In the age of video games and smartphones, getting your children interested in nature and playing outside can be difficult. Building a caterpillar habitat with your kids is a fun and straightforward way to get your children interested in learning about nature and the creatures around them. The best part? Most of the materials can be found in your backyard.
What You’ll Need
1) A mason jar
2) Leaves and twigs
3) Mesh fabric or cheesecloth
4) A rubber band
5) Caterpillars (this should be the last thing you grab, and I’ll explain, so gather the items you need above first)
How To Make Your Caterpillar Habitat
Once you’ve got the objects you need (except the caterpillars) here’s what you need to do next:
- Step 1: Go on a hike with your kids to look for caterpillars. Once you find your caterpillars, collect some twigs and leaves from around the same area. Using the same leaves you find with your caterpillars will ensure that your habitat mimics the caterpillar’s natural habitat. The leaves you choose will be your caterpillars’ primary food source, so it’s best to use leaves you know they already like. You might also check your garden, as many types of caterpillar prefer herbs grown there (like the Black Swallowtail does with dill).
- Step 2: Put the twigs, leaves, and caterpillars into your mason jar.
- Step 3: Secure your mesh fabric or cheesecloth over the mouth of the jar with a rubber band. Using mesh or cheesecloth will allow more oxygen into your caterpillars’ habitat than the typical method of poking holes in the lid.
- Step 4: Have your kids check on the caterpillars every day and take notes on their findings.
Caring for Your Caterpillars
Caterpillars are pretty low-maintenance in terms of wildlife care. In the early stages of the caterpillar’s life cycle, their only purpose is to eat and grow stronger as they prepare for metamorphosis.
Your caterpillars’ habitat will need to have plenty of leaves for them to eat as they get older. Your caterpillars will get all of the nutrients they need from their leaves and do not need drinking water.
Caterpillars are cold-blooded creatures, meaning they cannot regulate their body temperature the same way humans can. Caterpillars thrive in a warmer climate. The optimal temperature for a caterpillar’s habitat is between 82-100 Fahrenheit.
If you’re planning on keeping your caterpillar habitat indoors, consider putting it on a window sill that gets plenty of sunlight or set up a heat lamp over their enclosure.
Caterpillars are small creatures and aren’t territorial, so you can have multiple caterpillars in line habitat if you wish. However, once the caterpillar completes its transformation into a butterfly, it will be much larger, meaning there will be less space in the habitat for multiple critters.
If you want to have multiple caterpillars in one enclosure, you may want to consider using something more spacious than a standard mason jar. A small aquarium or fish bowl would make an ideal home for your caterpillars. Just make sure the habitat still has an adequate amount of airflow for your caterpillars.
The Lifecycle of Caterpillars
Kids are naturally curious, and creating a caterpillar habitat with them is meant to be both fun and educational. As your caterpillars begin to grow and go through metamorphosis, your kids will have questions about what is happening. Here is a basic description of the metamorphosis stages to help you prepare for any questions your children might throw your way.
Caterpillars have four distinct life stages:
Egg: Butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves or stems of plants. The female butterfly secretes a sticky substance to help her eggs “stick” to the plants. This way, when it is time for the eggs to hatch, the newborn caterpillars will have an abundant food source, ensuring their survival.
Larva: This is the lifecycle that you will be finding your caterpillars in when you are ready to build your new habitat. In this stage, the caterpillar will be focused on eating and growing.
As the caterpillar gets bigger, it will begin “molting” or shedding its skin just like a snake does. The average caterpillar can molt anywhere between 4-5 times during this period. But why do they need to do this?
A caterpillar’s “skin” is called an exoskeleton, or “external” skeleton. While human skin is stretchy and malleable, caterpillars, and many other insects, have a tough outer skin that does not grow or stretch. The exoskeleton helps keep insects safe from injury, kind of like a shell.
Think of it like a pair of shoes. Our shoes keep our feet safe, but our shoes stay the same size when our feet get bigger. When we outgrow our shoes, we buy new ones just like the caterpillar gets new “skin.”
Pupa or Chrysalis: This stage may not look like much, but it’s where all the magic happens. When the caterpillar reaches this stage, it will appear as though it is hanging from a twig or stem in a small sack-like cocoon called a chrysalis.
Adult: This is the final stage of the caterpillar’s life. Once it has completed its transformation, the caterpillar will break free of its chrysalis and emerge as a beautiful butterfly. The butterfly’s average life expectancy is one week to 18 months, but this largely depends on the species.
Common Questions About Metamorphosis
If this is their first time seeing a chrysalis, your kids will have a lot of questions. They may think it looks like there is something wrong with their caterpillars, but this is all part of their metamorphosis.
How do the caterpillars eat while inside their cocoons? The pupa stage of the caterpillar’s life functions the same way that a bear’s hibernation does. The chrysalis stage is a resting period for the caterpillar. The caterpillar will use the energy they have stored up from all of the leaves that have eaten in the larva stage, so they do not need to eat while they are in their chrysalis.
What is the chrysalis made out of? A caterpillar’s chrysalis is a hardened layer of skin just beneath the exoskeleton. Essentially, the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis is your caterpillar shedding its skin one last time. The caterpillar needs this protective sack to keep it safe from the elements and predators during this final transformation stage.
What is happening inside the chrysalis? The caterpillar’s body is going through the changes from a worm-like body into the wings, arms, antennae, and butterfly body. It’s a lot like the human baby’s evolution from egg to baby inside a mother’s womb.
How long will the caterpillar be in this stage? The answer largely depends on the species of caterpillar you have in your habitat, but it can be anywhere between a few days to a whole year.
Fun Things To Try
What’s great about a caterpillar habitat is that it can lead to other fun, bonding activities with your child. Try these other fun hobbies as you build and maintain your habitat:
Research the different species of caterpillars native to your area with your kids. Get them to identify the caterpillars they’ve picked out and the kind of butterflies they will eventually become.
You can do this research before or after you’ve brought home your caterpillars, but if you’re looking to avoid moths, you may want to do your research beforehand as their larvae look similar to butterfly larva.
The Seek App by iNaturalist is an incredible tool for quick identification of plants, animals and other insects. Consider downloading and taking a 5 minute test drive before your hike. Some species of caterpillar don’t wish to be touched, so having this app as your sidekick can be a helpful tool in assessing if the caterpillars you find are good to bring home.
Create a Butterfly Garden
Look into the types of flowers and plants that attract butterflies and caterpillars. Create a butterfly garden so that you can continue raising caterpillars next year.
Make a Scrapbook
Make a scrapbook with photos alongside your kids’ daily observations to document the experience. Have your kids draw and label diagrams of their caterpillars to include in the scrapbook.
Things to Avoid When Building a Caterpillar Habitat
Like any activity that involves wildlife, there are a couple of precautions you want to keep in mind:
Know the Difference Between Sawfly Larva and Caterpillars
Be careful with the larvae you’re bringing home. To the untrained eye, some caterpillars closely resemble sawfly larva, which will grow up to be an insect that more closely resembles a wasp than a butterfly. For an in-depth discussion on the differences between caterpillars and sawfly larva, you can read this article from Kansas State University.
Keeping the Butterflies Captive
Please avoid keeping the butterflies in captivity. While an aquarium or mason jar provides a safe environment for a growing caterpillar, butterflies thrive when they are free to spread their wings and fly. Raising caterpillars can provide a valuable lesson to your children about the importance of keeping wild animals and insects in the wild where they belong.
Building a caterpillar habitat with your kids can be both fun and an educational experience. Interactive learning experiences can be a great way to foster interest in a subject and turn it into a long term career goal for your children. You never know, you could be raising a new generation of entomologists.