It is autumn, the best time of year for finding caterpillars – an activity that offers enough excitement to pull kids of all ages away from their cell phones and electronic gadgets and get them to go outdoors with you!
A little advance planning will increase your chances of finding caterpillars. If you know the favorite host plants for various kinds of butterflies and moths you will have a better idea about where to look for them. For instance, Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, so look for the kinds of milkweed that grow in your area. Two common kinds of milkweed are Joe Pye Weed and Asclepias or Butterfly Weed.
Gulf Fritillary butterflies lay eggs on Passion Flower vines which can be found along the roadsides in all but the most northern states in the US. Here is a YouTube video that will help you identify the Passion Flower vines which may have flowers and/or “Maypop” fruit hanging from them.
Black Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on parsley and fennel so your best place to look might be in garden spots or even at a nursery where you might be able to purchase a plant complete with eggs and/or caterpillars and take it home with you. Beware of trying to keep too many caterpillars on one plant however. Here is a link to such a caterpillar story with a very sad ending.
There are many more host plants you might look for. Click this link for a long list of host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars.
Choose your weapons carefully. A camera makes a short commitment weapon. Bring only the pictures home with you and enjoy them.
But if you are prepared for follow-through (keeping the caterpillars alive until they pupate) then carry large jars (quart or gallon size) or make a butterfly house from a box with one or more sides cut out and replaced with a sheer fabric you can see through. You can also use a net laundry hamper turned upside down over your plant and caterpillars. This might work if they are on a low growing plant in your yard.
If you bring your caterpillar finds indoors, make the commitment to keep them alive. Bring them fresh leaves from the same kind of plant that you found them on. They won’t eat just any kind of leaves, they need the same kind of food they were eating when you found them.