Caterpillars are a common sight during the warmer months. Whether they’re stripy, spotty or spiky, chances are you will have seen at least one crawling along plants and vegetation in search of a bite to eat. 

But have you ever wondered what these furry little insects actually eat? Their diets vary depending on species, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Here are five of the most common caterpillar food plants, and which species eat them.

Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar On Stinging Nettle

Credit: iStockPhoto.com / HansJoachim

Nettles

While we might avoid them at all costs, nettles are actually one of the best sources of caterpillar food. Red admiral, peacock, comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies all lay their eggs on nettles, especially those in sunny, sheltered locations, so that their caterpillars have a readily-available food source to wake up to once they’ve hatched.

Look out for big clumps of nettles next time you’re out and about, and, with a pair of protective gloves, have a gentle poke around to see if you can spot any caterpillars having a munch. You never know which species you might come across. 

Cinnibar Moth Caterpillar On Groundsel

Credit: iStockPhoto.com / IvonneW

Wild grasses

Even the most unassuming plants can be food for hungry caterpillars. Wild grasses are another popular choice, and are the perfect excuse to let your garden overgrow so that any resident caterpillars will have an abundant food supply.

The caterpillars of some of our most beautiful butterflies love tall meadows. The gatekeeper, meadow brown and a variety of different skipper butterflies all feast on grasses. In fact, a variety of plants you might consider weeds are actually caterpillar favourites, such as dandelions and groundsel. This latter plant is irresistible to cinnabar moth caterpillars.

Green Veined White Butterfly Feeding On Cuckoo Flower

Credit: iStockPhoto.com / EstuaryPig

Cuckoo flower

Also known as lady’s smock, this pretty lilac flower is the food plant of some equally pretty caterpillars. The verdant green larvae of orange tip and green-veined white butterflies gobble it up.
This plant is most commonly found in lush meadows and other damp areas, so keep your eyes peeled next time you’re out for a ramble.

Brimstone Caterpillar On Alder Buckthorn

Credit: blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

Alder buckthorn

Caterpillars don’t just dine on plants – they love trees, too. One of these is alder buckthorn, a beautiful native tree with star-shaped flowers, purple-brown twigs and, by autumn, a beautiful crop of black berries.

Brimstone butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves of alder buckthorn, but it’s also an important food source for other animals. The flowers provide nectar for bees and butterflies, and birds eat the berries.

Birdsfoot trefoil flowers

Credit: Pete Holmes/WTML

Birds-foot trefoil

Birds-foot trefoil, which is abundant in wildflower meadows, is a stunning yellow plant that is widespread throughout the UK. As well as providing nectar for passing bees, birds-foot trefoil is the food plant of the common blue butterfly and its caterpillars.

Our woods are home to a whole variety of caterpillar food plants and butterfly and moth species. Why not find a wood near you and see how many species you can spot as you explore?

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