Caterpillars in your garden

Come spring, your garden should be host to an army of fascinating leaf-eaters, including all sorts of caterpillars and insect larvae.

Attract caterpillars to your garden article spread

Come spring, your garden should be host to an army of fascinating leaf-eaters, including all sorts of caterpillars and insect larvae.

One of the most absorbing activities for any wildlife gardener is looking for newly nibbled holes in the leaves of your plants. Don’t be alarmed: holes are the best evidence of a thriving garden ecosystem, and the fun part is working out what made them. The chances are it will be either caterpillars, sawfly larvae or beetle grubs.

As well as providing food for your garden birds and hedgehogs, insect larvae are fascinating in themselves and, of course, they will later develop into adults. The three groups can be hard to tell apart, but are easily distinguished by examining their legs – a good guide will help.
Most of the caterpillars you’ll find will be those of moths. Sawflies are common, too – their larvae feed in groups clustered on the edges of leaves and, when disturbed, some flick into an S-shape to deter predators. Keep an eye on your larvae’s progress. Caterpillars have phenomenal growth rates, increasing in weight by 10,000 times in less than a month before pupating.
  • Most butterflies and moths will spend their entire lives in a small area if it contains the right foodplants – so good planting is the best way to boost numbers.
  • Don’t just focus on butterflies: there are only about 60 species in Britain, relatively few of which occur regularly in gardens.
  • In contrast, there are about 2,500 species of moth, several hundred of which can be seen in gardens. Many species are adaptable and will lay their eggs on a wide range of herbaceous plants. Nettles, docks and grasses are good, as are native shrubs, such as blackthorn, dogwood, hawthorn and spindle.
  • A hedge with a mix of native species will attract a wide range of moths, as will trees such as willow (food for caterpillars of 90 species of moth), birch (75) and poplar (32). Night-scented flowers, such as honeysuckle, evening primrose and jasmine, provide nectar for moths, too.
EIGHT SPECIES TO SPOT: Grow the right plants and you should find these insects in your garden
  1. Brimstone caterpillars
    Plant alder buckthorn to provide food for the caterpillars of the brimstone – one of the first butterflies to appear in gardens in spring.
  2. Adult woodwasps
    The adults are stunningly beautiful and look ferocious, but they’re actually sawflies and harmless. They emerge from log piles in May.
  3. Iris sawfly larvae
    The larvae are boring to look at and the adults small and easily overlooked, but both play an important part in the food chain.
  4. Hawkmoth caterpillars
    Poplar hawkmoths are quite common in gardens. Their large green caterpillars feed on the leaves of willow and poplar.
  5. Butterfly and moth pupa
    Many butterfly and moth species spend winter underground as pupae, so don’t dig your garden except when absolutely necessary.
  6. Large white butterfly chrysalis
    The overwintering chrysalises of large white butterflies can be found hanging on garden fences and similar locations.
  7. Adult winter moth
    While the adult is not much to look at, the caterpillars can be abundant in spring and are a major food source for newly hatched blue tits.
  8. Yellow underwing moth
    The larvae are an important food source for hedgehogs, foxes and badgers, while adults have stunning brightly coloured underwings.
  • Grow jack-by-the-hedge in various places around your garden and see which spots are favoured by orange tip butterflies; they tend to prefer to lay their eggs on plants growing in dappled sunlight. The first sign of caterpillars is some of the young seedpods being eaten.
  • Skeletonised leaves on plants, such as Solomon’s seal, gooseberries and aquatic irises, are characteristic of sawfly: their larvae drop off and pupate in the ground. If an infestation gets too bad, hoe or rake the soil around the plant in winter; frost will kill off those pupae not eaten by foraging birds.
  • Stinging nettles are foodplants for comma, painted lady, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell caterpillars. Experiment by growing nettles in pots either buried in the ground in sunny places or among flowerbeds; this stops them from getting out of control while still attracting butterflies.
  • Several moths and butterflies, such as gatekeeper, meadow brown, speckled wood and wall brown, lay their eggs on a range of native grasses. So leave patches of long grass in corners of the garden or on the edges of the lawn; cut them in the autumn.
  • Many caterpillars pupate in dead plant stems, so leave these in-situ over the winter or cut them and stack them in a corner of your garden for adults to emerge from in the spring.
  • Look out for the rose leaf-rolling sawfly, a particularly interesting species. When the female lays her eggs, she secretes a chemical that causes the rose leaves to rollup tightly; the larvae feed inside the rolled leaf.
  • In addition to watching caterpillars in your garden, you can also buy native species from reputable dealers, rear them indoors and then release the adults in your garden. 


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