Activities and Games
Collecting Caterpillars or Other Insects
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Another way to explore your environment is to focus on specific organisms. Caterpillars and other insects are interesting, plentiful, and quite varied. With some care, you can raise some caterpillars to adults and learn about their life histories. You might also make observations about which types of plants particular caterpillars like the best. Some will only be found on a specific plant while others are not so picky. You might also make some observations about the natural enemies of caterpillars. Do you see evidence of predators eating them or of parasitoids?
Whenever you are collecting live organisms you need to remember safety some insects might sting and some plants might cause allergic reactions so you need to be careful of what you touch! Also remember to be respectful of the organisms you are studying. Try to make your observations right there on the site or take photographs to document what you see. If you do collect animals or plants, always put them back in the same place when you have finished making your observations! Most important, if you do collect caterpillars or other insects, you will need to take care of them while you keep them, so you will need to collect food for them to eat. Think of the caterpillars and insects as temporary pets.
The tools we used for collecting caterpillars are very simple:
- Baggies: Each caterpillar you collect should go in a separate bag along with some leaves from the plant it was eating. Watch carefully to make sure you know what plant it was eating. Remember to include a data label in the bag and to blow a little air in the baggie before you close it!
- Data labels: A small piece of paper telling where you found the caterpillar, what kind of plant it was on, the date and observations about its appearance and behavior.
- A small paintbrush: You can gently brush the caterpillar to see how it responds to an "enemy." It might thrash about, try to drop off the leaf or bite the paintbrush.
- A hand lens or magnifier is also useful caterpillar mouths are very tiny and can be difficult to observe!
- Marker or pencil to write on the label and in your notebook.
- Your notebook
- A camera
You can rear your caterpillars until they pupate and turn into adult butterflies or moths right in the bag. You will need to hang it up somewhere where it will not get crushed. You will need to check each bag every day and provide fresh leaves for the hungry caterpillars as needed. You will also need to shake out the bag and get rid of the frass when the bag looks dirty. When the caterpillar finally pupates, try not to disturb it. When the adult emerges, be sure to take it back where you captured the caterpillar and let it free!
You might want to make a display of your photographs to show what you have learned about the natural history of these organisms. You might also include a chart with the date you have collected about the feeding habits of the caterpillars, their natural enemies, and some of their behaviors. There are also some online projects you can participate in that will direct you to collect information about specific species such as the Monarch butterflies.