You've probably noticed it's that caterpillar time of the year again! If you are out and about in your yard, garden, or even hiking, you have probably seen many caterpillars lately. I know I have! I've also been taking pictures and researching them to see which species have chosen our gardens to be their home.
Caterpillars are one of those love-hate relationships! You hate to see them because it means that one of your plants has probably almost disappeared! But at the same time, don't you love watching the adult versions of what they will become? Not mention the essential pollination those beauties provide! So what is one to do?
Well, it really is up to you, but I can share some of what I do. I start to see groups of caterpillars when one of the following has occurred: Your plants are suddenly missing serval leaves! Most caterpillars do 80-90% of their feeding is in the last two days before they pupate, so it can look as if they showed up overnight. Sometimes you catch them because the eggs were laid in masses, and the newly hatched caterpillars will feed together. So when you find caterpillars you have some choices:
- Gather them all up and take them safely far away from all your plants. For me, that is off in the woods. You may have a friend who has a flower garden and would love to have some pollinators join their garden.
- If it is the end of the plant's life cycle, then return your blessings back to nature. Let the caterpillars have it as a thank you for their pollination work.
- You can feed them to your chickens. This is the natural cycle of life y'all; birds eat caterpillars and other type bugs. You'll want to read up on the specific type of caterpillar, but I find that chickens somehow know which ones are okay or not. Warning, the chickens may not be interested at all and will walk away from the caterpillar. If you don't want the caterpillars to venture off to another one of your plants, you might want to stay and make sure.
- If you have a situation where none of the above will work, please make sure you humanly get rid of them.
- * This is one we have done before, but I do caution you because you need to be dedicated. You can set up a chrysalis station (also called butterfly farms, growing kits). There are a lot of things you may have at home that can serve as a station. You will want to research and see if it's right for you.
Below are some cool caterpillars I've found on the homestead and what they become!
Named after it's favorite food, you guessed it, azaleas! They also feed on defoliate blueberries, which are in the same plant family as azaleas. Azalea Caterpillars become Azalea Moths. Their appearance changes as the caterpillars grow. Young caterpillars have red and yellow longitudianl stripes. Older caterpillars have white squares that appear in lines across the black body and red legs and head. I'm afraid the moth is not this colorful and has a brown color palette for wings and body, but its head is a reddish-brown.
Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar:
I went out onto the patio garden one morning to find half my dill plant eaten and what was left, covered in this green & black striped (with yellow polka-dots caterpillar! Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillars love dill, rue, and fennel plants! These colorful caterpillars are also known to be unpredictable when it comes to the chrysalis stage. They can roam far away from the host plant to form their chrysalis, which can then be a light brown, dark brown, or green. From observing different photos of the chrysalis, it seems they camouflage to match their surroundings. Sounds pretty smart to me! Once the butterfly emerges, its caterpillar stage yellow polka-dots are now visible on her abdomen. Upper wings are black with yellow dots, and the bottom wings are spotted with blue dots and one orange dot along the side.
Gulf Fritillary Caterpillars:
This caterpillar looks gnarly with a solid orange base and black spike type spines that cover its body! I found these guys on one of my favorite plants, the passionflowers! Which of course, like when I saw the previous caterpillars on individual plants, it turns out that the passionflower is the Gulf Fritillary's favorite host plant! So, planting passionflowers will not only allow you options for medicinal use, but you will have a host plant for pollinators!
Texas Butterfly Ranch
Mississippi State Extension
Butterfly Atlas, University of South Florida
I hope you learned something about our captivating caterpillars! Show them some love, and they will love you back with beautiful flowers and food!