How to Feed a Caterpillar
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Plant it and they will come!
As the weather warms, the flying critters emerge from their winter homes looking for food and a place to nest or lay their eggs. I spotted the first butterfly of the season flitting about my broccoli. She was looking for a suitable home to lay her eggs. Being the good mom that she is, she knew that broccoli was on the list of desirable foods for her little hatchlings.
And lay some eggs she did!
We’ve all been hearing about the plight of the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. We know that if the pollinators disappear, we will eventually follow. The pollinators–the good, the bad, and the ugly–are all absolutely necessary for our food production. So in order for us to save ourselves, we need to be saving the pollinators by providing food, shelter, water, and the right plants for them to reproduce. Yes, that means some nibbled leaves in your garden.
The flowering plants in our gardens–provided that they are not sprayed with pesticides–usually produce the nectar needed for butterflies and many of the other pollinators’ diets. The same plants can provide shelter, but what about the plants that are needed for rearing their young? These plants are called host or larval plants. These are the plants that the caterpillars will eat–usually the leaves but occasionally the flowering parts–as they grow to become the adult version that performs the important job of pollination.
Most butterflies are very particular about what plants will be suitable for their young. By becoming familiar with the common butterflies in your area, you can then provide the right host plants. Keep in mind, that these insects and their host plants have evolved together throughout time. The plants will be eaten…count on it…celebrate it…but most plants will survive to grow more leaves.
Common Butterflies in Your Area
Learning about the butterflies that are most common in your area will help you decide the best host plants to use and will also help you to identify the caterpillars that you may find. The best way I know how to do this is by keeping a good butterfly field guide* nearby. My personal favorite is the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America*, but there are many very good guides available.
Host Plants for Common Butterflies
I have compiled a list of many of the common butterflies that can be found throughout the United States and their host plants. To print your copy, click Butterfly Host Plant List. If you study the list closely, you will see that many of our “weeds” serve a very important role. The weeds of the world are not there just to aggravate the heck out of gardeners!
A few tips to follow concerning host plants:
- Plant several of the same plant in groups. (This does not apply to the trees.) Butterflies and other pollinators have a much easier time finding a group of plants rather than a few isolated ones. Additionally, eggs are often laid in clusters or in singles all over the plant. Make sure the hatchlings have plenty of food by grouping the plants.
- Choose local, native varieties of the host plant if at all possible. If you purchase these plants, make sure that they have not been sprayed with insecticides.
- Host plants can be planted in pots (even the plastic nursery pots) and temporarily placed among other plants in the garden. In this way, when the host plant has been eaten, it can easily be moved out of the garden and into another area for recuperating.
- Nectar plants and host plants should be located closely together and ideally in large groups. Don’t require the females to eat in one area and then have to hunt for host plants in another area in order to deposit her eggs.
- When you spot caterpillars on your plants, get excited! Caterpillars can often be found hiding on the underside of the leaves or near the base of the plants. You know you have caterpillars when the leaves are being eaten (look for holes in the leaves) and you find caterpillar poop (call frass) on the leaves and around the base. Do not touch the caterpillars or move them off of their plant!