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As different as the individual butterflies look, their caterpillars are just as different. From green to black to colorful patterns, from smooth to thorny to hairy, everything is included. With the help of the following article, you can easily identify some caterpillars.

In a nutshell

  • Caterpillars are a larval stage of butterflies
  • the larvae of some plant wasps and beak flies also resemble caterpillars
  • the torso of the caterpillar consists of 14 segments lined up next to each other
  • these are divided into head, chest and abdomen
  • characteristic of a caterpillar species is, among other things, the coloring and hairiness

Caterpillars determine by color

Unfortunately, almost no conclusions can be drawn from the appearance of the caterpillar to the adult butterfly. As a rule, the larval stages look completely different from the moths. If they do not have distinctive characteristics, they are difficult to identify. However, if you look at the food plant on which the caterpillar feeds, in addition to the coloring and hairiness, you often come a good step closer to solving the riddle.

Protection from predators

In general, the butterfly caterpillars have two different tactics to protect themselves from their enemies. While some try not to attract attention, others rely on deterrence.

Well camouflaged caterpillar species

Some caterpillar species camouflage themselves by taking on the color and pattern of their host plants.

Green Caterpillars

Greenish colored caterpillars blend perfectly with the leaves and are therefore not so easy to spot. Native green caterpillar species include:

Evening Peacock (Smerinthus ocellata)

Source: Simon A. Eugster, Smerinthus ocellatus caterpillar on apple tree, edited by Plantopedia, CC BY 3.0
  • moth from the family of hawkmoths (Sphingidae)
  • maximum body length: up to 80 mm
  • Caterpillar season: usually one generation from June to September, rarely two generations
  • Food: willows, poplars, birches, apple trees
  • Basic color: blue-green, rarely yellow-green with yellow side stripes diagonally from below upwards
  • special features: fine white dots all over the body, light blue anal horn
  • Hairiness: no

Lesser Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata)

  • Butterfly of the Geometridae family
  • maximum body length: up to 25 mm
  • Caterpillar season: one generation between March and June
  • Host plants: fruit trees, oaks, beeches, maples
  • special features: have only one pair of abdominal feet
  • Caterpillars in a fine web between the leaves
  • Hairiness: no

Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)

adult specimen
  • Butterflies from the subfamily of the eye moths (Nymphalidae)
  • maximum body length: 28 mm
  • Caterpillar season: July/August
  • Diet: Grasses such as fescue and bluegrass
  • special features: green or yellow-brown colouring, light-brown head
  • Hair: dense but very short hairs

Pigeontail (Macroglossum stellatarum)

  • moth from the family of hawkmoths (Sphingidae)
  • maximum body length: 40 to 50 mm
  • Host plants: preferably bedstraws (Galium) such as meadow bedstraw
  • light green with two whitish lines from head to abdomen, black dots at regular intervals
  • Special features: bluish anal horn with a yellow tip, red belly and breast feet
  • Hairiness: no

Tip: Caterpillars of moths from the hawkmoth family have a conspicuous stinger on their abdomen: a so-called anal horn.

Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Source: Harald Süpfle, Gonepteryx rhamni - caterpillar 06 (HS), edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
  • Butterflies from the family of the white butterflies (Pieridae)
  • Body length: around 30mm
  • Caterpillar season: usually one generation (June/July), sometimes several (until October)
  • Host plants: buckthorn and buckthorn
  • Basic color: dull green
  • special features: white vertical stripes over the legs
  • Hairiness: no

Brown caterpillar species

Not only green, but also brown is a perfect camouflage color in nature. It is not easy to recognize these caterpillars in the garden or forest at all. For if they don't move, they resemble a dried-up branch or resemble leaves.

Broad-winged band owl (Noctua comes)

Source: Olei, Noctua.comes.6967, edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Moths from the owl moth family (Noctuidae)
  • maximum body length: 60 mm
  • Caterpillar season: one generation between autumn and mid-May
  • Host plant: various flowers and herbs, berry bushes, sour cherries
  • Colouring: reddish-grey to green-brown
  • special features: large dark brown triangular spots on the side and rear back
  • Hairiness: no

Beech tooth moth (Stauropus fagi)

  • Moths from the tooth moth family (Notodontidae)
  • maximum length: 60 mm
  • Caterpillar period: 2 generations (April/May and June/August)
  • Host plants: beech, English oak, hawthorn, dogwood and field maple
  • special features: front legs greatly extended, rear segments fused together like scales
  • look like primeval mini dragons
  • Hairiness: none

Hawthorn Owl (Allophyes oxyacanthae)

Source: Harald Süpfle, Allophyes oxyacanthae 04 (HS), edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Butterfly of the Noctuid family (Noctuidae)
  • maximum body length: 50 to 60 mm
  • Caterpillar season: one generation in July/August
  • Fodder plants: sloes, hawthorn
  • Ground color: various shades of brownish-grey with many dark streaks
  • special features: small black-brown warts on the back
  • Hair: only a few short hairs

Deterrently colored caterpillars

The second possibility of not being eaten is particularly striking colors. With these signal colors they show their predators that they are poisonous. While some caterpillar species are capable of producing a poison themselves, others ingest it through their host plants.

Caterpillars are black and yellow in color

The combination of black and yellow often mimics the appearance of other insects such as wasps, which are only part of the diet of a few bird species. Otherwise, the yellow color has a signaling effect, suggesting that the potential meal is toxic.

Large Cabbage White (Pieris brassicae)

  • Butterflies from the family of the white butterflies (Pieridae)
  • maximum length: 40 mm
  • Caterpillar season: two to three generations from March to October
  • Fodder plant: Cabbages and cruciferous plants
  • Colouring: yellowish-green and mottled with black
  • store toxic sulfur compounds from food
  • special features: young caterpillars mostly sociable in groups
  • Hair: fine white hairs (relatively short)

Jacobean bear (Tyria jacobaeae)

  • Moths from the subfamily of bear moths (Arctiinae)
  • maximum body length: 30 mm
  • Host plants: Ragwort
  • stores toxic alkaloids from food in the body
  • special features: conspicuous yellow-black ringed body
  • Hair: a few long white and short black hairs

Lesser Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis urticae)

  • Butterflies from the Nymphalidae family
  • maximum body length: 30 mm
  • Caterpillar season: 2 to 3 generations (June to October)
  • Host plants: mainly nettles
  • Basic color: black with two broken yellow lateral lines
  • Special features: clearly distinct black head in young caterpillars, form webs
  • Hairiness: Spines on sides and back

Moonspot or Moonbird (Phalera bucephala)

  • Moths from the tooth moth family (Notodontidae)
  • maximum body length: 60 mm
  • Caterpillar season: July to August
  • Fodder plant: many different tree and shrub species
  • Colouring: black with orange-yellow horizontal stripes and yellow-white vertical stripes
  • special features: black head with yellow V
  • Hair: fine, white bristles

Six-spotted rampart (Zygaena filipendulae)

  • Moths from the ram family (Zygaenidae)
  • maximum length: 22 mm
  • Caterpillar season: one generation between August and October
  • Fodder plant: trefoil, crown vetch
  • Appearance: green-yellow ground color with a double row of black spots
  • special features: black head capsule
  • Hair: fine, short bristles

More conspicuously colored caterpillars

Medium vine hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor)

  • moth from the family of hawkmoths (Sphingidae)
  • maximum length: 50 to 80 mm
  • Caterpillar season: one generation (June to August)
  • Host plants: balsam, fireweed, fuchsias, evening primrose
  • Colouring: initially greenish, later brownish to almost black
  • special features: two conspicuous eyespots on each side of the abdominal segment (imitation of a snake)
  • Hairiness: no

Swallowtail (Papilio machaon)

  • Butterfly of the Knight butterfly family (Papilionidae)
  • maximum body length: 45 mm
  • Caterpillar season: 1 to 3 generations (May to August)
  • Host plants: Umbellifers such as dill, fennel and carrots
  • special features: mint green basic color, black and yellow spotted stripes
  • Hairiness: none

Notice: When threatened, the swallowtail caterpillars release a scent that drives away predators and ants.

Spurge Hawk-Moth (Hyles euphorbiae)

  • moth from the family of hawkmoths (Sphingidae)
  • maximum length: 70 to 80 mm
  • Caterpillar time: a generation of
  • Fodder plants: Cypress Spurge
  • Caterpillars drink the poisonous sap of the plant
  • Appearance: very variable, but always black with red, white and yellow areas
  • special features: head, legs and anal horn are always red
  • Hairiness: none

Very hairy caterpillar species

The caterpillars of some species of butterflies have a completely different tactic to protect themselves from enemies. They have stinging hairs. These stinging hairs are equipped with barbs or an active substance that causes a burning sensation when touched, as we know from stinging nettles, for example.

Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar)

  • maximum body length: 40 to 70 mm
  • Caterpillar season: one generation (April to June)
  • Appearance: gray to grey-yellow, finely spotted
  • special features: blue warts in two rows in the neck area, red warts up to the abdomen
  • Host plants: beeches, oaks, chestnuts, fruit trees

Oak Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea processionea)

  • maximum length: up to 40 mm
  • Caterpillar season: early May to June
  • Appearance: bluish-black, sometimes brown in color with very long white hairs
  • Host plant: all types of oaks
  • Young caterpillars form webs in branch forks and on trunks

frequently asked Questions

Are green caterpillars poisonous?

In contrast to conspicuously colored caterpillar species, green and brown caterpillars protect themselves by merging with their substrate and are therefore almost invisible. Most species are naturally non-toxic. However, a few species feed on plants with toxic ingredients, making them poisonous to their predators.

When are there caterpillars?

In Germany, the caterpillar season begins in May. Depending on how many generations the butterfly species trains each year, you can see them until the beginning of October. A few species, such as the winter moth, are also active earlier.

Are there caterpillars in winter too?

Most native butterfly species do not overwinter as moths, but as eggs, caterpillars or pupae. It is therefore not uncommon to encounter a (non-active) caterpillar even in winter. This is then usually in the hibernation.

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