Keepers vs non-keepers

The search for caterpillars you want to raise, the so called keepers, sometimes also reveals others. Not every caterpillar is a keeper. However, it is always fun to spot any individuals, especially if  you can beat their disguise.

The photo above shows the caterpillar of a moth, perhaps a Silver Y (Autographa gamma), which I could not identify. Even though I did not proceed with this caterpillar and take it home, it was still worth a couple shots. Fair enough to say that the more you are searching for wanted species, the more you’ll also spot others by coincidence.

Keepers are definitely those species defined as the season targets. Nevertheless, a season cannot always be predicted, and a caterpillar you would have never expected may cross your path on a quest. Eventually, everyone decides on their own which species are attracting them. Someone only raises Old World Swallowtails, others care about moths only.

Every once in a while you might find a caterpillar when you least expect it. Late summer 2013 we found a larva of the Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor). Having no jar with us that day we decided it was not a keeper. Yet again, it was still worth taking some photos and introducing the hornworm to Sienna (see below).

The Buff-tip (Phalera bucephala) caterpillars, found on the search for Privet Hawk-moths, were worth to be taken home for a closer look. I placed them later on a birch next to our house. I must admit I slightly regret that I won’t be able to see them hatch this year.

Did you know…

Caterpillars of some species are specialized on feeding on a single kind of plant only. Such species, like the Small Tortoiseshell, are monophagous. Other species, e.g. the Mourning Cloak, are oligophagous, feeding on a restricted range of plants. If an even broader range of plants is accepted as food, like in case of the Small Emperor Moth, the species is called polyphagous.

Source: Murtosaari (J) & Mäntynen (P), 2013. Perhosten vuosi, Minerva Kustannus Oy, pp. 37

Related photos

Season 2014 targets


One of the most fun parts raising butterflies is defining the seasonal goals and setting the target caterpillars to be found during the coming butterfly season.

Season targets become the base for the compelling challenge of the caterpillar quest. During winter time one can either look back to analyze the previous season, or take a look ahead towards the next.

Planning a season requires some reading and studying. Set yourself realistic targets! How widespread is the desired species in your region? Furthermore, please respect protected species and any law and regulations related to nature where you live.

I’ve done my studies, and now I’m going to reveal my season 2014 caterpillar targets. Summer will show how many of these caterpillars (or occasionally even eggs or pupas) will be found. But that’s not all, the ultimate goal is to raise these caterpillars to see them hatch as adult butterflies, and unveil the beauty of their wings.

Caterpillar targets for summer 2014

Entries below contain following information:

  • English name* (Latin name), expected caterpillar time (in Finland), difficulty of finding, (link to wikipedia for details)

(* = Species I’ve never raised/found before.)

  • Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), May-July, easy (wikipedia)
  • European Peacock (Inachis io), May-July, easy (wikipedia)
  • Comma* (Polygonia c-album), May-July, medium (wikipedia)
  • Mourning Cloak* (Nymphalis antiopa), June-July, medium (wikipedia)
  • Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), June-August, medium (wikipedia)
  • Silver-washed Fritillary* (Argynnis paphia), May-June, difficult (wikipedia)
  • Purple Emperor* (Apatura iris), May-June, difficult (wikipedia)
  • Scarce Tortoiseshell* (Nymphalis xanthomelas), June, difficult (wikipedia)
  • Privet Hawk-moth* (Sphinx ligustri), July-August, easy (wikipedia)
  • Small Emperor Moth* (Saturnia pavonia), June-August, medium (wikipedia)
  • Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellatus), July-August, medium (wikipedia)

These 11 species are my primary targets. In addition, caterpillars of several other butterflies and moths may be considered as keepers if found. Nevertheless, caterpillar quests will mainly be planned in regard to species listed above.

When the season is about to begin I will also add a page for statistics. That page will follow the success and hits, and also track attempts with no results.

Give it a try…

There is two major questions to be answered before starting the search for caterpillars: When and where. Searching at the wrong time there won’t be any caterpillars around. And searching at the wrong location you will only get disappointed. Learn about species from books or the web, and you’ll increase your chances to get successful on your quest.

Source: The Butterfly Playbook

Winter break and diapause


Raising butterflies and moths sometimes calls for patience. Once a caterpillar has pupated by the end of summer some species will enter a phase that requires long waiting. Overwintering.

Looking from outside virtually nothing will happen to a pupa or cocoon before late spring, when the temperature rises and the days become longer. In the inside, however, the butterflies develops it’s wings and turns to what is known as an adult butterfly.

The winter break is certainly one draw back of rising butterflies. Lots of patience is required, and you may often think if there’s even life inside the pupa (or cocoon). Nevertheless, spring will prove there is. All the waiting gets compensated by the beauty of the creature hatching from something that did not look like containing any organism at all.

Since I started raising butterflies late in summer 2013 I only have a couple pupas waiting for spring. In a box on the balcony there’s two of the Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon), a Puss Moth (Cerura vinula) and a Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi). The latter two digged themselves into turf in a small container, spending winter in a cocoon under ground. The pupas of the Old World Swallowtail rest over ground (see photo above).

In addition, 10 cocoons of the Giant Peacock Moth (Saturnia pyri) are overwintering in the crisper compartment of our fridge. This species would not make it through the harsh winter in finland outside. The cocoons, ordered abroad from Worldwide Butterflies, will be used in late spring for breeding. This challenge will later be called the Pyri Project.

Did you know…

Each species of butterflies and moths has a particular stage of the metamorphosis determined for overwintering. As adult butterfly (e.g. the Common Brimstone), as pupa (e.g. all above mentioned species), as caterpillar (e.g. the Purple Emperor) or as egg (e.g. the Brown Hairstreak).

Source: Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia and Wikipedia (all January 9, 2014)

Related photos

Searching for caterpillars

To be able to raise butterflies you first need to find the caterpillars (or even better, eggs). Caterpillars may be found by coincidence. However, normally you will have to search with no guarantee of finding what you’re looking for.

I call this search the caterpillar quest. It’s one of the most rewarding activities related to butterflies. Some species are easy to find. For instance, caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) are common, and easy to recognize. But what about species which are rarer, or use better disguise?

Finding caterpillars is a challenge, a mission you need to complete before getting to the actual phase of raising. And particularly this challenge got me hooked to butterflies. It’s mind cleansing to hit nature with the knowledge on what the caterpillar looks like, what plant it feeds on and where that plant can be found.

You’ll often have to accept defeats before getting lucky. However, the rush you’ll get once you find the object you were after is well worth the effort.

This section, the caterpillar quest, is about my attempts to get lucky. It will also be about failure, and hopefully sometimes about finding caterpillars of species I was not expecting to find.

To share my learning I will provide knowledge and tips to find caterpillars on your own. Some posts will focus on introducing caterpillar hotspots in a series of photos, also showing from the distance what signs you need to recognize.

Give it a try…

If you want to try raising caterpillars why don’t you start with a species that is common and easy to find? Try Small Tortoiseshells since their food plant, nettles, are also easy to obtain.

Source: The Butterfly Playbook

Hello world!

The interest in butterflies comes with a variety of benefits. Let me introduce one which probably wouldn’t come to your mind. This post features Noel, one of our twin boys, at the age of approximately 2 weeks. The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) hatched only moments before taking the image.

A couple days before our twins were born I took another walk to the horse stable nearby. I got slightly off track, following a butterfly which I tried to photograph. Reaching high nettles in the middle of a field, I wanted to have a closer look.

First, I spotted a rolled leaf. This is mostly a sign that an insect or spider has built a primitive shelter. In this case, it was a small caterpillar of the Red Admiral. Browsing further through the nettles, I came across many large caterpillars of the same species. Since they were close to entering the stage of pupa, I collected them. I knew butterflies will hatch only a couple weeks later, and wanted to share this miracle with our daughter.

Raising caterpillars needs dedication, though. After our boys were born I had to collect some stuff for my wife from home. On the same trip, I also had to pick fresh nettles for the caterpillars.

The bonus of all the care-taking are the photos one can shoot with “fresh” butterflies. Butterfly raising offers a special moment once an individual hatches. Before being capable of flying the insect first needs to dry its wings.

Take your time to have a close look during this time frame. The butterfly won’t fly away. It’s also the moment for taking a proper macro shot without the rush. Or stage a shot, as depicted in the photo series below.

Please keep the fragility of butterflies in mind. The slightest touch on its wings will result in permanent damage. Place your finger in front of the insect, and allow it to walk on it. Place your finger to the desired spot and allow the “accessory” to take position on its own.

Did you know…

The Red Admiral is a migrating species. If flies from north Africa and southern Europe to Finland in spring for breeding. In autumn, the adults of the next generation head south again as they have not yet learned overwintering in Scandinavia.

Source: Wikipedia (January 9, 2014)

Related photos

Reinventing a childhood hobby

Midsummer 2013, after calling it a day at work I decided to have a walk in the nearby park. My wife, being pregnant in the 3rd trimester with our twin boys, was visiting friends downtown. She had our daughter with her, so I took a walk on my own.

Before I stepped out I took a moment to browse the web. I incidentally had a quick look-up to see when the caterpillars of the Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) could be found in Finland. The time was matching, I decided to give it a try.

I already gave it a shot early summer, trying to raise caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). Unfortunately, all 3 caterpillars had parasites. Instead of butterflies, it was parasitoid wasps hatching from the pupa.

I started at the beach line of the sea close by. I kept my eyes focused on milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre) which was growing aside the trail I walked. No success. The caterpillar of the Old World Swallowtail stands out quite well due to it’s colors and size. Hence, looking at the right spot the chances are pretty good to find the needle in the haystack.

Perhaps I’m too close to the windy sea, I thought, and decided to try another biotope. Walking about a kilometer I was close to a horse stable, a good environment for small wild life. Again, my eyes started browsing through milk parsley.

And then, there it was! Right on the edge of the field, feeding on the white blossom of milk parsley, I found one. The rush caused by finding a caterpillar after truly looking – priceless. And yes, right then I knew. It was about time to reinvent a childhood hobby, butterflies.

Did you know…

The colorful appearance of the adult caterpillar acts as warning to bird predators. By absorbing toxins from host plants, the caterpillar of the Old World Swallowtail tastes poorly if attempted to be eaten.

Source: Wikipedia (January 9, 2014)