Raising Butterflies: Where to Find Caterpillars (or Eggs)

monarch caterpillar on milkweed - tips for finding caterpillars by Adrienne Zwart
Watching a butterfly go through its entire life cycle is a fascinating process.  And it’s a great way to teach your children about science and our great Creator God.  The design of these creatures and their metamorphosis is simply amazing! Perhaps raising butterflies is a project you have been wanting to try, but wondered how to get started.  Well, this is the post for you. :) Read on to learn where to find caterpillars for a science project (or just for fun)!

My hobby actually started when my son Henry was a first grader.   As a spring science project, his teacher ordered a classroom kit of painted lady butterfly larvae. (Larva is the scientific name for caterpillar.)  Each of the students received his or her own caterpillar in a tiny cup that had pre-measured food material in the bottom.  Henry named his caterpillar “Coconut” and he wrote updates on its growth in a journal.  Then one day Coconut made a chrysalis and Henry brought him home.

Coconut had made his chrysalis on the lid of the container, so we removed the lid and attached it to the short end of a shoebox with a loop of scotch tape.  We covered the shoe box loosely with plastic wrap (and poked some airholes in it) and watched.  Coconut successfully emerged about a week later and Henry tearfully released him.  He was proud, and I was hooked.
painted lady butterfly emerges from chrysalis - photo by Adrienne Zwart at adrienneinohio.blogspot.com
That summer, we ordered our own Butterfly habitat which came with a certificate for 5 Painted Lady caterpillars.  We enjoyed watching them grow and change, and releasing them was exciting.

Where to Find Caterpillars 

1. Order caterpillars from a supply house

Since then, we have ordered several batches of Painted Lady caterpillars. They are very hardy and easy to raise. I tried ordering monarch caterpillars twice. Monarchs are very sensitive caterpillars, however, and are susceptible to a parasite. Unfortunately, both batches I received were infected and died within a week. (That supplier is not listed below.)

Recommended supply houses:

2. Observe host plants and collect caterpillars from the leaves

To raise other types of butterflies native to your area, it helps to know where to look for the eggs or caterpillars. I love this book by Richards and Burris called The Life Cycle of Butterflies. There is a section for each of the featured butterflies with lists of the larval host plants and nectar plants as well as photos of all of the life stages.
Monarch Larva on Common Milkweed - Photo by Adrienne ZwartI am currently raising a monarch that I found in the wild with much greater success than the purchased specimens.  (View a monarch egg here.)

I have raised Eastern Tiger Swallowtails that I found on a tulip poplar in the backyard. These are very common in Northeast Ohio, and 100% of them survived to release.

You may even be fortunate enough to find an egg by inspecting a leaf on which a butterfly has just landed. My daughter Megan followed an Orange Sulfur around the yard one afternoon and watched it lay an egg on a white clover leaf. The caterpillar that hatched from it was the tiniest caterpillar I have ever seen!
Orange Sulfur Butterfly Egg on Clover Leaf - Photo by Adrienne Zwart

More Tips for Raising Your Own Butterflies from Caterpillars

1. Place in Proper Container

Be sure to have a sterile container with adequate air circulation for your caterpillar. For a list of tips on selecting and maintaining a healthy caterpillar habitat, read yesterday's caterpillar raising tips.

2. Provide Fresh Food

Be sure to provide fresh leaf material each day if you are picking the leaves one at a time. You can provide a whole stem of leaves at once if your container is large enough. Either use a floral tube with rubber top to keep your stem watered, or secure a piece of plastic wrap over a container of water and insert the stem through a small opening in the top. It is important to keep the water source completely covered. Your caterpillars will drown if they fall in.

If your caterpillar is resting on the previous day's leaf, gently place the old leaf on top of the fresh one and wait for the caterpillar to crawl onto it. Alternately, you can use a soft, small paintbrush to coax the caterpillar from behind. The caterpillars can be quite fragile, especially just after molting, and it is best not to handle them with your fingers.

*You do not need to provide fresh food if you are raising Painted Ladies from a supply house as they come with a pre-measured amount of food. It is enough to last the entire larval period. You also do not need to empty the frass each day. Actually, it is best not to open the container at all until all the caterpillars have pupated (made a chrysalis).

It will take about two weeks for your caterpillar to be ready to make a chrysalis. More about that in my next post.

Have you raised caterpillars before?  Tell me about it in the comments below!


Judy said…
Sounds fascinating!! I did not realize there were places I could buy the caterpillars!! That would be so much fun!
Lona said…
What a fun project Adrienne. I am sure it was fascinating for the children and Momma Too. LOL!
Lindsay said…
I just looked at your photography blog--you are so talented! What beautiful pictures. And now I'm excited to try raising caterpillars when my baby is a little older...
How fun!
I'm linking your post to my recent butterfly post.

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