How to Keep Butterflies & Caterpillars as Pet?
Butterflies and caterpillars aren’t common pet choices. Their lifespan is indeed short. No documented species of butterfly live longer than 12 months. On average, a soon-to-be butterfly also spends 2-5 weeks of its lifecycle as a caterpillar. Usually, the low lifespan of a pet is a dealbreaker for many owners.
However, despite their short lifespan, it’s still rewarding to care for them and watch them grow. You get to observe metamorphosis in action as your caterpillars slowly turn into beautiful butterflies. Another perk is that they’re relatively easy to care for, especially if you’re already used to keeping insects.
Care for Butterfly Eggs (Ovum)
If your butterflies lay eggs or you happen to find butterfly eggs you can hatch them in a plastic bowl. Usually, butterflies lay their eggs on leaves. These leaves are also the food for caterpillars, so you need to take the leaf and place it in the bowl on a humid paper towel.
Keep the eggs hydrated, but not wet. If the humidity level is low, most likely the eggs will not hatch, so moisture is essential for them. Depending on the type of butterfly species and the environment, the butterfly eggs will usually hatch in 3-6 days.
The size of the eggs are about the size of a pinhead, and the baby caterpillars are not bigger than a grain of rice.
Care for Caterpillars
You can think of the caterpillar as a butterfly in its ugly-duckling phase. This is the first stage of a butterfly’s life (also applies to moths). For many people, they’re the stuff of nightmares. We’re talking about long, squirmy creatures with a dozen legs and then some. Sometimes, they’re also fuzzy. You’ll either love them or hate them. There’s no in-between.
But whether you like them or not, it’s worth it to stick around for the end result, when adult butterflies come out of their cocoons. But before then, you should ensure that your caterpillars receive adequate care and nutrition to develop. So, let’s see what basic requirements you must take care of to keep healthy caterpillars.
Luckily, you don’t need anything fancy. As long as there’s enough space for all your caterpillars, any well-ventilated enclosure will do. Just make sure that each caterpillar has a floor size at least three times its body length. They need enough space to feet themselves and to move around without coming into contact with other caterpillars.
The enclosure should be escape-proof but still allow good ventilation. Avoid adding any decorations to the enclosure, as they’re not needed. Caterpillars might easily get hurt or stuck in or under foreign objects in the enclosure. To make cleanup easier, you can place tissues on the floor of the enclosure. These will catch any dirt or droppings.
The main thing on the menu will be leaves. Different species of caterpillars need different plants, but it’s best to feed your caterpillars a wide variety of greenery. A diverse diet is key. The leaves should always be as fresh as possible. Not only do caterpillars prefer this kind of food, but fresh leaves also have higher water content.
Fresh food is crucial for your caterpillar’s nutrient intake and subsequent development. To keep the leaves fresh for as long as possible, you can place them in a glass of water after cutting them. If you serve the leaves by placing them on the floor of the enclosure, make sure to replace them regularly. Leaves left without water will wither away and rot quickly.
Now for the more technical stuff. Each caterpillar species has its moisture and temperature requirements for ideal health and development. You should be able to meet their moisture needs by just washing or wetting the leaves before feeding. The caterpillars will get their water fix from the fresh leaves they eat and from the water droplets on the leaves’ surface.
The temperature inside the enclosure shouldn’t be too low, as that can negatively impact growth. However, what is considered too low can vary from one species to another. You’ll have to also check a species-specific care guide before determining the right temperature parameters. Remember that higher temperatures typically mean faster growth and better health.
Just like any other pet, caterpillars also need a clean environment. You should clean the enclosure daily to prevent mold and bacteria from developing. Caterpillars produce a lot of waste. Combine that with a moist environment and you get a recipe for disaster. Besides, any food leftovers will quickly dry and start rotting as well.
Once the leaves are no longer fresh, remove them from the enclosure and replace them with new, fresh ones. As I’ve already mentioned, you can line the bottom of your tank with tissue paper. This makes cleanup quick and easy. The paper will catch any dirt and droppings, so all you need to do is to remove the old tissues and replace them with new ones.
Care for Pupa / Cocoon
When the caterpillar is fully developed, it’s ready to start its new stage of life. After the feeding stage is over, then comes the time when caterpillars start pupating. They enter an inactive state where they’re going to transition from larva into adult butterflies.
At the beginning of this stage, caterpillars might become restless, searching for the ideal place for pupating. You should ensure that there’s enough space for each caterpillar to do its thing. Now’s the right time to move your pets to a larger enclosure, if possible.
During the chrysalis stage, some caterpillars form a cocoon they wrap themselves in. This protects them from outside dangers while the metamorphosis takes place. However, not all butterfly species have a protective cocoon. This is very important, as these pupa require additional care when handled!
Also, all pupa or cocoons should be kept separate from any caterpillars. When you notice a pupa or cocoon in the enclosure, gently remove it to place it in a different tank.
There are two ways to keep the pupa before the butterflies are ready to come out. If your pupa are covered in cocoons, you can hang them on a thread. Make sure the needle you use to insert the thread doesn’t touch the pupa inside!
A cocoon-free pupa is best placed on the floor on the enclosure, preferably on an earthy substrate. You can also add tall plants and other high objects in the enclosure for your caterpillars to hang onto when pupating. If the cocoons are already hanging onto something, don’t try to force them off!
Depending on the butterfly species, this stage can last anywhere from 5-21 days. If the environment is suboptimal, your pupa might take even longer to hatch. So, let’s see how you should take care of your pupa.
But first, make sure the enclosure is big enough for your future butterfly to move around. The space should be at least twice the size of a butterfly’s wings. This includes both the width and the length of the enclosure.
The humidity and temperature levels during this stage depend on the butterfly species in question. So, make sure to do your research for your specific butterfly species beforehand. The most important thing to keep in mind for all species is to avoid dehydration.
Chrysalises need plenty of moisture, so you’ll have to gently mist the pupa or cocoons at least once a day, usually more. You can tell a chrysalis is dehydrated when the colors remain or become vivid and opaque, even when the butterfly should be ready to hatch. Before hatching, the cocoon should be completely transparent.
Care for Butterflies
After around 1-3 weeks, the butterflies are ready to come out of the cocoon and shed their ugly past. When butterflies first emerge, the wings might be somewhat crinkled and damp. You have to wait a bit more for the butterflies to straighten and dry their wings before they start flying. But now’s the perfect time to admire the nice colors and patterns on the wings.
When your butterflies are ready to fly, you have two options. You can either release them in the wild or continue keeping them as pets. If you choose to keep your butterflies around, then here’s how to do that safely and effectively.
Let’s start with the space. If you have a flying butterfly species, you should know that no enclosure is big enough for them. But the bigger the enclosure, the better. After all, if they have wings, they need enough space to use them. Don’t use a glass or plastic tank, as these materials have no adherence. Your butterflies won’t be able to walk or hold onto these surfaces.
A mesh or net enclosure is ideal. Not only can butterflies walk on these materials, but these cages also have great ventilation. They’re also pretty cheap, which is a bonus. If you have mesh screens on your windows, you can also occasionally let your pet butterflies fly around in your home.
Only do this if your home is a safe environment. If you have other pets roaming freely around the house, your butterfly might soon turn into prey.
Many species of butterflies have no mouth and they don’t feed at all. However, others do enjoy nectar and sugary juices. Now, I don’t mean coke or Mountain Dew here, but just plain water mixed with either sugar or honey. You can alternate between fresh flowers and sweetened water to create some variety in the diet.
To create the sweetened water, add 7 parts water for every 1 part sugar or honey and mix well until everything gets fully dissolved. Remember to freshen the water regularly.
You can either place a cup full of sweetened water in the enclosure and cover it with a mesh or cloth slightly submerged in the liquid. You can also just wet any small paper towel in the liquid and place it in the enclosure.
Butterflies are usually attracted to bright colors, so try picking bold, bright flowers. You can even place some pieces of watery fruit in the enclosure, as these are both colorful and sugary. Try things like watermelon, orange, or nectarine cubes.
You need to provide enough moisture and heat for your specific butterfly species. Depending on your butterflies, you might need to mist the enclosure a few times a day, or not at all. But by far the most important factor here is temperature. Most butterfly species can survive well in temperatures above 55°F (13°C).
You can also provide some extra heat by installing a lightbulb. Just like moths, butterflies are attracted to light. They fly close to sources of light to warm up their bodies. Make sure the butterflies can’t come into direct contact with the lightbulb, as the heat can damage their wings and legs.
If you’re a new insect owner, I hope you found this article helpful! Whether you like caterpillars or butterflies or both, it’s worth embarking on this pet-care journey to observe the metamorphosis process at least once.
Taking care of these insects is very easy for multiple reasons. They’re cheap, not fussy, and they don’t require a lot of food or resources. So don’t feel intimidated to start growing some caterpillars on your own!