What Do Caterpillars Eat? 8 Caterpillar Food Sources

Caterpillars have a diverse diet that includes leaves, flowers, bark, fruits, moss, lichen, hair, and other insects. Their diet depends on their species.

What do caterpillars drink and eat?

A caterpillar’s diet is made up of plant-based and animal-based food sources. Caterpillars can eat plants or insects (or both), depending on the species. 

Furthermore, herbivores caterpillars can be generalists or specialists. The generalists eat a wide variety of plants, while the specialists only eat one type of plant.

A plant-based diet includes:

  • Leaves
  • Stems
  • Flowers
  • Fruits

Oak trees, apple trees, willow trees, and other plants are also on the menu.

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Caterpillars can also eat honeycombs (Wax moths), keratin, and animal waste. Unlike other insects, caterpillars do not drink water. They get all the moisture they need from the food they eat.

1. Leaves

Beet armyworm
Beet armyworm

Leaves are a common food source for caterpillars. Most species enjoy fresh leaves but some feed on dead leaves. Some of the common leaf-eating species include:

  • Beet armyworm
  • Cabbage looper
  • Gypsy moths
  • Eastern tent caterpillars

2. Flowers

Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar

To some caterpillars, flowers are more than just pretty. They will eat the seeds, buds, and blooms of flowers. Flowers favorites for caterpillars include monkey flowers, milkweed plants, and wild lilac.

Species such as the Monarch butterfly caterpillars and the Tussock moth caterpillars are known to eat flowers. For example, the sea aster is a common delicacy.

3. Fruits

Codling moth
Codling moth

Caterpillars will eat any fruit that is soft and ripe enough for them to get inside. Some of the fruits that caterpillars eat include apples, bananas, wild black cherries, and raspberries. Species, such as the Codling moth, will devour apples and pears.

4. Bark

Fall webworm
Fall webworm

Some caterpillars eat tree bark by making tunnels through them. Species that eat tree bark include the Tent caterpillar and Fall webworm.

Tent caterpillars are common in early spring, while the Fall webworms appear during late summer to fall.

Some species prefer to eat bark from certain types of trees. For example, you can find the Fall webworm on oak trees.

5. Grass

Meadow brown
Meadow brown

The grass is a popular food source for caterpillars. Wild grasses are a favorite among many species, including GatekeeperSkipper, and Meadow brown.

6. Ants

Ant-munching caterpillars have a life cycle involving eating ants before becoming adult butterflies. A popular species of ant-munching larva is the Large blue butterfly caterpillar that eats red ants.

The Large blue caterpillars mimic the sounds and secrete chemicals of the ants, so the ants believe that the caterpillars are their own kind. The ants carry the caterpillar to their nest, where it feeds on the ant pupa, larvae, and ants until it is ready to pupate.

7. Moss

Muslin moth caterpillar
Muslin moth caterpillar

Moss is a live plant that grows on rocks, trees, and other surfaces. Some common species of moss-eating caterpillars are the Muslin and Scarce footman moths.

8. Hair

Webbing clothes moth larva
Webbing clothes moth larva

Caterpillars that eat hair are typical in homes. They feed on many fabric types, including carpets, furniture, and clothing. Species such as the Webbing clothes moth prefer dirty clothing and carpet made from wool.

How many times do caterpillars eat each day?

Caterpillars are eating machines. They will eat for as long as they are awake. Some can eat 20,000 times their weight during their lifetime. They are larvae, and their primary purpose at this life cycle stage is to eat and grow.

For example, the Monarch caterpillar can eat as much as 200 times its weight of milkweed in 2 weeks.

Host Plants for Caterpillars

A caterpillar host plant is a plant where the adult butterfly lays eggs. The host plant is the primary food source and safe spot for caterpillars. Some caterpillars eat only one type of plant, while others can eat many.

Some common host plants include:

Dilldill is a plant belonging to the Apiaceae family. It is a host for Black swallowtail butterflies and Armyworms
Parsleyparsley is another plant belonging to the Apiaceae family. It is a host plant to “Parsley caterpillars,” such as the anise and Black swallowtail caterpillars
Oakover 500 butterfly species feed on oak leaves. Oak leaves are favorites for Tussock moth caterpillars and Orange-striped oak worms
Milkweedmilkweed is a member of the Asclepiadoideae family. It is a host plant for Monarch butterflies

Common caterpillars and their host plants

Alfalfa butterflyalfalfa, clovers, deerweed
American ladypearly everlasting, ironweed
American snouthackberry
Anise swallowtailparsley, anise, fennel, citrus
Black swallowtaildill, fennel, parsley, carrot
Banded hairstreakoak, walnut, hickory
Baltimore checkerspotturtlehead
Cabbage whitemustard plant, collard
California sisteroak
Clouded sulphurclover, alfalfa
Common snouthackberry
Dotted checkerspotBeardtongue
Eastern commanettle
Giant swallowtaillime, citrus, hop tree, prickly ash
Gulf fritillarypassion vine
Marine bluealfalfa, legume
Mourning cloakbirch, poplar, willow
Painted crescentaster
Pipevine swallowtailpipevine
Painted ladymallow, thistle
Question markhackberry, elm, willow
Red satyrgrass
Red admiralnettles
Red-spotted purpleoak, birch, poplar, willow, cherry
Sachem skippergrass
Satyr commanettle
Spring azureblack cherry
Tawny emperorelm
Viceroypoplar, willow
Zebra swallowtailpaw-paw

What Do Caterpillars Eat in Captivity?

The first step to feeding a hungry caterpillar is determining its species. This will help you decide which plants to offer because some caterpillars will only munch on certain food plants. 

If you don’t know what type of caterpillar you have, you can look at the area where you found it for clues. If unsure, gather different plants and offer them to the caterpillar. You can narrow down its food preferences if it eats from one plant.

Common caterpillar plants include:

  • Oak leaves
  • Willow
  • Poplar
  • Cherry
  • Birch
  • Apple
  • Milkweed

Caterpillars’ job is to eat and grow, so you should ensure that your caterpillar has plenty of food. Check your caterpillar’s cage regularly to ensure that it has fresh leaves and remove any waste.

Caterpillars also need a clean and comfortable cage. You can make a cage using a small aquarium. Add an inch of soil at the bottom of the cage, and place a few twigs in it. Eating a lot of food results in lots of droppings, so you should clean the cage regularly.

Do all caterpillars eat plants?

Carnivorous caterpillars are rare, but they exist. The most common carnivorous caterpillar is the Dun-bar which eats leaves but can also eat other moths. Additionally, the Skin moth caterpillar eats the carcasses of birds and mice.

An animal-based caterpillar diet also includes insects such as aphids, snails, and even other caterpillars.

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