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How to Catch a Caterpillar: Everything You Need To Know!

How to Catch a Caterpillar

Thinking about caring for a caterpillar? There’s really no need to go far if you want to find caterpillars and hopefully hatch them into beautiful butterfly species. By cultivating your greens just right, the butterflies will actually come to you and leave behind babies that will go through metamorphosis.

There’s nothing quite like watching a caterpillar spin itself into a cocoon and then burst out as a butterfly at the end of the process. In this article, we’re going to talk about how to catch a caterpillar and assist it through the butterfly stage.

Butterflies and Moths – What’s the Difference?

Butterflies and Moths - What's the Difference

Many articles will tell you that not all caterpillars turn into butterflies. This is because, during the larvae stage, even a moth is called a caterpillar. Unless you’ve done your research on species, the butterfly and moth can be quite confusing. So what kind of caterpillar are you looking at right now? There are some distinct differences between the two species:

Caterpillar Stage

Butterflies and moths both start out as caterpillars but caterpillars are typically smoother in appearance. Moths on the other hand are fuzzy as if they have small spikes or hair growing out of their body. Note though that not all moths are fuzzy as caterpillars but butterflies are almost always smooth and sleek during this stage.

Cocoon Stage

Moth and butterfly caterpillars both spin a cocoon during the larval stage. What’s the difference though? Well, moths prefer to create cocoons with a little bit of fuzz on the surface. Butterfly caterpillars, on the other hand, have this smooth and hard covering called the chrysalis.

Adult Stage

Even at their adult stage, it can be tough to differentiate butterfly caterpillars from their moth counterparts. The general rule is that if it lands with its wings spread, that’s a moth. If it lands with its wings folded together, it’s a butterfly. Do you have to wait for them to land before you know?

Well, not really. Sometimes, all you have to do is look at the body. Moths usually have a thicker, shorter, and fuzzier body. A butterfly is typically more slender, longer, and with elongated legs. The color of the wings can also be an indicator as butterflies tend to be more vibrant.

Find a Caterpillar in Host Plants

Find a Caterpillar in Host Plants

So how do you invite butterflies to eat and start laying their eggs in your space? A good way is to plant “host plants” which would be the perfect home for the caterpillar once it grows up. Host plant leaves are the perfect food source for caterpillars even as it offers protection against predators. But what host plants should you use to feed them?

They should be attractive to the adult butterfly, something the caterpillars eat and give them some safety from predators. Often, the host plant is really a host garden because you want a variety in there to attract different species of butterflies.

Here are some of the best home plants for any type of caterpillar:


When it comes to flowers, the ideal ones include the tropical milkweed, aster, violet, aster, sunflower, hollyhock, and snapdragon. All of these flowering plants will attract the butterflies and give them a good place to lay their eggs. Even better, the presence of these butterflies in your property should encourage cross-pollination.


Shrubs can be a great place to get caterpillars since they hang low enough to be easily picked. Favorite shrubs for caterpillars include spicebush, new jersey tea, wild senna, false indigo, and coontie.


Next, you have vines that help the caterpillar hide from many predators. The leaf of these plants can be a good source of caterpillars during spring and summer: passion flowers, pipevines, and American wisteria.


Yes, trees can also be a place where butterflies lay their eggs. Monarch, which is one of the most distinctive species today, can fly up to 11,000 feet or 3,000 meters, allowing them to comfortably place their eggs on trees. Their favorites include the elm tree, the oak tree, pawpaw tree, sugarberry, tulip poplar, willow, and American elm.


If you don’t have gardens but still want to research caterpillars and butterflies, you can check through wildflowers and weeds. The spider flower, Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, clover, swamp milkweed plants, and the pearly everlasting are just some of the wildflowers favored by caterpillars.


Caterpillars could eat herbs if given the chance. Specifically, they adore the leaf of fennel, parsley, and dill. Now, if you are growing these for consumption, it’s best to keep them in an enclosure. This way, butterflies won’t lay their eggs and it would be safe from most pests.

Note that a plant may not always thrive in your particular area. If you must choose a host plant, make sure it will thrive in your particular weather. The best host plant is the one that can grow healthy and therefore provide enough food for the searching caterpillar.

What is the Perfect Host Plant for Specific Types?

What is the Perfect Host Plant for Specific Types

Will any host plant feed any caterpillar? Well, no. You have to remember that there are different species of butterflies and each one has a favorite leaf. For example, swallowtail caterpillars prefer the wild black cherry or the tulip tree as egg-laying ground. The western swallowtail, on the other hand, prefers the aspen tree to eat. You, therefore, need to find out what butterflies are native in your environment and then supply them with food leaves they can actually eat.

Will Caterpillars Damage my Plant?

Will Caterpillars Damage my Plant

Sadly, yes. Some people like to identify between bad caterpillars and good caterpillars. The bad ones will leave holes in your leaves and damage the stems. Chances are they can keep eating until every plant is dead. A good example of this would be the armyworm, the corn earworm, the cabbage looper, and the cutworm. You need to be familiar with these caterpillars because feeding them would decimate everything but twigs. Of course, if you want to preserve life, it’s always possible to just take these caterpillars off the plant and transfer them into an indoor setup that will allow them to reach maturity safely.

How Do You Catch and Keep a Caterpillar?

How Do You Catch and Keep a Caterpillar

Caterpillars aren’t very fast; catching them would be easy. The problem is, how do you keep them once caught? Well, keeping your caterpillar contained until it’s ready to fly off as a butterfly is entirely possible. In fact, a lot of people have been doing it without special equipment. Here are some of the things you need:

Search for a Good Enclosure

A caterpillar’s enclosure should be clean and large enough to accommodate a fully grown butterfly once it emerges. A jar is a common choice but could you get something bigger? Well, yes. An aquarium would be perfect and give your larvae room to choose the perfect spot. When preparing an enclosure, make sure that it is clean and put paper towels on the bottom.

Twigs, Sticks, and Stems

Be sure to put at least one major stem inside the jar or enclosure. The larvae would be hanging off this stem and spinning its cocoon once it’s done eating. If you have a large container, you can put several twigs or sticks so there’s room for the larvae to choose where to hang. Make sure they’re sturdy as the caterpillar will stay there for several days. The last thing you want is for the stick to fall off as the butterfly emerges from the cocoon.

Searching and Moving

Once your enclosure is ready, you could put your caterpillar inside. Be careful when putting it inside since it can be quite fragile with its squishy body. Spring and summer are the perfect time to hunt caterpillars. Make sure you’re also getting the leaves they’re in. This minimizes the shock the larvae may get as it gets moved to a different location.


Feeding the caterpillar is a priority and you can do that by simply providing it with the leaves of the host plant. Get some fresh leaves off the plant for feeding. Ideally, you’ll be feeding the caterpillar the same type of leaf until it enters the pupal stage. Do not give your caterpillar any leaf with sharp edges.

Make sure the lid has holes in it for air. Some people simply put a plastic wrapper as a lid and poke holes in it. It’s usually best to have a removable lid because you’ll be cleaning out the enclosure every day. If you notice any poop inside the jar, get the old paper towel out and replace it with a new one. The food should be fresh so make sure to pick his food every day.


Finally, you need to be patient. There’s no telling how long a caterpillar has been alive from the moment you picked it off the plant. Once placed inside the container, the best you can do is to feed the caterpillar and give it space to spin its cocoon.

Some caterpillars actually like to travel before spinning their shelter so a large enclosure with lots of twigs is always a good idea. The insect stays in its pupate stage for 1 to 2 weeks, depending on the species. Caterpillars are very environment-sensitive so they often wait for the perfect weather to emerge.

Hence, don’t be surprised if it takes more than 14 days for your pupate to burst out. Note that a moth takes approximately the same time to emerge.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions how to catch a caterpillar

What is the easiest way to search and find caterpillars?

Caterpillars are best found in their favorite host plants, typically underneath the leaves where they can hide away from predators. The plant would be the source of their food as well as their chosen location when transitioning to the pupa stage.

To find caterpillars, start by looking underneath the leaves of their host plants. If you can cultivate these plants yourself, then there’s no need to go far – the caterpillars will come to you for food.

What time of year do you find a caterpillar?

Caterpillars emerge during the early days of spring and fall since this is the best time for them to feed in preparation for the pupa stage. The specific months when they appear really depends on your location.

For example, caterpillars in North America would have a very different pattern from different species in say, Europe or South East Asia. The key, therefore, is to find what types of caterpillars can be found in your area and then figure out their breeding time.

What do caterpillars need to survive in a jar?

Could you keep your caterpillar in a jar? Of course! In fact, many butterfly enthusiasts start off by keeping the caterpillar in a jar. In order to survive, however, you need to put in leaves still attached to stems for eating. Ideally, you should put in the leaves of the same plant where you got them from. Make sure to poke holes on the lid so oxygen will circulate inside.

Can I take a pupa instead of a caterpillar?

Let’s say you didn’t find any caterpillar but instead found a cocoon. Should you still take it and put it in the jar? At this stage, it’s best not to disturb the pupa. There’s a good chance that it would fall off the stick if you move it from its current position. Just monitor it often to make sure there are no predators.

What happens if the cocoon turns dark?

Sadly, not all caterpillars turn into butterflies or even moths. A cocoon can turn dark during the process because the caterpillar died inside. This can be due to several factors such as viruses or bad weather. Sometimes, it’s not your fault, no matter how well you keep the container clean with paper towels.

What do I do when the butterfly emerges?

If you’re successful, make sure to guide a caterpillar into a butterfly, make sure to give her freedom. While you can offer food, it’s best to let the butterfly have fun outdoors and perhaps create new caterpillar species. It’s always interesting to find out what variety you’ll get when the cocoon opens up.

The same should be done if it turns out that you have a moth instead of a butterfly. Don’t forget to do your research and read any related article on the specific species you hatched!

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

A bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.

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