Friday, October 12, 2012

Caterpillar Crazy

I volunteered today at the Florida Museum of Natural History Butterfly Festival Plant Sale. They have a great selection of plants, both native and exotic (but not invasive) that are guaranteed to attract butterflies to your yard. I had a lot of fun helping people choose new plants for their yards amidst the beautiful colors and happy butterflies that were drawn to the delectable flowers, shrubs and trees. It's pretty impressive to see how many butterflies will suddenly appear in a parking lot if you load it with their nectar and larval host plants. There were lots and lots of butterflies! We even had a clearwing hummingbird moth buzzing around the plumbago.

There were also lots and lots of caterpillars because there were host plants for sale, too. To create a butterfly garden, you need to provide flowers for the butterflies to get nectar, and you also have to provide a food source for the larva (caterpillars). The foods are pretty specific. Monarch butterflies only feed on milkweed plants. They do this because milkweed is toxic. The caterpillars eat the toxic plant and become toxic themselves. Animals that eat them will get sick, so after trying once, they learn not to eat the caterpillars. The orange and black color of the adult butterfly tells potential predators that they are toxic, too. Other butterflies and moths also have specific plants that are the only food their caterpillars will feed on.
Monarch laying eggs on Milkweed; Caterpillar eating Milkweed
The Museum is selling planters filled with a variety of host and nectar plants. Every planter I saw came ready with at least one caterpillar! Instant butterfly garden! They offer milkweed with Monarchs, fennel  with Black Swallowtails, and passion flower with Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary caterpillars. They also have Dutchman's Pipe Vines, each covered with ravenous Polydamas caterpillars.
Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Fennel

Polydamas Caterpillars on Dutchman's Pipe

Zebra Longwing Caterpillar on Passion Flower
Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar on Passion Flower

I didn't see any Palamedes Swallowtail caterpillars at the Museum, although there were bay trees for sale. Too bad! The caterpillars are really neat! They have large eye spots on their heads, and they can hold their heads in a way that make them look like a snake. It's a cool bit of trickery! Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillars feed on trees of the Laurel family, and so the host plant specificity may be a problem for them in the future. A disease called Red Bay Laurel Wilt is killing most of the Red Bay trees in the South, and may also attack Florida Avocados, members of the same plant family.

Another caterpillar that uses disguise for protection is the Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar. I didn't see any of these at the sale, either, although they were selling Wild Lime, which is one of the host plants. The caterpillars look like a big blob of bird poop. They're even shiny, which makes it look wet. No one wants to eat bird poop--great disguise.  Giant Swallowtails feed on plants in the citrus family. They are considered pests in the citrus industry, because the caterpillars eat the leaves of the host plant. You need to keep this in mind when you're growing a butterfly garden. When used properly, butterfly host plants will be eaten!
Bird Poop or Caterpillar? Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Orange Tree

The neatest caterpillar I saw today was not at the plant sale. It was in the hardwood hammock at NATL, one of my favorite natural places in Gainesville. I ran into Larry, one of the people who works at NATL, and he had just seen a Harvester Butterfly. I'd never seen one before, so I headed out to the area where he found it. Alas, I never did see the Harvester, but I found something just as cool--the caterpillars! Harvester Butterfly Caterpillars are unusual in that they feed on wooly aphids. Carnivorous Caterpillars! I knew that they fed on wooly aphids, so I kept my eyes open and found a few Smilax vines that had an infestation. On the last vine, I found two caterpillars tucked in among the aphids.
Harvester Butterfly Caterpillar eating Wooly Aphids on Smilax
Being a plant collector and butterfly gardener, myself, of course I bought some plants at the sale. Now I have a job to do this weekend, finding the right place for those great butterfly plants. My cluster of plants was mobbed by buckeye butterflies in the parking lot at the museum, so I think I chose well!


  1. Wonderful blog!! I'm an avid butterfly/bee gardner!! Enjoy seeing all these photos of catepillars, most of which we do not have here in Central NYS.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoy seeing the caterpillars. I love finding them! I'm doing my best to encourage a wide variety of butterflies to come live in my yard. Bees, too! I hope to have some posts about bees and will look forward to your input.