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Caterpillars are largely overlooked and are even shunned by many, particularly by gardeners that want to protect their precious plants. Which is a shame, as there is much more to the little crawlers than first meets the eye. They make the perfect low maintenance ‘pets’! Finding caterpillars makes a fun outdoor activity and watching their amazing transformation into butterflies is a great science lesson for kids.
Find one first
On our last kids activity, the backyard safari, we came across caterpillars and gently brought them inside. We put ours in a large plastic jar, with a bunch of leaves to eat, and covered the jar with cling wrap punctured with holes. Taking the caterpillars indoors keeps them safe from predators, and allows them to develop in peace. Most caterpillars are friendly, and won’t bite, so if they are careful, children can even handle them themselves. Just stay away from the hairy ones, some of which have poisonous stings.
From baby caterpillars
First, we saw our little brown hairy caterpillars turn into green, shiny ones – a surprise as I thought the only transformation would occur when they got wings. Many caterpillar species go through several stages (called instars), in which they can look completely different. Just like Eric Carle says, they ate and got bigger, and fatter, until one day they sat still on a branch.
The day after, they pupated and became a chrysalis. Now, we needed patience, for about two weeks. One morning, a surprise awaited us: our own winged beauties! Sadly, our butterflies emerging also meant goodbye. We set them free in the garden, hoping they would return soon to lay eggs again on our lime tree, so the whole cycle could start again.
How to find caterpillars
- Get the right plants to attract them in your garden, or even balcony – butterflies have been spotted in Singapore as high up as the twentieth floor! One of the most common butterflies in Singapore is the Lime Butterfly. It lays its eggs on most plants in the citrus family. On a small calamansi lime bushes, or even kaffir limes, you will most likely find caterpillar eggs easily. Curry leaves are a favourite of the Common Mormon, another regularly spotted butterfly in Singapore.
- Get them from a gardener friend. Gardeners dislike caterpillars, as they eat the leaves of plants, and are usually keen to get rid of them.
- Oh Farms sells special butterfly packages to help you get started.
How to take care of your caterpillars
- Most importantly: caterpillars eat a lot, and need fresh leaves daily. But unlike the very hungry caterpillar in the book, they are quite particular in what they eat. Usually the plant you find them on is a good indication for what they need, but if you are not sure, there is a lot of information to be found online. Try to identify what species your caterpillar is, and look up what this one can eat. If you buy them leaves from a shop or market, make sure to wash and dry them beforehand.
- Give the caterpillars a closed container, with light and aeration. Make sure not to put them in direct sunlight.
- Don’t disturb the chrysalis too much. They usually attach themselves to a branch or the side of the container. The butterfly needs space to dry its wings after it emerges, and often does that upside down to let gravity help. If the butterfly falls to the floor before the wings are dry, or can’t spread its wings fully, it may become deformed and unable to fly.
All images courtesy of the author