What kinds of caterpillars can you find in British Columbia?
Caterpillars are some of the MOST fascinating insects in the world! It always amazes me that caterpillars eventually turn into butterflies or moths.
There are hundreds of different caterpillar species found in British Columbia!
Since it would be impossible to list them all in one article, I chose the 14 most interesting and common ones to share with you. 🙂
#1. Monarch Caterpillar
- Danaus plexippus
- This famous caterpillar is plump with black, white, and yellow bands.
- Its legs and pro-legs are pronounced, and each end of its body has spindly black tentacles.
- The Monarch’s preferred host plant is milkweed.
Like the adult butterfly, the Monarch is one of the most well-recognized caterpillars in British Columbia!
Their distinctive stripes and tentacles make them look cartoonish. But this highly visible coloring sends a message to predators: Back Off!
Monarch Caterpillars are toxic to most animals, and at the very least, taste bad! This poison comes from their diet, which is almost entirely made up of milkweed. Toxins from the milkweed plant stay in the caterpillar, producing a bitter taste and poisonous effects.
If you have milkweed in your yard or nearby, your chance of finding Monarch Caterpillars is excellent! Honestly, there is nothing more fun than finding these colorful insects on our milkweed plants and getting to watch them transform into adults!
- Coloring is light green with small yellow dots along the sides.
- This species is small and relatively thin and appears velvety.
- Cabbageworms’ host plants are Brassicas, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, and chard.
In British Columbia, this species is often called the Imported Cabbageworm because it isn’t native to North America. It was introduced in shipments of cabbage and other brassica plants and soon became an invasive species.
Cabbageworms are considered agricultural pests and can do severe damage to crops to their host plants. Cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower are all susceptible to damage. For a home gardener, the best way to deal with Cabbageworms is to prevent a large infestation. Plant covers, regular weeding, and varied plantings can all help with preventing this hungry invader!
One reason Cabbageworms are so damaging is that they are voracious eaters! They can easily skeletonize entire plants, eating everything but the toughest stems and midveins. Boring through heads of cabbage and making huge dents in broccoli are no problem for this Very Hungry Caterpillar!
Cabbageworms grow into Cabbage White Butterflies, which are one of the most abundant butterflies in British Columbia! If you see a white butterfly in the spring, chances are it’s a Cabbage White!
#3. Woolly Bear
- Pyrrharctia isabella
- Coloring is black with a wide rusty-red band in the middle.
- As its name suggests, the Woolly Bear caterpillar is covered in dense, coarse hairs.
- Transform into Isabella Tiger Moths.
- Woolly Bears are generalist feeders, meaning they will live on and eat nearly any plant!
As a kid, I can remember hearing tons of stories about Woolly Bear caterpillars – and the coolest part about them is that most of the stories are true! One myth you might have heard is that Woolly Bears can predict the type of winter we’ll have. Unfortunately, this one isn’t true. But there’s plenty of other interesting facts about this cute little caterpillar!
The most fascinating thing about Woolly Bears is the way they hibernate.
That’s to say, they don’t hibernate at all! Instead of burrowing or pupating to escape the cold, Woolly Bears allow themselves to freeze solid. They have a unique chemical in their blood that allows them to thaw out and continue in the spring as if nothing happened!
You may have heard that Woolly Bear Caterpillars are venomous, but this isn’t entirely true. Their hairs don’t contain any toxins or irritants, but some people are sensitive to the hairs and may get a slight rash if they touch one. It’s best to observe the species without touching them, just in case.
Woolly Bear Caterpillars and their adult-form, Isabella Tiger Moths, are found in incredibly varied climates, even the Arctic! Because they will eat almost anything, including herbs, tree leaves, and grasses, they can be found pretty much anywhere plants are growing. Look for them in groups near the base of plants.
Just don’t expect them to take over for your meteorologist! 🙂
#4. Tomato Hornworm
- Manduca quinquemaculata – Tomato Hornworm
- Bright green with tiny white lines and black dots.
- There’s a thin, greenish-black, filament-like “horn” on the rear end.
- Hornworms grow up to 3.5 inches in length before metamorphosis.
Tomato Hornworms are considered one of the most destructive caterpillars in British Columbia.
They specialize in eating tobacco, tomato, and other similar plants and regularly cause problems for farms and growers who don’t use pesticides. However, relocating or killing the caterpillars can be enough for many home gardeners to deter any more from eating your plants.
One particularly disgusting enemy of the Tomato Hornworm is Cotesia congregata. It’s a parasitoid wasp that attacks the caterpillar with venom and then lays its eggs INSIDE the living body. As the caterpillar matures, so do the wasp eggs, slowly feeding on the hornworm until it dies and the wasps hatch. Gross!
#5. Large Yellow Underwing
- Noctua pronuba
You’re most likely to find these caterpillars in British Columbia in open or shrubby areas, but they are habitat generalists that can adapt to various conditions. For example, they’re happy in urban and suburban areas, fields, agricultural areas, yards, and parks.
The adult moths are mostly nocturnal and are attracted to outdoor lights. You may occasionally spot large groups of them around bright lights.
Large Yellow Underwings might not have the most creative name, but it’s certainly accurate! At rest, their brown forewings usually cover their brightly colored hindwings, but you’ll see a flash of color when they take off! This flash helps to confuse and startle would-be predators.
Large Yellow Underwings have a longer lifespan than many other moth species. In captivity, males live an average of 55 days, and females live about 75 days. Despite their long lifespan, they only have one new generation per year.
#6. Painted Lady
- Vanessa cardui
- The caterpillars’ coloring is variable, ranging from greenish-yellow to charcoal. Most have light-colored spots.
Look for Painted Lady caterpillars in British Columbia in open areas that are quiet and undisturbed, like roadsides, pastures, and gardens.
The population of Painted Lady’s can drastically differ from year to year. It’s common for them not to be seen for years in some places, then suddenly show up in significant numbers.
The Painted Lady is the only butterfly that mates year-round! Because of its constant migration pattern, it spends its entire life in suitable areas for its eggs to hatch.
#7. Red Admiral
- Vanessa atalanta
- The caterpillars are pinkish-gray to charcoal with white spots. They have spines along the back that resemble hairs.
Look for this caterpillar in British Columbia near the edge of forests in moist habitats.
Red Admiral Butterflies have a unique favorite food – they love fermented fruit! If you’d like to attract them, try placing overripe cut fruit in a sunny spot in your yard.
Red Admirals are migratory butterflies. They fly south toward warmer climates in winter and then move north again in late spring when food is more plentiful.
If you’re looking for a butterfly that’s easy to observe, you’re in luck! Red Admirals are very calm and easy to approach and frequently land on humans!
- RELATED: How to Attract Butterflies: 17 Tips!
#8. Spotted Tussock Moth
- Lophocampa maculata
Spotted Tussock Moths are in the tiger moth family, named for their patterns of alternating dark and light colors. These moths and their caterpillars are what’s known as polymorphic, meaning that they come in many color variations.
You’ll most likely find Spotted Tussock Moth caterpillars in British Columbia in deciduous forests. Researchers have found that Spotted Tussock Moths have a regional taste for cuisine, just like people! Caterpillars from certain regions often prefer specific tree species.
After about two months of feeding, the caterpillars pupate. They spin brown silk cocoons attached to leaves where they will overwinter, emerging as adults the following spring.
#9. Mourning Cloak
- Nymphalis Antiopa
- Caterpillars are black with white specks and a row of red spots on the back.
Mourning Cloak caterpillars are most often found near deciduous forests. However, their habitat includes many developed areas like suburban yards, parks, and golf courses.
You might have a hard time finding this caterpillar in British Columbia.
Even though it’s fairly widespread, its preference for cold weather and solitary habits make it hard to spot, even for avid butterfly enthusiasts!
Mourning Cloaks are often the first butterflies to become active in the spring! In fact, some adults are even active through winter on warm days when snow is still on the ground.
They’re also one of the longest-lived butterflies, with some individuals living up to ten months!
#10. Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth
- Malacosoma disstria
Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth populations fluctuate in cycles, so you may go years without seeing any and then see lots of them in one season. Their populations reach outbreak proportions every 6-16 years.
Adult Forest Tent Caterpillar Moths are active in July, don’t feed, and live for ten days. Especially in outbreak years, you might spot large groups clustered around outdoor lights.
Unlike other tent caterpillars, Forest Tent Caterpillars don’t spin true tents. Instead, they spin silk mats on the tree’s trunk or branches where they rest when they’re not feeding.
#11. Western Tent Caterpillar Moth
- Malacosoma californica
In the fall, Western Tent Caterpillar Moths lay about 150 to 250 eggs in oval-shaped masses. They cover the eggs with a gluey cement substance called spumaline, which helps hold in heat and absorbs rainwater to prevent the eggs from drying out. It also protects the eggs from parasitoid wasps.
Even though it only takes three to four weeks for the caterpillars to mature, they must overwinter in this stage before pupating into moths. Their name comes from the silken tent they create to protect themselves from extreme cold during this time.
These caterpillars have a voracious appetite and can quickly defoliate trees in British Columbia during a population outbreak. While it may be unsightly, the trees usually recover just fine. Interestingly, these caterpillars have regional tastes, and the specific trees they prefer are highly dependent on their location.
#12. Two-Tailed Swallowtail
- Papilio Multicaudata
Two-Tailed Swallowtail caterpillars are found in British Columbia in areas with open space and plenty of sunlight. Look for them in foothills, canyons, valleys, woodlands, roadsides, parks, cities, and suburb gardens.
Males of this species spend their entire lives finding a female to mate with due to their short lifespan. If it takes a long time to find a mate, males search for nutrients in rotten material, dirt, and sometimes feces, an odd behavior called mud puddling.
Although it’s one of the most recognizable features, the Two-tailed Swallowtail doesn’t need its tails to fly. Instead, they’re often used to escape predators. When a predator attacks the Swallowtail and grabs onto its tail, it breaks off, allowing the butterfly to escape.
#13. Western Tiger Swallowtail
- Papilio Rutulus
Look for these caterpillars in British Columbia near water.
Western Tiger Swallowtails prefer being close to rivers, streams, and lakes, and they’re often seen in gardens, roadside meadows, canyons, and parks.
As a deterrent against predators, the caterpillar has two large spots on its tail that look like eyes. They also have a forked organ called a Stinkhorn or Osmeterium, which produces a foul smell to keep predators away.
Western Tiger Swallowtail Range Map
To find a mate, males flutter around hilltops or canyons looking for a female. After mating, the female will deposit her eggs on the leaves of a host plant, usually a willow, cottonwood, or aspen tree. When the caterpillars appear, they instinctively seek shelter in the tree’s foliage.
#14. Cinnabar Moth
- Tyria jacobaeae
Cinnabar Moths were introduced to control ragwort in British Columbia.
This fast-growing weed is a host plant for Cinnabar caterpillars. Look for the moths anywhere ragwort grows, particularly in open and grassy habitats, gardens, and mature dunes. Unlike many moths, Cinnabar Moths are active during the night and day.
These stunning red and black moths get their name from the mineral Cinnabar. Occasionally, individuals may display different colors, including completely black forewings, predominantly red coloring, or yellow color rather than red.
Their bright colors warn predators that these moths are toxic! Cinnabar Moths store poisonous alkaloids from the plants they eat and then pass them on to predators.
Do you need more help identifying caterpillars in British Columbia?
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Which of these caterpillars have you seen in British Columbia?
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