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A relaxing and calm adventure: keeping Caterpillars as Pets

Butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) are considered to be
among the most beautiful insects in the world. And because
of their life cycle they are fascinating to watch and keep
as pets. You can buy caterpillars commercially with all the
stuff you need to grow one from a caterpillar, or if you do
some research first, you can find one in the early spring
and summer and raise one yourself.

It is important to prepare before going out hunting for your
caterpillar. You should have a glass jar with a lid with
breathing holes in which to put your caterpillar. Do not
handle caterpillars they are remarkable sensitive to
pressure and some caterpillars can bite, may have stinging
hairs, and some excrete a goo when stressed that can
irritate your skin. You should just pluck off the leaf or
plant branch that the caterpillar is eating and put the
plant and caterpillar in the glass jar.

It is important to make a note of exactly where you found
your caterpillar, because the plant you took it from is a
food source for the caterpillar, and many butterfly and moth
caterpillars will eat only the plants they are genetically
programmed to eat. A plant that butterflies and moths
caterpillars like to eat is called a "host plant."

Here are some examples of host plants and their
butterflies or moths:

Host Plant                    Butterfly Species
Milkweed                     Monarch Butterfly
Spicebush Spicebush    Swallowtail
Paw-Paw                     Zebra Swallowtail
Parsley, Dill, Fennel      Black Swallowtail
Walnut, Sweet Gum      Luna Moth
Cherry Cecropia Moth, Viceroy, Red-Spotted Purple

Also, do not collect more than a couple of caterpillars from
a particular site. Overcrowding your caterpillar habitat can
cause stress and kill all of the caterpillars you collected,
and also the butterfly or moth whose caterpillar you
collected may be rare in your area so you wouldn't want to
remove too many. Try not to collect a caterpillar that is
simply crawling along the ground. There are many types of
caterpillars and unless you know what type it is and what it
eats you can easily starve it to death.

It is pretty easy to keep caterpillars. Take a large glass
jar and poke some holes in the lid, making sure they are
smaller than the caterpillar so it can't crawl through.
Caterpillars are good climbers. Or you can use a clear
plastic container or a commercially made insect habitat or a
five or ten gallon aquarium with a screen top. If you know
that your caterpillar is a type of butterfly or moth that
will pupae while hanging from a branch, the easiest flooring
for its cage is a layer of paper towels. But if it is a moth
and will pupate under the soil, or if you don't know what it
is, put a few inches of loose potting soil on the bottom of
its cage.

Take the plants that you collected for food for your
caterpillar and put the stem ends into a smaller jar with
water, so that they do not die right away, and place them
into the caterpillar's habitat for its food. If you
caterpillar is small you may want to put some gauze or
cotton over the top of the smaller jar and then stick the
stems through, to avoid your caterpillar falling in and

You will also need a spray bottle and distilled water to
mist the inside of the habitat every day or so to let your
caterpillar drink from the water droplets. Be careful to
avoid building up too much condensation in the habitat,
though, to avoid mold, fungus and bacteria growth that can
kill your pet.

Keep an eye on the plants that you place in the jar. You
will have to replace them once the caterpillar has stripped
the plant bare or when the plant begins to wilt, die, or
grow mold or fungus. A caterpillar won't eat old, dry
leaves, and as the caterpillar gets bigger it will require
more and more food, so make sure that you can find an
abundant supply of the plant that it needs to eat. If you
are keeping more than one caterpillar keep in mind that
caterpillars may become cannibalistic towards each other if
they do not have enough to eat. Always be sure to carefully
inspect your fresh plant cuttings for spiders or insects. It
is very sad to discover a very fat and happy spider in your
jar rather than your caterpillar. It is also sad to discover
that you threw out a caterpillar or two with the old plants,
so watch for that as well.

You will find a lot of little odorless caterpillar feces
(called frass) on the leaves and the bottom of the habitat
if your caterpillar is eating well, so it is a great idea to
have two identical containers so you can transfer the
caterpillar to a clean cage while you clean the old one each
day. You can put the frass on your plants for a good

When your caterpillar enters the pupation stage or begin to
form a chrysalis or cocoon you should make sure that it has
suitable sites to begin changing into butterflies or moths.
Butterflies need sticks and branches from which to suspend
their chrysalis. Some Flexible branches that will stand up
and hang over work well. If you are unsure of what type of
caterpillar you have, you should present them with a choice
of sites to make their chrysalis. Caterpillars don't need
food or water while they are pupating, so you won't have
much work to do during this period.

Once they have pupated, they won't emerge for a couple of
weeks if you collected them during the spring or early
summer. If you collected the caterpillar during the fall
then it is a type of butterfly or moth that will winter over
in its chrysalis or cocoon, and emerge in the spring. In
that case, to prevent your caterpillar from dying during
this stage it is best to put the pupa into a clean covered
jar and store it in your refrigerator (Not the freezer!) and
sprinkle it lightly with water once a week.

If the cocoon falls off the stick, you can put a dot of hot
glue in a good place on the stick or on a piece of paper,
wait a bit for the glue to cool some, and stick it back on
so that the cocoon is hanging properly. In early spring
remove it from the refrigerator and set the jar in a bright
place, but out of direct sun. Continue to sprinkle it once a
week, and in four to six weeks you should find a lovely
butterfly or moth in your jar.

Most butterfly pupae will either turn dark or get almost
clear when the butterfly is about to emerge. When you see a
color change in your pupae make sure that your cage has
enough humidity. Watch carefully, it only takes a few
seconds for a butterfly to come out of its chrysalis!

As soon the butterfly or moth emerges it is important for it
to have sticks or branches to climb on and spread its wings
so that they can dry, otherwise its wings will become
deformed and it won't ever be able to fly. Make sure the new
butterfly or moth has enough room that it can hang from a
branch without its wings touching something, so they can
expand properly.

It is not recommended to keep a butterfly or moth once it
has emerged from its chrysalis or cocoon. You might keep
them for a short time and feed them sugar water or nectar
but they can not stay in captivity for long without dying.
If you have a large moth like a Cecropia or Luna Moth you
won't need to try to feed it. They don't eat as adults and
their adult life span is no more than four or five days.

When you release your butterfly or moth, be sure to take it
to a secluded spot away from birds and preferably near where
you found your caterpillar, otherwise it may not live very

From caterpillar to butterfly or moth these beautiful
insects are some of the most fascinating to keep as pets,
not only as a science experiment but also just for the
experience of raising one of these charming creatures. And
the best part is that you can raise them over and over
again, straight from your backyard or garden.

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