The life cycle of caterpillars is incredible. If you have ever raised caterpillars, it might have been a wonderful experience for you to see young caterpillars turn into gigantic butterflies and moths. Whether if you have raised a caterpillar or not, you might have wondered, ‘What do caterpillars eat?‘ Well, their feeding process generally depends on what type they are and their feeding behaviors.
1. Let’s Understand Caterpillars and Their Feeding Behavior
There are more than twenty thousand species of caterpillars found around the world. Caterpillars generally hatch from eggs and they feed in a similar way as worms do but caterpillars turn into pupae and then grow into butterflies and moths. Caterpillars feed on certain kinds of plants. Those plants are called host plants. Many caterpillar species have specific host plants and butterflies initially lay their eggs on those host plants. Once caterpillars grow into butterflies, those butterflies drink the nectar of certain flowers. The flowers whose nectar they actually drink are called nectar plants.
1.1. Generalist feeders and Specialist Feeders
Mostly, caterpillars eat soft green plants and plant matter. Those caterpillar species are herbivores. Among these, two distinct categories of caterpillars are also there:- Specialist feeders and Generalist feeders. Specialist feeders are usually selective in what they eat and they eat only certain types of plants. For example, monarch caterpillars and black swallowtail caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars generally eat the foilage of milkweed plants. A milkweed plant has certain chemicals in them to attract caterpillars. On the other hand, black swallowtail caterpillars eat celery, carrots, and parsley. Generalist feeders, however, are not so picky.
You will be surprised to know that there is another caterpillar species which are carnivorous caterpillars and those caterpillar species generally eat small and soft-bodied insects, for example, aphids. All species of caterpillars hatch from eggs. During that time, they grow as worms. After turning into a pupa, they emerge as moths or butterflies.
2. What do Caterpillars eat?
Generally, caterpillars eat plant matter and dead leaves. A hungry caterpillar can even eat plants to an extent when it causes serious damage to the plant. However, most host plants have developed certain chemicals inside them to prevent the hungry caterpillars from eating them. Sometimes, caterpillars might cause caterpillar infestation in your garden which might destroy your crops, so you have to be very careful about it.
So, if you are wondering, “What do caterpillars eat?”, here are certain common foods that many caterpillars munch on:-
- Animal waste
- Bark and twigs
- Wild grasses
- Leaves and flowers
- Ant grubs
2.1. Animal Waste
If you are wondering, ‘What do caterpillars eat’, then one of them is natural animal fibers. Not all caterpillars eat this caterpillar food but certain species, namely the Skin Moth caterpillar, like having flies and certain kinds of beetles. Other caterpillars will basically feed on the flesh of birds and mice. They can be found inside birds’ nests.
2.2. Bark and Twigs
Some caterpillars eat plant matter. Most caterpillars feed on a willow tree. They succumb to tree trunks during the daytime and generally come out to feed on the bark at night. Butterflies lay their eggs inside the tunnel and when the caterpillars hatch, they come out of that tunnel to feed on the tree barks and plant matter.
2.3. Wild Grasses
Most caterpillars enjoy eating different grasses. Some also prefer consuming grass crops. However, not all caterpillars eat grass but those who do, even feed on the seeds and stems of the grass. While raising caterpillars, you can feed caterpillars with lawns and grass crops.
If you are wondering what to feed your pet caterpillars, you should know that caterpillars eat leaves, mainly oak leaves. Butterflies generally lay eggs on the plant leaves and caterpillars eat leaves when they are in a larva stage until they find a spot where they can pupate. Certain species of caterpillars such as a monarch caterpillar or a rosy marbled moth caterpillar eat native plants. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed leaves and Scarce footman moths feed on leaves of some low plants.
A widespread species of caterpillars thoroughly enjoy eating not just the leaves but the flowers of the plants too. Caterpillars eat flowers mainly, flower petals, and flower buds. One among those species is a starwort caterpillar and buttery moths. Star Wort Caterpillars love eating flowers and Sea Aster is a favourite to them. Some species such as Large blue butterflies enjoy having the wild thyme present in flowers.
Most caterpillars eat leaves and flowers but when the time comes where they have to pupate, they begin to feed on unwitting ants. Mainly, butterfly caterpillars feed on ants and animal waste. Certain species such as Large blue butterflies eat flowers of Wild Thyme and then shift to eating red ants when it is the time to pupate, unlike other caterpillars.
Certain caterpillars such as moth caterpillars try to invade beehives and feed on honeycombs because they really love sweet things. So, if you are someone, who also keeps bees, you have to watch out for moth caterpillars because it can be devastating for you to see your beehive getting infested by a caterpillar but if you are raising a caterpillar and do not have a beehive around, you can bring honeycomb for your caterpillar to feed on.
2.8. Flowers and Vegetables
Caterpillars eat lettuce and edible fruit such as pears and apples. Adult moths also feed on healthy foods and vegetables such as cabbage, corn, and stone fruits.
3. Which Animals Can Eat Caterpillars?
Caterpillars, in general, have many natural predators because of certain reasons. Firstly, they move really slowly and comparatively low on the food chain. Secondly, they are also a good source of protein. Mostly caterpillars are eaten by birds, ladybugs, ladybird beetles, humans, spiders, and even paper wasps. Birds can easily catch caterpillars as they have got a keen sight and can move much faster than caterpillars. Certain birds can even use caterpillars to feed their babies such as woodpeckers and yellow jackets.
Not only this but in certain countries like China and Bostwana, caterpillars are consumed by humans as they are a source of high proteins and fats. However, it’s safe to say that even caterpillars have developed certain mechanisms so that they can be safe from their predators. Some caterpillars have a particular diet that protects them. For instance, certain caterpillars eat food plants that contain certain toxins which can repel predators. Also, some caterpillars have got the ability to camouflage themselves and some species have hairs which have the ability to irritate the skin of their predators.
4. What do Caterpillars Eat When they Grow Up?
Caterpillars generally shift to liquid diets when they are in their adult form. Baby caterpillars usually munch on leaves, plant matter, and animal waste but you can see a change in their diet when they grow into adults. Caterpillars get toothed mandibles to chew their food but when they turn into moths or butterflies, they have a long appendage coming out from their heads which they can use to suck the liquid from their sources of food.
You can see butterflies consuming flower nectar, fruits, and pollen whereas moths most likely eat the liquid from rotten fruits, honeycombs, and even clothing fibers. They even suck liquids from flower nectar. Normally, when the time comes when the adult butterfly or moth has to lay eggs, they choose plants to lay their eggs on. They do so because that’s what the caterpillars are supposed to eat once they hatch. It is necessary for young caterpillars to have soft food which has more water content for hydration.
5. Final Note
Caterpillars eat in a substantial amount just like moths or butterflies. Sometimes, they eat so much that it doubles their size in a day. If you are someone, who wants to keep caterpillars as pets, you have to do quite a bit of research. It’s important to know what species they are to feed them rightly. You have to make sure that you feed the caterpillars moist food so that they stay hydrated. Give them a lot of food every day and prevent wilted foods and make sure there are no pesticides as they will be deadly to your caterpillar. Hope this article gets helpful for you to choose the right food for your caterpillars and watch those tiny caterpillars turn into beautiful adult butterflies.
1. Do monarch caterpillars eat each other?
Monarch caterpillars can generally be cannibals. They generally get very hungry and when the food is scarce, they even eat each other.
2. What do caterpillars eat when they are born?
The first thing caterpillars eat when they are born is their own eggshells. They chew their own eggshells on their way out and then the plant leaves where they got hatched.
3. Can caterpillars listen to humans?
There is no formal study if they can listen to humans talking but many species are reported to respond to sound.[amazon_auto_links id="280559"]