It’s not a sport you can watch on the Sports Channel, it’s not an event you’ll hear about on the evening news, but caterpillar hunting is fun and rewarding for people of all ages.
Caterpillars are baby butterflies and are often just as colorful and fascinating as their parents. For protection, many caterpillars hide in nests they construct to look just like a portion of their host plant, while others ingeniously use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings.
Where to Hunt
A vegetable garden is the best place to hunt for caterpillars. Vegetable plants like carrots, dill, fennel and parsley are favorite foods of many caterpillars and their ‘flying flower’ parent will alight on these garden plants and deposit a couple of eggs. Swallowtails will deposit eggs on garden plants and the ensuing caterpillars will look like a bird droppings on plant leaves.
Ants Lead the Way
Caterpillars of the blue or hairstreak flying flower can be found by following a trail of ants. These caterpillars are the same shade of green as their host plant’s leaves (cherry and willow trees, blueberries and peas), but they leave behind a moist, sugary trail that attracts ants.
The red admiral, Milbert’s tortoiseshell and eastern comma caterpillars can be found in the rolled leaves of nettle plants. Look for rolled or folded leaves during the daylight and gently unfold the leaves to reveal the developing butterfly hidden inside or use a flashlight and visit the nettle patch at night to watch the caterpillars feeding. All three species are dark colored and have a multitude of spines.
Some caterpillars ‘hide’ in plain view with their bright colors making them easily visible. These brightly colored caterpillars, like those of the monarch butterfly, are toxic to predator, so they don’t have to hide. Look for the yellow, white and black banded monarch caterpillar on milkweeds.
Watch the Butterflies
Observe what plants butterflies in your area land on. Identify the plant species then go hunt for caterpillars on those plants in your landscape. Inspect the leaves, flowers or fruit for signs of feeding and if you find them, then look in and under the leaves for the caterpillars.
If you want to witness (and share with children) the amazing transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, do not touch a discovered cocoon. Snip 6-8 inches of the branch off that is hosting the cocoon, then place the branch in a clear, vented container in the same manner as it was on the plant (upright, diagonal or horizontal). An old terrarium, aquarium or a clear glass jar works nicely. Place leaves inside the container from the host plant, then watch and wait for the transformation.