What Do Caterpillars Eat | Species and Their Diet

A butterfly, moth or any other insect that falls under the order Lepidoptera develops into a caterpillar during the initial stages of its lifecycle while it is very young. At this phase of development, the insect is known as larva. Thus, caterpillar is basically a larva of the order of Lepidoptera. Majority of the caterpillars like to eat plant material and so they are primarily herbivorous. However, it does not apply to all of them sure enough as there are few others that feed on bugs instead of plants. Such caterpillars are known as insectivorous. Still there are some others that eat animal yields like clothes moth that eats wool as well as detritus (remains of dead organisms) while horn moths eat cattle disease from rotten meat of horses, deer, camels and the like. The plants that these caterpillars eat are known as host plants.

Biologically, caterpillars are greedy insects that keep on eating for longer periods of time without any break. They are naturally rapacious creatures and thus pose great danger when they start eating crops and fruits from the agricultural region. Due to their greedy nature, they are justly known as ‘eating machines’. The caterpillars move very slowly and eat leaves with the help of their strong jaws called mandibles. Since they eat a lot of leaves rapidly, their speed of growing is very fast in so far as within a period of just 20 days for instance, the species of caterpillar called tobacco hornworm attains 10,000 times more weight than what they originally had. There are some caterpillars that feed on only one plant species during their lifetime which is why it is necessary for a butterfly or moth to lay eggs on that particular species of plant leaves. However, not all caterpillars restrict to the specific species of plants and some species of caterpillars are polyphagous; they eat different kinds of food.

Some of the caterpillars are killers as they eat eggs of other bugs like feeding on the eggs of aphids, ant larvae and scale bugs. What’s more, some caterpillars also practice cannibalism and they feed on other caterpillars (of different species). For example, the family of moths named as Geometridae Eupithecia practice cannibalism. There are also some bloodsucking caterpillars that survive mainly by sucking blood of leafhoppers or any other insects falling under the category of cicadas. Majority of caterpillars that feed on meat are located in Hawaii Island. Few are very smart like Hawaiian caterpillars as they play a ruse on snails, catch them by means of a silk trap and swallow them. Most of the caterpillars rest during the day and become active at night (and are therefore ‘nocturnal’) like cutworms. Cutworms take cover in the light of day by relaxing beneath the plant and start eating leaves when the twilight approaches.

Moth Caterpillars

Atlas moths (Attacus atlas) are the biggest moths in the world. The caterpillars of such species feed hungrily on the plants of genus citrus (family of Rutaceae). Basically, they like to eat leaves of those plants that are evergreen (plants that give leaves in every season).

Caterpillars of Atlas Moths - What do caterpillars eat

From the family of Uraniidae, a dazzling and nice-looking moth is called Madagascan sunset moth. The caterpillars of these moths prey on ground tissues of plant leaves called Parenchyma. This tissue exists on spongy portions of leaves, right into its veins. But after having this meal for about 4 days, they change their food and start feeding on fruits, petioles, flowers, tendrils and the like.

The caterpillars of Grease moths feed heavily on grains (dry) like whole wheat flour, corns, granola, oats and graham flour.

The caterpillars of Polyphemus moths eat host plants.

The caterpillars of Bella moth or Rattlebox moth likes feeding on rattlepods (plants from the family of Fabaceae). This species of plants is also called Crotalaria. What’s more, these caterpillars also sometimes eat larvae of their own species thereby practicing cannibalism. In reality, the plants of genus Crotalaria have some venomous chemical compounds in them. Therefore, when these caterpillars eat Crotalaria species, they develop themselves into foul-tasting larvae to feed on. The food of these plants acts as a protective covering for the caterpillars and if this venomous diet is undersupplied, they start feeding on larvae of their own species.

The caterpillars of Corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea) are among one of the most dangerous pests for agriculture. Such species feed on different kinds of crops and plants (they are polyphagous) and virtually destroy the crops. That is why they are also known as ‘cotton bullworm’.

The caterpillars of Indian mealmoth (Plodia interpunctella) are known as waxworms. They usually prey on grains for example dried nuts, pasta, couscous, cereals, bread, rice and the like. Another name of this larva is North American high-flyer and it is located all over the world.

The caterpillars of Codling moth (Cydia pomonella) like to feed on fruits, particularly apples. This larva is one of the dangerous pests for apple orchards in North America. They also feed on pears and nuts of any tree.

The caterpillars of Light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana) like to feed on fruits, crops and any other kind of plant leaves. Scientists have observed these larvae eating nearly 123 different dicotyledonous species of plants in New Zealand as well as Australia. What’s more, almost 250 species of host plants fall victim to these caterpillars in New Zealand. In general, they eat a wide variety of crops, fruits, vegetables and sometimes buds of pine trees.

The caterpillar of Bombyx mori is known as silkworm. Unlike other larvae, this caterpillar is valuable in that it gives off silk. These caterpillars are monophagous insects and do not rely on different kinds of plants. The favorite food of this larva is the leaves of white mulberry tree (morus alba). Since silkworms produce silk and it is a useful insect, the trees of white mulberry are planted on a large scale to feed these larvae.

The caterpillars of North American Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) like feeding on different species of trees. They are found to eat more than 500 species of plants, vegetation and trees.

Caterpillars of Different Species of Butterfly

Family | Papilionidae

Swallowtail Butterflies

The caterpillars of Swallowtail butterflies like to eat different kinds of flowering plants. Some of the favorite families of flowering plants of these larvae are parsley family (Umbelliferae), custard apple family (Annonaceae), Citrus family (Rutaceae), Laurel family (Lauraceae) and Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae). However, majority of these larvae eat just one of these plants’ families like most tribes of swallowtail focus on Birthwort flowering plants. Most of these caterpillars like to eat plants from Citrus family (rue). The host plant of most of the Eastern Black Swallowtail is Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s Lace).

Caterpillars - What do caterpillars eat

Subfamilies of Swallowtail Butterflies

There are three subfamilies of swallowtail butterflies namely:

  1. Short-horned Baronia (Baronia brevicornis)
  2. Snow Apollos (Parnassiinae)
  3. Papilioninae

1. Short-horned Baronia (Baronia brevicornis)

The caterpillars of this species of butterfly feed on Whistling thorn (Fabaceae) plants and these are the only larvae species among swallowtails that eat this kind of plant leaves.

2. Snow Apollos (Parnassiinae)

There are about 50 species of butterfly in this subfamily. The butterflies are either white in color or have a yellow shade. There are three tribes of butterflies that are identified under this subfamily namely Parnassiini, Zerynthiini and the Luehdorfiini.

Parnassiini Tribe

There are two different genera of butterfly in this tribe namely:

  1. Hypermnestra helios
  2. Parnassius or Apollos

Hypermnestra helios

The caterpillars of Hypermnestra helios usually eat the family of flowering plants known as Zygophyllaceae.

Parnassius (Apollos)

The caterpillars of Parnassius butterflies eat stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) as well as poppy family (Papaveraceae) of flowering plants.

The caterpillars of Mountain Apollo butterflies (Parnassius apollo) like to eat houseleek (genus Sempervivum) and stonecrops (genus Sedum).

The caterpillars of Clouded Apollo (Parnassius mnemosyne) like to eat only one species of plants, known as Corydalis (Papaveraceae). The feeding patterns of these larvae occur only during sunny days.

 

Zerynthiini Tribe

There are four genera of butterfly in this tribe namely:

  1. Allancastria
  2. Bhutanitis
  3. Sericinus
  4. Zerynthia

Allancastria

The caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies under genus Allancastria feed on birthworts (Aristolochia) genus of plants.

The caterpillars of Eastern Festoon (Allancastria cerisyi) like to eat leaves of plants genus Aristolochia.

Bhutanitis

The caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies under genus Bhutanitis eat Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) of plants.

The names of the three species of butterflies under genus Bhutanitis as well as their diet are:

Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalii)

The caterpillars of Bhutan Glory butterfly species feed on the leaves of plants genus Aristolochia.

Chinese Three-tailed Swallowtail (Bhutanitis thaidina)

The caterpillars of Chinese three-tailed swallowtail butterfly species also eat plants of genus Aristolochia.

Ludlow’s Bhutan Swallowtail (Bhutanitis ludlowi)

The caterpillars of these species of swallowtail butterfly like to eat Aristolochia griffithi.

Zerynthia

The diet of the species of butterfly under the genus Zerynthia is:

The caterpillars of Southern Festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) eat young buds and flowers. They also prey on plant leaves of birthworts (genus Aristolochia; more than 500 species). Specifically, they like to eat European Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis) as well as English mercury (Aristolochia rotunda). They are about 35 mm in length.

Luehdorfiini Tribe

The diet of the genera of butterflies under this tribe is:

Archon

The caterpillars of all the three species of butterfly under genus Archon eat birthworts plant leaves (Aristolochia). The three species of butterflies under this genus are:

Archon apollinaris

False Apollo (Archon apollinus)

Archon bostanchii

Luehdorfia

The diet of the larvae of butterfly species under this genus is:

The caterpillars of Chinese Luehdorfia (Luehdorfia chinensis) like to eat wild ginger (Asarum) leaves from the Birthwort Family of plants. Some of their favorite food plants are Asarum sieboldii and Asarum forbesii.

The caterpillars of Gifu butterfly (Luehdorfia japonica) species also feed on wild ginger (Asarum) leaves.

The caterpillars of Luehdorfia puziloi butterfly likes to eat plant leaves of Asiasarum and Asarum sieboldii.

The caterpillars of False Apollo (Archon apollinus) like to eat Birthwort leaves of the plant genus, Aristolochia. Some of the favorite plant species of these larvae are therefore, A. maurorum, A. bottae, A. poecilantha, A. rotunda, A. bodamae, A. billardieri, A. hirta, A. sempervirens and A. parviflora.

3. Papilioninae

This subfamily consists of nearly 480 different species of swallowtail butterfly. There are four tribes under this family namely:

  • Leptocircini

The caterpillars of Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium Marcellus) eat leaves of pawpaw species of plants. They live on just one species of plants and eat leaves of the genus Asimina. Some of their favorite plant leaves are Smallflower pawpaw, Slimleaf pawpaw, Common pawpaw, Netted pawpaw, Wooly pawpaw and Four-petal pawpaw. These caterpillars practice cannibalism which is why female butterflies lay single egg on individual leaves of pawpaw to avoid any such danger.

  • Teinopalpini

The caterpillars of Kaiser-i-Hind (Teinopalpus imperialis) butterfly species eat Daphne nipalensis.

  • Troidini

The caterpillars of this tribe (like Palawan Birdwing – Trogonoptera trojana) of butterflies feed on the leaves of birthworts (Aristolochia).

  • Papilionini

There is only one genus of butterflies under this tribe called Papilio. It is a Latin word that means ‘butterfly’. The larvae (caterpillars) of these butterfly species eat flowering plant leaves from the citrus family (Rutaceae). Some of the favorite genera of flowering plants are Murray, Citrus, tree leaves of Calodendrum and shrubs of Mexican oranges (Choisya).

Family | Pieridae

Pieridae is a very big butterfly family and contains almost 1,100 species of butterflies. The caterpillars of this family mainly feed on agricultural crops and also eat cabbages of mustard family.

The caterpillars of Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) butterflies feed on the leaves of host plant.

In Asia, the caterpillars of Common Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus) feed on plants of rue family (Rutaceae). In Australia (including Papua New Guinea), these larvae like to eat flowering plants of bean family (Fabaceae).

The caterpillars of Birdwing (Ornithoptera) butterflies drink vines. There is a venomous acid inside these vines known as aristolochic acid which helps these caterpillars in staying away from the potential predators. If they go hungry, they may even feed on other larvae and practice cannibalism.

The caterpillars of Cairns or Cooktown Birdwing (Ornithoptera euphorion) feed on Native Dutchman’s Pipe (a venomous vine), Aristolochia indica and Pararistolochia australopithecurus (host plant).

The caterpillars of Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) like to feed on Citrus flowering plants (Family; Rue) and Fortunella (Kumquats).

The caterpillars of Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) feed on plants like willows (genus Salix; more than 400 species), cottonwoods (Genus Populus) and American aspen (Populus tremuloides).

After emerging from the egg, the caterpillar of White Butterfly or Small Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) feed on its eggshell. Later on, it goes on eating host plant leaves.

The green-colored caterpillars of Green-veined white (Pieris napi) feed on different kinds of host plants like hedge mustard, Alliaria petiolata, Lady’s smock, Watercress (Nasturtium officinale), Field mustard (Sinapis arvensis), Jointed charlock (Raphanus raphanistrum). All of these plants belong to the family of Brassicaceae.

The caterpillars of Common Jezebel (Delias eucharis) feed on host plants i.e. Loranthus (family Loranthaceae).

Family | Lycaenidae

Lycaenidae is a family containing more than 5,000 species of butterflies. This way, it ranks second among the biggest families of butterflies. They like to eat greenflies (aphids), larvae of ants and scale insects. Besides, they also consume foliage.

The caterpillars of Karner Blue butterflies like to feed on Wild lupine.

The caterpillars of Red Pierrot (Talicada nyseus) eat leaves of Goethe plant (Bryophyllum pinnatum) and Kalanchoe laciniata. These plants belong to stonecrop family of plants.

The caterpillars of Metalmark butterflies eat wide variety of plants like aroids (arum family), leaves of sunflower family, Urticaceae, Bromeliads, Guttiferae, Bombacaceae, Lecythidaceae, Dilleniaceae, spurge family, Malpighiaceae, bean family, Loranthaceae, Myrtaceae, arrowroot family (prayer-plant family), Melastomataceae, orchid family, bedstraw family (coffee), soapberry family and ginger family.

Family | Nymphalidae

Nymphalidae is the biggest family of butterflies containing 6,000 species.

The caterpillars of Cosmopolitan like to eat plants’ genii like cirsium, sunflowers, mugwort (common wormwood), centaury and burdock. They also consume leaves of plumeless thistles. All of these belong to the sunflower family of plants.

The caterpillars of Monarch butterflies feed on different species of milkweeds.

The caterpillars of Morpho butterflies like to feed on leaves of bean family (Fabaceae), guttiferae, true grasses, coca family, spurge family, canellaceae, soapberry family, myrtle family, Menispermaceae, buckthorn family, Musaceae, mulberry family, Tiliaceae, palm trees, laurel family and bignonias.

The caterpillars of Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) feed on wheatgrass, ricegrass and genii of plant species like Brachypodium, annual bluegrass, false brome, rough bluegrass, orchard grass, cheat grasses, velvet grass, wood melick, couch grass, hordeum, Bermuda grass, mountain melick and wood bluegrass.

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