Exploring the Garden for Caterpillars

Caterpillars are one of my favorite things to find when exploring the garden. My son loves them too. In the summer of 2022, we started a daily notion on who would see the most caterpillars. I usually have time over my lunch break to hunt caterpillars, while he looks for them all day. But I usually win.

Caterpillars are the larval life stage of moths and butterflies. Over the years, I have photographed a large number of them, but many remain unknown as to which adult moth or butterfly they belong too. Unfortunately, there is no a lot of identification on the subject. But, we learn new ones every year.

Being Careful

One thing I stress strongly to both of my children is to look and not touch the caterpillars unless I let them. This is for 2 reasons. First, some of the prettiest ones are venomous, meaning that the hairs or small spines on their bodies may cause intense pain or irritation. Secondly, I would prefer the caterpillars to be left alone. But there are some I am okay with them handling, like woolly bears or bagworms.

If you are learning to be careful around the garden when looking for caterpillars, then you may start to see them and other things more clearly. I know that since I have been looking for them I have begun to see other things more clearly, such as galls and beetles.

What Kinds of Caterpillars to Expect

It depends a lot on where you live. Here in the Central Great Plains, there is the potential to see around 100 species of butterflies and skippers. Also, there may be around 600 moth species to find, maybe more. But some are really common and easy to find, while other elude my best efforts.

Monarchs are the easiest to recognize for my kids, because I plant lots of milkweed, and show them when I find the caterpillars. Besides them, we also find a lot of tobacco hornworms (on tomatoes), checkerspots (on rudbeckia and echinacea), milkweed tussock moths, and viceroys (on cottonwood and willow).

common caterpillars in the author's garden

Each year we find new ones and I photograph them to add to my album, and to help remember them for next time.

Some of My Favorite Finds of Caterpillars

Besides our garden, my kids and I go hiking at nature trails, local lakes, and wildlife areas. These are some of our favorite finds.

  • Pipevine swallowtail butterfly
  • Zebra swallowtail butterfly
  • Snowberry clearwing moth
  • Blinded sphinx moth
  • Unicorn prominent moth
  • Yellow-shouldered slug moth
  • Interrupted Dagger moth
  • Spiny oak slug moth
  • Splendid dagger moth
  • White-marked tussock moth
  • Polyphemus moth
  • Catalpa sphinx moth
  • Bisected honeylocust moth
  • Retarded dagger moth
  • Laurel sphinx moth
  • Pawpaw sphinx moth
  • Emperial moth
  • Sycamore tussock moth
  • Turbulent phosphila moth


It does not take much work to go out and explore, and find caterpillars. If you have lots of native plants, especially trees around you, then you will find lots of caterpillars. Just remember to look and not touch, and let nature be your guide.

Happy planting!

author of caterpillars

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