What Do Caterpillars Eat?

A cabbage butterfly caterpillar munching on a cabbage leaf.
A cabbage butterfly caterpillar munching on a cabbage leaf.

Caterpillars are the larvae of moths and butterflies. They hatch from the eggs laid by butterflies and moths either on the ground or on plants. After hatching, caterpillars spend the first two weeks munching everything on their path. Butterflies are particular about where they lay their eggs because caterpillars begin eating where they hatch. They focus their attention on feeding to accelerate their growth within a short period. Caterpillars hatch with strong mandibles and begin chewing on leaves and flowering plants. Some subspecies of caterpillars are specialist feeders and only consume specific types of leaves their entire lives. Caterpillars do not drink water but instead eat more leaves when thirsty.

Specialist Feeders and Generalist Feeders

Caterpillars are grouped into general or specialist feeders. Specialist caterpillars feed on limited and occasionally related groups of plants. Monarch caterpillars, for example, feed on the foliage of the milkweed plants only. Generalist caterpillars such as the mourning cloak caterpillar feed on elm, birch, hackberry, and cottonwood in addition to several other plants. Some species of caterpillars are carnivorous and feed on small insects such as aphids. The moth caterpillar of southeastern United States feeds on the shells of dead gopher tortoises.

Feeding Caterpillars in Captivity

The challenging part of rearing caterpillars is determining what to feed them. The first step is to determine whether the caterpillars are general or specialized feeders. The second step is to identify food preference and alternatives. The best option when deciding what to feed a caterpillar is to look around the area it inhabited. If it was attached to a plant, then the likelihood of feeding on the plant is high. Alternatively, you can gather several leaves, place them next to the caterpillar, and observe its preferred options.

Oak Leaves

Nearly all species of caterpillars feed on oak leaves. If you are unable to find a particular type of plant, then try finding some oak leaves. Over 500 species of moths and butterflies feed on oak leaves. Several species of caterpillar also feed on cherry, apple leaves, and willow.

What Do Monarch Caterpillars Eat?

Monarch caterpillars are favorite among caterpillar keepers because they develop to be monarch butterflies. They are meticulous eaters and only feed on the leaves of milkweed plants. The plant also contains a toxin that protects the caterpillars from predators.


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