Gardening in Florida: Introduce the kids to the world of cool bugs with caterpillars and metamorphosis
Q: I want to purchase about six caterpillars to be used in a science\metamorphosis demonstration for my granddaughter. Can you help?
A: What a great granddad you are, Dave! An introduction to the world of cool bugs is a lesson every child should have the opportunity to enjoy. It is empowering to understand the changes which occur in all living things from the example of moths and butterflies.
Butterflies are insects. There are four stages in the butterfly life cycle: egg, larva, pupal/chrysalis, and adult. Butterflies go through complete metamorphosis. Eggs are laid on the larval food plant and caterpillars hatch within a few days. The larvae have enormous appetites and do nothing but eat. When their skin is stretched as far as possible, they molt or shed that skin. After a few molts, they seek a sheltered place. At this time, the last molt takes place and the larva skin is replaced with a stiff butterfly chrysalis. During the last stage, the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.
The best place to acquire caterpillars for observation is the world outside the front door. There are about 100 species of butterflies that call Florida home. Many wildflowers and some landscape plants are hosts for butterfly caterpillars. Scout around a few different plants in the search for caterpillars. Good plants to look at include Coontie, Porterweed, Milkweed, Sunshine Mimosa, Frogfruit, Passionflowers, and Pipevines.
If caterpillars are found, it is responsible to collect only a few and return the adults to the area where collected. However, not everyone has a butterfly haven in the yard or nearby.
It is possible to purchase caterpillars for the purpose of rearing to adult. Be sure to buy Florida native and if possible, reared species. A quick internet search using “buy caterpillars” returned many companies offering caterpillars for sale.
Like all living things, there are some basic life requirements for rearing caterpillars to butterflies which include, food, water, and shelter. A cage to corral and protect the caterpillars is a good place to start. Provide species suitable food in the form of living plants or branches placed in water. Place the cage out of direct sunlight and keep it clean, daily usually, of poop and dead plants.
There are many resources to help on the journey of being a friend to butterflies and pollinators. Some of my favorites included the local Atala Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, the Florida Wildflower Foundation, and the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Other informative sites include Butterfly Gardening – University of Florida, Florida Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants, the North American Butterfly Association. The commercial sites The Butterfly Website is for butterfly lovers and has a large amount of information and The Shady Oak Butterfly Farm is in North Central Florida with many Florida native species.
Carol Cloud Bailey is a landscape counselor and horticulturist. Send questions to email@example.com or visit yard-doc.com for more information.