Catering for very hungry caterpillars at home

© Vaughn Matthews

Top tips for helping moths and butterflies

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is one of the most read and loved children's books in Britain, but what do we know about catering for very hungry caterpillars in our back gardens? While restaurants are shut nationwide, we can still open ‘caterpillar cafes’ in our gardens this spring and help boost the number of butterflies and moths by the summer when they are ready to emerge from their isolatedchrysalis phase too.

Top tip number one is don’t weed the garden everywhere. Some caterpillars love to binge out on weeds such as nettles, dandelions and brambles. And when caterpillars need to eat, they really do need to eat and start growing immediately as a result. Caterpillars continue to lengthen at an astonishing speed by continually shedding their skins. 

Like many insects, caterpillars have a penchant for specific ‘food’ plants. Probably the most persecuted of all plants, the common ‘stinging’ nettle, is in fact one of the favourite foods for the comma, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell caterpillars. But fear not, as gardeners know - not all nettles sting. The red dead-nettle and white dead-nettle don’t sting, they are great early nectar sources for bees, look pretty in flower and are tasty for caterpillars too. 

Another despised and dug up plant from many a proud lawn owner is the dandelion, which is anothergreat source of early nectar for bumble bees in the garden. Caterpillars of the large white, orange-tip and peacock butterflies like to dine out on dandelions too. Gardeners either love or hate brambles. But butterflies love the sweet nectar from bramble flowers. They are also a top cuisine for many moth and butterfly caterpillars, such as, the comma, gatekeeper and many more.

Garlic-mustard, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, is a top caterpillar foodplant of the green-veined white and the orange-tip. Other weeds we often remove from gardens are common sorrel, which is great for small copper caterpillars, thistles for painted lady caterpillars and wild teasel for red admiral and peacock caterpillars.

As soon as a caterpillar is done growing and they have reached their full length and weight, they form themselves into a pupa, also known as a chrysalis.  So like us butterflies and moths will also have their phase of self-isolation and in fact the pupal stage is one of the coolest stages of a butterfly’s life.  From outside the chrysalis the caterpillar appears to just be resting, but on the inside it is rapidly changing. This is where the magical transformation is taking place. Look out for the pupa, which looks like a withered leaf, hanging from the stems of the caterpillar food plant.

Come later in the year, during the summer, many butterflies and moths will emerge in their dazzling array of shapes and colours and for the first time are able to spread their wings.  Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar storythe butterfly or moth lifecycle brings a message of hope which Surrey Wildlife Trust would like to bring to people at this difficult time.  So we encourage children and adults of all ages to leave the weeds and look out for those caterpillars munching and growing in the garden.

From the plain lime-green ones, the army-style camouflaged caterpillar, to the stripey or ‘big hairy beast’ of a caterpillar; now is the time to look out for them, and please do share any finds on our Facebook page, where we can help identify your finds. But please remember to put them back where you found them so they can continue to eat their favourite foods.

We've also got plenty of family wildlife activities to keep people busy at home and in their gardens, or why not learn how to create a butterfly and moth garden of your own?