a fighting chance.

Did you find a caterpillar?

Do you want to know what it turns into? Maybe your caterpillar will be a moth. Or it could be a butterfly! The best way to find out is by raising your caterpillar to adulthood. Raising caterpillars is easy if you know a few things about the kind of caterpillar you have. This lens will help you get started. If everything goes well, your patience will be rewarded with the emergence of a new butterfly or moth.

By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

No Caterpillar? Not a Problem!

Here's where to get a kit that has caterpillars, food, and everything else you need.

I intended this guide to show you how to raise caterpillars that you have found, but there's another option. Many people choose to get one of these affordable Painted Lady caterpillar kits. These kits include baby caterpillars, food, and everything else you need to watch the amazing process of metamorphosis.

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- The Supplies

Here's What You Need:

1. Medium-sized tupperware container or quality "Bug Habitat"

2. Paper towels

3. A stick or two

4. Leaves from the caterpillar's food plant

5. A lot of patience

By Lpm (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- The Method I Use

Here's What You Do:

First, be VERY careful with the caterpillar. They're quite fragile, and can be easily bruised or damaged.

Basically you want to create the ideal habitat for your caterpillar to turn into an adult. It's not difficult, but there are a few things that matter very much.

  • Step 1: Get a clean tupperware container, ideally at least 5 inches square and 3-4 inches high. You may want to order a special "Bug Habitat"
  • Step 2: Fold a paper towel and put it in the bottom of the container.
  • Step 3: Place a plain dry stick or popsicle stick (or two) in the container
  • Step 4: CAREFULLY place the caterpillar in the container. If it's on a leaf, place the whole leaf in along with the caterpillar.
  • Step 5: If the caterpillar was on a plant and is still eating, keep fresh leaves in the container until is pupates.
  • Step 6: If the caterpillar poops, clean it out. You may need to change the paper towel occasionally.
  • Step 7: If the caterpillar crawls into the paper towel and disappears, don't worry! It's probably hiding before it pupates.
  • Step 8: After it pupates, keep an eye on things. Eventually it will hatch into an adult!

Read on for more information, videos, photos, and important tips!

By Arbuck (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Rule Number One: It's probably a moth. - Almost all of the caterpillars you find will be moth caterpillars

Why? There are a couple of reasons, but here's the main one -- while there are maybe 400 species of butterfly common enough for you to ever encounter one, there are over 10,000 species of moths! Many of them are small and not very noticeable, but there's still a huge overbalance of moths compared to butterflies. Plus, moths tend to be more common from species to species, and will sometimes "explode" into huge outbreaks of millions of individuals, or even just a few hundred crawling around outside your house. Butterflies almost never do that -- when you find a butterfly caterpillar, it's usually alone and on a plant, where caterpillars are generally hard to find anyway. Taken all together, for every one butterfly caterpillar you find, you'll come across maybe 20 different moth caterpillars.

But moths are cool! They are some of the most gorgeous and under appreciated animals on the planet. So raise that caterpillar to adulthood and see what you've been missing.

How to Raise a Caterpillar --- Was It on a Plant?

This is one of the first questions I always ask.

It's important to think about exactly where you found your caterpillar. This is because caterpillars almost always stay on the plant that they eat to survive. Since caterpillars eat leaves, they need leaves to eat when you raise them. But you can't just go outside and get a handful of leaves and grass and expect them to eat it! That would be like someone grabbing a random handful of raw eggs and flour and salt and expecting you to eat that. Like you, caterpillars eat only certain foods – often the leaves of only one or two kinds of tree or bush.

Think about where you found your caterpillar, and make sure you supply it with fresh leaves from the same plant you found it on. Keep it in a tight tupperware container, or a jar, with a vertical stick or two in case your caterpillar is in the mood to climb. Don't forget to change the leaves every couple of days. There will be poops – caterpillars poop A LOT – and you need to clean these out or mold might grow, which is not only gross but also dangerous to your caterpillar's health.

Caterpillars do need a good amount of attention, but after awhile, your caterpillar will make a pupa or a cocoon. Keep reading for more information about that!

A Great Habitat for Your Caterpillar - Better than tupperware...

Backyard Safari Land and Water Lighted Habitat
Backyard Safari Land and Water Lighted Habitat

Check out these awesome features: A built-in pool for amphibious critters and a sculpted terrain for interesting viewing of inhabitants in a life-like setting

Clear dome allows 360° viewing

Dry terrain for land critters

Water pool for amphibious creatures

Capture core transfer port for transferring live bugs

 

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- Was It on the Ground?

I'm always surprised that people don't remember! But let's say your caterpillar wasn't on a plant, but was crawling around on the ground, or on a tree trunk, or on your porch. If that's the case, then your caterpillar is trying to tell you something, and it's this: “I'm about to spin a cocoon!”

Usually the only reason a caterpillar will leave its food plant is to find a place to make a cocoon or a chrysalis (or, to use the scientific term, a “pupa”). As a matter of fact, that's when you're most likely to find a caterpillar at all. When they decide it's time to pupate, caterpillars often leave the plant they've been eating and crawl a little ways away, looking for the perfect place to turn into an adult.


Identify Your Caterpillar With This Resource

I put together this Caterpillar Identification Guide to help you figure out what kind of caterpillar you have. Here you'll find photos and descriptions of many of the caterpillars you're likely to find in North America, along with pictures of the adult moth or butterfly that each one becomes. Have fun looking for a perfect match to the caterpillar you found!

How to Raise a Caterpillar -- Diggers Versus Spinners, Part One

Many caterpillar species, especially moths, can be roughly divided into diggers and spinners. This is because when it's time to rest (pupate) and turn into an adult, they do one of two things: dig down into the ground, or go somewhere quiet and spin a cocoon. Let's look at each kind, and what they'll need from you.

Digger Caterpillars

Many moth caterpillars crawl a little ways away from the food plant and then dig down a few inches into the ground. There they shrug off their skin, and underneath is a brown, nut-like pupa that will soon hatch out into the adult moth. If you found a caterpillar crawling on the ground, put it into a "Bug Habitat". Don't worry about airholes – the caterpillar will be fine with the amount of air in the container. Chances are a caterpillar that you found on the ground will dig around in the paper towel for a day or two, and then turn into a smooth brown pupa. If it does, congratulations! You have made that caterpillar very happy by giving it a nice comfy home in which to turn into an adult.

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- Diggers Versus Spinners, Part Two

Spinner Caterpillars

Sometimes the caterpillar you find will spin a cocoon.But you can use the same bug-habitat method described above. The difference will be that the caterpillar makes a little shelter for itself before shrugging off its skin and becoming a pupa. All cocoons have a little pupa inside them. If your caterpillar spins a cocoon, cool! Inside it's changing into an adult moth.

By GothMoths (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Watch As a Silkworm Spins Its Cocoon - I love this beautiful video

The true silk moth, species Bombyx mori, doesn't occur in nature anymore -- they're found solely in places that use them to manufacture silk. That's right -- all silk fabric is the product of an insect! The silk begins as a liquid, and when it hits the air it hardens into a strong thread of silk.

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- Diggers Versus Spinners, Part Three

What if it isn't either of these?

It's possible that you caterpillar belongs to a butterfly species, in which case it will turn into a chrysalis, which is really just a pupa with a few extra decorations. Most butterfly chrysalises will hang from a leave or twig, so that's why your habitat includes a vertical stick or two. If you do have a butterfly caterpillar, it will crawl up on the stick and make a really cook chrysalis. Inside, the caterpillar will turn into a butterfly.

The life cycle of the monarch butterfly is typical of this system.

A Really Great Caterpillar Book - This book is a tremendous photographic guide to caterpillars

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- I Think My Caterpillar Died!

Wait! Don't give up yet. It's easy to think that your caterpillar has died, when actually it's only turned into a still, brown pupa. Inside it's very much alive, and all of its cells are rearranging themselves into a completely different-looking kind of insect – a full-grown butterfly or moth. Don't give up, and don't throw it away. If it actually is dead, it will dry up and turn into a little shriveled raisin-like thing. Then it's dead, and it's time to say goodbye. But usually it's just resting and changing!

This photo shows a typical pupa -- if your caterpillar looks anything like this, then never fear -- it's fine.

How To Raise a Caterpillar -- Hey, My Caterpillar Turned Into a Butterfly! - (But it will probably be a moth)

The day will come when you look in on your caterpillar and see a new insect in the cage – an adult moth or butterfly! It's a really excellent moment, and congratulations are in order. If you can, look in a book or online and try to find out what it is. If you want to start a collection, pop the insect in the freezer for a few hours – that will kill it, and you can spread out the wings, make a label, and begin a scientific collection. Otherwise just let it go. It will fly away, mate, and lay eggs that will turn into the next generation. Way to go!

Watch As a Butterfly Emerges From its Chrysalis - A Monarch is Born...

Uh-Oh -- Something Is Definitely Wrong. - If your caterpillar stops moving and little white things suddenly appear on it, that's bad.

It's very common for caterpillars to be attacked by a tiny wasp called a "parasite." These little insects lay eggs on caterpillars, and then the tiny wasp larvae live inside the caterpillar, living off of the fat stored by the caterpillar. Over time, these little wasp larvae get bigger and bigger, until it's time for them to spin their own little cocoons (that's right, some wasp larvae spin cocoons of their own before they hatch into grown-up wasps -- which just shows how wasps and butterflies are related!).

When it's time to spin their cocoons, the little larvae do what they have to -- they tunnel out of the caterpillar's skin and spin cocoons right there. That's why you see all those little while bumps -- those are the cocoons of the parasite wasp larvae. Soon they'll hatch into little black wasps and fly off to repeat the process.

This is all very bad news for your caterpillar. The condition is 100% fatal. BUT if you think about it, it's a really cool lesson in how nature works. And if these little wasps didn't exist, you and your house would be living under an ocean of caterpillars.

Take a Caterpillar Poll!

Are you going to try to raise a caterpillar?

See results

This Is a Great Home or School Project - Raise Painted Lady Butterflies

I love this project -- and so did my kids. You begin with tiny little caterpillars and watch as they eat, grow, turn into a chrysalis, and then hatch into big orange and black butterflies. So cool.

Live Butterfly Kit: SHIPPED WITH 5 Painted Lady Caterpillars Now-Hanging Cage
Live Butterfly Kit: SHIPPED WITH 5 Painted Lady Caterpillars Now-Hanging Cage

This is a good, solid kit -- Includes 3 foot tall hanging net cage with easy access zipper

 
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