Science, Tech, Math › Animals & Nature What Do Caterpillars Eat? Host Plants for Moth and Butterfly Caterpillars Share Flipboard Email Print Getty Images/Matt Meadows Animals & Nature Insects Butterflies & Moths Basics Behavior & Communication Ants. Bees, & Wasps Beetles Spiders Ticks & Mites True Bugs, Aphids, Cicadas, and Hoppers Amphibians Birds Habitat Profiles Mammals Reptiles Marine Life Forestry Dinosaurs Evolution View More By Debbie Hadley Entomology Expert B.A., Political Science, Rutgers University Debbie Hadley is a science educator with 25 years of experience who has written on science topics for over a decade. our editorial process Debbie Hadley Updated January 18, 2020 Caterpillars, the larvae of butterflies and moths, feed almost exclusively on plants. You will find most caterpillars munching happily on leaves, though some will feed on other plant parts, like seeds or flowers. Generalist Feeders vs. Specialist Feeders Herbivorous caterpillars fall into one of two categories: generalist feeders, or specialist feeders. Generalist caterpillars feed on a variety of plants. Mourning cloak caterpillars, for example, will feed on willow, elm, aspen, paper birch, cottonwood, and hackberry. Black swallowtail caterpillars will feed on any member of the parsley family: parsley, fennel, carrot, dill, or even Queen Anne's lace. Specialist caterpillars restrict their feeding to smaller, related groups of plants. The monarch caterpillar feeds only on the foliage of milkweed plants. A small number of caterpillars are carnivorous, usually feeding on small, soft-bodied insects like aphids. One rather unusual moth caterpillar (Ceratophaga vicinella) found in the southeastern U.S., feeds exclusively on the shells of dead gopher tortoises. Tortoise shells are made of keratin, which is tough for most scavengers to digest. Determining What to Feed Your Caterpillar Whether a caterpillar specializes on a specific type of plant or feeds on a variety of host plants, you will need to identify its food preferences if you're going to raise it in captivity. You can't put a caterpillar in a container with grass and expect it to adapt to eating something different than its usual diet. So how do you know what to feed it, if you don't know what kind of caterpillar it is? Look around the area where you found it. Was it on a plant? Collect some foliage from that plant and try feeding it that. Otherwise, gather samples of whatever plants were nearby, and watch to see if it chooses a certain one. Also, keep in mind that we often find caterpillars when they're wandering away from their host plants, looking for a place to pupate. So if the caterpillar you collected was crossing a sidewalk or trudging across your lawn when you picked it up, it might not be interested in food at all. Oak Leaves: The (Nearly) Universal Caterpillar Food If your caterpillar won't eat anything you've offered it, try collecting some oak leaves. An incredible number of moth and butterfly species—well over 500—will feed on oak leaves, so the odds are in your favor if you try Quercus leaves. Other foods that are preferred by many caterpillars are cherry, willow, or apple leaves. When all else fails, try leaves from one of the powerhouse perennials for caterpillars. Host Plants for Caterpillars to Eat in Your Garden If you want to plant a true butterfly garden, you need more than nectar plants. Caterpillars need food, too! Include caterpillar host plants, and you'll attract a lot more butterflies as they visit your plants to lay eggs. When you plan your butterfly garden, include some caterpillar host plants from this list. A well-designed butterfly garden supports not only this year's butterflies but generations of butterflies to come! Common Garden Butterflies and Their Host Plants Butterfly Caterpillar Host Plants American painted lady pearly everlasting American snout hackberry black swallowtail dill, fennel, carrot, parsley cabbage whites mustards checkered whites mustards common buckeye snapdragons, monkey flowers eastern comma elm, willow, hackberry emperors hackberry giant swallowtail lime, lemon, hoptree, prickly ash grass skippers little bluestem, panic grass greater fritillaries violets gulf fritillary passion vines heliconians passion vines monarch butterfly milkweeds mourning cloak willow, birch painted lady thistles palamedes swallowtail red bay pearl crescent asters pipevine swallowtail pipevines question mark elm, willow, hackberry red admiral nettles red spotted purple cherry, poplar, birch silver-spotted skipper black locust, indigo spicebush swallowtail spicebush, sassafras sulphurs clovers, alfalfa tiger swallowtail black cherry, tulip tree, sweet bay, aspen, ash viceroy willow zebra swallowtail pawpaws View Article Sources James, Beverly. “Wildlife Connections: Moths and Butterflies.” University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment | Urban Forest Initiative. Cite this Article Format mla apa chicago Your Citation Hadley, Debbie. "What Do Caterpillars Eat?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat-1968177. Hadley, Debbie. (2021, February 16). What Do Caterpillars Eat? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat-1968177 Hadley, Debbie. "What Do Caterpillars Eat?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-caterpillars-eat-1968177 (accessed April 21, 2021). copy citation Watch Now: Caterpillars Could Help Us Get Rid of Plastic 10 Tips for Attracting Butterflies to Your Backyard Perennials for Caterpillars in the Butterfly Garden How to Feed and Care for a Caterpillar Life Cycle of Butterflies and Moths How to Keep Fall Caterpillars Alive Until Spring 7 Insects Commonly Found on Milkweed 13 Stinging Caterpillars 12 Worst Vegetable Garden Pests Tussock Moth Caterpillars What Do Monarch Butterflies Eat? 10 Fascinating Facts About Caterpillars Identifying the Common Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) Luna Moth, Actias luna Pros and Cons of Planting Butterfly Bush Why Don't Monarchs Get Sick From Eating Milkweed? Are Those Pests Sawfly Larva or Caterpillar?