Butterflies and moths :
Samia cynthia pupa (brown) and cocoon (white)
Can I keep butterflies as pets?
In theory, butterfly keeping is possible, but in practice, it’s much more complicated than you’d imagine. You’d need a specialised enclosure, with carefully controlled warm temperatures and humidity. You’d spend more time keeping eggs, caterpillars and pupae than butterflies: in a typical lifespan of 10 weeks, only one week is spent as an adult butterfly. And if you let the adult butterflies into your bedroom, they’d fly straight to your curtains, trying to get to the light of the windows, like moths to a flame. If you want to know more, visit keepinginsects.com: if you want to experience midwinter butterflies, visit a commercial butterfly farm (try butterflyfarm.co.uk).
how to keep a butterfly as a pet
My Pet Butterfly
How to keep a pet butterfly!!
Butterfly & Moth
courtesy to : www.keepinginsects.com/butterfly/
Butterflies: everyone knows them and most people love them. They often have beautiful colors, strange wing shapes and they are completely harmless. Their other live stages, especially the caterpillar, can be gorgeous with strange colors and shapes, but some people are disgusted by them.
Butterflies are very fascinating as pets, because they undergo a complete metamorphosis; they are born as caterpillars, then change into pupae which give rise to a butterfly (or moth). This is very interesting to watch for children, but even for adults (like me!).
In these pages you can read all about keeping butterflies and caterpillars as pets:
Caring for caterpillars and butterflies
Catching Wild moths and butterflies
Species description and caresheets
Cricula Silkmoth (Cricula trifenestrata)
Ricini Silkmoth (Samia cynthia)
Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas)
Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
Breeding butterflies and moths
FAQ Frequently asked questions
A Samia cynthia butterfly
A caterpillar of the species Saturnia pavonia
Atlas Moth female
Butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera. There exist approximately 160,000 different species of butterflies in the world! They are an extremely diverse group when compared with the 2000 species of praying mantids, for example! Butterflies are found worldwide, even above the Arctic Circle, but they do not occur on Antarctica.
Life cycle of a butterfly
Butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis; this means the early stages of life do not resemble the adult life stage at all. Butterflies are always born as caterpillars. Tiny caterpillars hatch from small eggs. Immediately after hatching they will start to eat leaves of specific plants (their host plants). The caterpillar will grow, but because it has a rigid outer skeleton (their skin provides rigidity, like our inner skeleton) it has to shed its skin to be able to grow. Most species shed their skin four times when in their caterpillar stage. Each time the caterpillar sheds its skin it will grow, and sometimes it will also have different colors after its molt. When the caterpillar reaches its final caterpillar life stage, it will make a cocoon with silk that it produces with its mouth. It will completely cover itself in this silk, making a protective cocoon. Inside this cocoon the caterpillar will shed its skin again, changing into a pupa. Inside the pupa the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. When it is finished, the butterfly will open the cocoon and sit close to it to inflate its wings. The butterfly will first pump body fluids through its flat wings, making them expand. Then it will replace the fluid with air and lets its wings dry. After that, the butterfly is ready to fly off!
Samia cynthia caterpillars
Morphology of butterflies and caterpillars
Like any insect species, the adult butterfly has six legs, two antennae, two wings, a head, a thorax and an abdomen. Caterpillars have a head, followed by a section with six legs and then a section with ten prolegs (some species have less prolegs or none at all). The six legs are its ‘true’ legs: later when the caterpillar becomes a butterfly it will have these same legs. These six legs are pointy and designed to get a hold on the edge of leaves and such. The prolegs only occur on caterpillars and will be disappear when the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. These legs have suction pads and are especially designed to adhere to flat and smooth surfaces, like smooth leaves.
Samia cynthia butterfly seen from the front
The senses of butterflies and caterpillars
Butterflies have all the sense we have (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste), but they rely mostly on smell, touch and taste. Their sense of smell is not located in their nose (they do not have one), but is located in their antennae and even their feet! Butterflies also taste with their feet, stepping on nector or host plants to taste if this is appropriate food for them or their offspring. The other senses of a butterfly are not well developed but serve specific functions very well (e.g. sight = escape from predators and finding of flowers, but no detail and no stereo-vision).
Caterpillars also have all senses, but they probably have them even less developed than butterflies. This is because a caterpillar generally can not do more than eat and walk at a very slow pace. Excellent senses will not help it to perform better. They use their sense of smell to identify food plants.
Cricula trifenestrata male – The pseudo-holes in the wings are small
Two butterflies eating. One is a Morpho butterfly, the other side of the wings is bright blue
Care and housing :
Caterpillars make great pets, both for children and for adults. Butterflies are also terrific pets as long as their special needs regarding flying space and food are met.
Taking care of caterpillars :
- Housing caterpillars :
An enclosure for caterpillars can be really simple; it just needs to be big enough, ventilated, escape proof and safe. The enclosure should allow all caterpillars to have around 3 times their bodysize in extra floor space. A plastic box for 10 caterpillars of 6 cm in lenght should have around 25 x 25 cm floorspace. Every caterpillar should be able to feed without having to touch other caterpillars.
A lid with proper ventilation will make the enclosure escape proof. Often caterpillars do not move a lot, except for searching for food or searching for a place to pupate.
A safe enclosure does not contain any sharp edges or objects where the caterpillar can get stuck under.
The enclosure does not need any decoration, because it will be filled with the food plants of your caterpillar. On the floor of the tank you can place tissue paper to absorb any water or droppings.
An Euthrix potatoria caterpillar
Feeding your caterpillars
Caterpillars eat a lot. Feeding them enough of appropriate fresh food plants is essential for their health and growth. Caterpillars eat one or more different kinds of leaves. When a species eats different species of trees or bushes, it is good to offer several of these species to ensure a diverse menu.
When the caterpillars are small and do not eat a lot, you can feed them either by offering their food plants in a glass of water or by just placing the leaves on the floor of the enclosure. When you put the leaves in a glass of water, like cut flowers, the leaves stay fresh for a long time (around one week). When you place them on the floor, they need to be replaced often because they will dry and become uneatable. Caterpillars only eat fresh leaves that have enough water.
You can offer leaves in a cup, in this way the leaves stay fresh for a longer time. This is privet
Keeping the environment suitable for your caterpillars
Caterpillars require some moisture to keep their skin moist and to drink. Not all species need the same amount, how much a given species needs can be read at the caresheet of this species. The best way to supply water to your caterpillars is by washing the leaves you give to them with clean water. The droplets that stay on the leaves will give the caterpillars their necessary moisture.
The temperature at which you keep your caterpillars will determine their health and growth speed. Every species has its own specific temperature in which it will thrive. Keeping caterpillars at a lower temperature than their optimal temperature will reduce their growth speed a lot and can be detrimental to their health.
Samia cynthia caterpillars eating privet
You need to clean the tank of your caterpillars every day. Caterpillars produce a lot of dropping which, in combination with moisture, can host mold and bacteria. When you use paper tissues at the bottom of the enclosure, you can just remove this paper and replace it with fresh paper. This will take only a few minutes.
When cleaning the enclosure you also need to remove any old leaves and stalks of the leaves.
Getting the pupae out :
When the caterpillars reach their last stage of development, they will try to find a suitable place for pupating. A butterfly pupa is called a chrysalis. The caterpillars will generally move around a lot and try to find a good spot to make its cocoon. When you see this behavior, make sure you have enough space available for all caterpillars to pupate at. If the current enclosure is not suitable, transfer all caterpillars that are ready to pupate to a more suitable enclosure. When you find a cocoon, carefully remove it from the place where you found it and place it in a separate enclosure (without any caterpillars). Keep this enclosure rather dry, but not completely without humidity. You can lightly mist the substrate at the bottom of the enclosure (e.g. tissue paper).
Taking care of butterfly pupae :
A pupa is the actual stage between caterpillar and butterfly, its also called a chrysalis. A cocoon is the silky stuff the caterpillar produces to wrap itself in, and to protect the pupa. Not all butterfly and moth species make cocoons, but all species have the chrysalis stage.
The best way to take care of cocoons is to hang them on a string or something similar. You could also jut place the cocoons on the floor, but this will often give problems when the butterfly wants to get out of the cocoon.
This female Atlas Moth just got out of her cocoon. You can see a bit of how I hung the cocoons.
Hanging the cocoons :
The enclosure where you will hang the cocoons in should be at least twice as big as the wingspan of a butterfly in all directions from the pupa. To hang the cocoons, use a needle and thread to put a bit of thread through the pointed end of the cocoon. Make sure not to touch the pupa inside! You can hang the cocoon from the thread. You can also use a pin to hang the cocoon. Hang the pupae on a wooden stick or something where a butterfly can get a hold of (so no metal or plastic). All the sides of this enclosure should be made of mesh or fabric to ensure that the butterfly can walk up on the walls if it happens to drop to the ground.
The pupae of these butterflies are not covered in a cocoon. You cannot easily hang them on a thread because it can harm the pupae.
Environment and care for chrysalises / cocoons
Butterflies stay between around 8 days to some months in their chrysalis stage. Make sure the temperature and humidity are suitable for your species of butterfly. This is different for all species, so check out our species list to see what your species needs.
Taking care of butterflies
When you get butterflies out of your pupae, you can choose one of two things; release the butterflies in nature or keep them as pets. You can only release species of butterfly that are native to your country. When you want to keep butterflies, you have to meet the needs of this beautiful flying creature in temperature, food and space.
An Atlas moth on my finger.
Enclosure for butterflies
For butterflies, every enclosure is too small. Therefore, make sure you have the biggest enclosure you can accommodate or afford. Species that are not able to fly need less space than flying species.
The enclosure should not consist of glass or plastic, because the butterflies cannot walk on this and will continually flap against the glass. An enclosure made of mesh or mosquito netting is more suitable. Some people let their butterflies fly around in a room of their house. When the room is safe for the butterflies, this is a great way to keep them.
Keep in mind that butterflies need and want to fly. This means they will try to fly against the enclosure, sometimes excessively. This will harm their wings.
Feeding your butterflies
Some species of butterflies do not eat at all. Only the caterpillars eat, while the butterflies itself have no mouth! These species are common in captivity, because they are easy to keep.
Species that do feed as adults, need nectar or a sugary solution to drink from. Nectar can be given by offering fresh flowers of the species that the butterfly visits in nature. It is easier to supply a sugary solution to feed your butterfly. You can dissolve sugar or honey in water in dilution of 7 parts water and 1 part sugar. Mix this solution well and refresh it every day. You can offer the sugary solution in a cup that is covered in mosquito netting. The solution should reach to about 0,5 to 1 cm of the netting to make sure the butterflies can reach the sugary solution with their tongue.
Maintaining the proper environment
Make sure the temperature and humidity in the enclosure of your butterflies is suitable for the species that you care keeping. Especially the temperature is important. The best way to heat up butterflies is by using a light bulb. In this way the butterflies can bask in the light to heat up, or move out of the light to cool down. Make sure the butterflies cannot fly into the lamp, because this can burn and harm them.
How to breed your butterflies, can be read here.
Catching wild moths :
It can be fun and interesting to catch wild moths to see the beautiful variety in colors, shapes and sizes. Especially in tropical countries the species of wild moths are amazing and very variable, but also in more northern latitudes like in Europe and North America you can find amazing species.
Catching wild moths should always be done only to observe or photograph them. You should not take wild moths from nature to keep them in a cage at home. Please conserve nature by admiring it without damaging it. If you want to keep moths as pets, please raise native caterpillar species and release the adult moths. Do not release moths that do not naturally occur in your country.
Wild moth caught in the Netherlands
How to catch moths in the night
Moths can be caught easily by light trapping them at night. This method will work in summer and end of spring nights, or year round in tropical countries. Moths are attracted to light, so by creating a bright light source in an area where moths occur you will attract them. Especially male moths fly a lot at night, so they are easily caught with this method.
For light trapping you will need a strong and bright white light, a big white sheet or cloth and a way to hang the sheet outdoors. The best sheets are not that thick, very white and at least the size of a sheet for a single bed. You need to hang the sheet in an area without too much man-made lights and with plenty of nature around it. The location of the sheet, the hour of the night and the weather will greatly influence the success of the trapping, so please try a few different locations on different nights to find out where you can find the most amazing moths in your area.
Hang the white sheet in the nature area and direct the bright white light straight at it. The light will illuminate the white sheet completely. Now it’s time to wait! The moths will be attracted to the light and will land on the sheet. On this sheet you can study them and photograph them. Do not touch them with your hands as this damages the scales on the wings.
Please note that there are more ways of light trapping then using a sheet. I only describe this way of light trapping, because it is least damaging to the moths. Actually it is not really a trapping method, as the moths are not trapped but just attracted. Real trapping methods can kill moths, for example if the moths are attracted to a light inside a white bucket. The moth catcher does not have to stay up at night or observe the sheet, which makes it easy to catch big quantities of moths but will damage or kill many of the catches. For insect enthusiasts, children and moth fans it is much better and more fun to catch moths using the sheet.
Male atlas moth
Interesting bonus catches
While you are catching moths by light trapping you can also get some interesting other finds! Many other bugs also are attracted by light. If you live in a country with praying mantises, you will be able to find male praying mantises on the sheet. If you live in a country with stick insects or leaf insects, you could catch flying males of these species. You can also find mosquitoes, beetles, true bugs and almost all other night-flying insects on the sheet.
If you catch a female moth that is ready to reproduce, you could also observe the males that are attracted to her. If she is ready to mate she can release pheromones that can be sensed by the males of her species. They will be attracted to her and mate with her. It’s fun and interesting to observe this natural behavior!
Catching or collecting caterpillars:
There is no easy way to catch wild caterpillars. The only thing you can do is observe closely, visit a lot of natural areas and inspect plants that show signs of being eaten. If you are looking for a specific species of butterfly or moth you should first located the food plant. Check this plant for caterpillars, both on top of the leaves and under the leaves of the plant. Make sure you are looking for caterpillars at the appropriate time of year! In temperate zones most caterpillars can be found in spring, some other species exclusively in a few weeks in summer or fall. Tropical species can occur any time of year, but every species has a peak period in which it can be found. Outside this period it is impossible or rare to find specimens of this species.
What if you have caught a beautiful moth using the sheet light trapping method, but you don’t know the species? Next to searching online for descriptions or pictures you could also send a picture to me at the contact page. I will try to determine the species for you! Please also send information about the catching location and catch date.
If you want to enjoy the lifecycle of caterpillars – pupa – butterfly again, you can breed your butterflies! For some species this is easy, for others it can be harder.
Getting a male and a female
To breed butterflies you need a male and a female, butterflies are generally not parthenogenic (except the silk moth Bombyx mori). To know the differences between males and females, you can find pictures in the caresheet of the species you have.
Most butterfly species are extremely sensitive to inbreeding. After one or two generations of breeding with brother-sister pairs, the butterflies will be weak and small and cannot reproduce anymore. Therefore you have to breed individuals that came from different parents.
Cricula trifenestrata female – The pseudo-holes in the wings are large
The right environment for breeding
Make sure the male and the female have the appropriate environmental temperature, appropriate and enough food and enough space. When all is well, you will see mating pairs of butterflies. When butterflies mate, a male and a female are attached to each other at the abdomen, both facing the away from each other. This can take half an hour to 8 hours. Make sure not to disturb the animals in any way.
Placing the eggs
Almost immediately after mating the female will find a place to lay her eggs. She perfers to lay the eggs on the leaves of plants that the caterpillars will eat. By placing these leaves in the enclosure, you will give her a target and help her to lay eggs quickly. When you do not provide leaves, she will lay her eggs anywhere.
As soon as the eggs are laid, let them dry for 3 to 8 hours and then pick them up or move them with a brush carefully. When they are attached to a leaf you can take them away immediately be removing the whole leaf from the enclosure of the butterflies. But the eggs in a ventilated box with tissue paper on the bottom. Make sure this paper stays a bit moist and maintain a relatively high humidity inside the box. Do not give mold a chance; make sure the ventilation is enough to dry the insides of the box before you mist the eggs again.
Keep the box at an appropriate temperature for your species of butterfly.
Taking care of the newborn caterpillars :
When the caterpillars are born, they are extremely small and delicate. Touching them with your fingers or moving them can be lethal. Without touching them, or by touching them with a light brush, take them out of their hatching box and place them into the place where you want to raise your caterpillars. It is best if all caterpillars in this ‘raising enclosure’ are the same age or instar.
Very young caterpillars need more humidity than older instars. Feed your newborn caterpillars fresh leaves and treat them as stated in the care part of this website.
Samia cynthia caterpillars
Samia cynthia caterpillar on my finger
A caterpillar found in the Netherlands, species Saturnia pavonia
Butterfly & Moth FAQ
Here you find all the frequently asked questions.
Can caterpillars be raised by children?
Yes, caterpillars make excellent pets for children. When small children are supervised by adults, raising the caterpillars into butterflies is easy and fun. Children above 11 years of age can be expected to take care of caterpillars without much help.
Some species are hard to keep because of their specific needs in temperature or food, those species can be disappointing to keep for children. At the species description you can read which species are easy to keep and which ones are a bit more of a challenge.
Young Samia cynthia caterpillars
Can I raise caterpillars that I find in nature?
Yes you can. But to do so, you need to know what food plant they eat, what temperature they need and what humidity they need. Most of this information you can gather at the moment you find a caterpillar. The plant on which you found it is most likely its food plant. When keeping the caterpillar as a pet, you can mimic the temperature and humidity of the place you found it in nature.
It is forbidden to take protected species out of their habitat or import foreign species of insects into your country. Make sure you know which species are protected and what the law is in your country or state before you take any animal out of nature.
Can caterpillars be dangerous to my health?
Caterpillars that are sold as pets are generally not dangerous at all. Only some species are poisonous when ingested. They do not excrete poison. Some caterpillars that can be found in nature have long hairs on their back that can be irritation to people with asthma or can cause an allergic reaction. If you take a caterpillar out of nature, make sure you know which species it is and if it has these hairs.
How long do butterflies live?
This is different for all species. Species without a mouth generally live a short time, between 5 and 8 days. Species that do feed, for example on nectar, can live for a time between several weeks or several months.
When will a pupae / cocoon transform into a butterfly?
This can take a time between 2 weeks and one or even two years. Most species of butterfly stay in their pupal stage for two to four weeks, but some species have pupae that stay dormant all through winter. The pupa inside the cocoon will not develop but just wait for months or sometimes even two years before it will start to develop again and eclose as a butterfly. Eclosion is triggered by temperature and an internal clock (biological time mechanism in the brain of the caterpillar or pupa).
Adult female Samia cynthia seen from the front
What is the difference between a chrystalis, pupa and a cocoon?
A chryalis and pupa are two words for the same thing, the third stage in the life of a butterfly or moth (the four stages are egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult moth or butterfly). Some moths also form cocoons. The cocoon is an outer rapping made by the caterpillar using silk produced from glands in the caterpillar’s mouth. Sometimes the caterpillar will fasten leaves together with silk to form the cocoon, while other species (such as the silk moth) form the entire cocoon from silk. The caterpillar then pupates (forms the pupa or chrysalis) inside this protective covering. Butterflies do not make cocoons.
Pupa / chryalis of The Small Cabbage White – Pieris rapae