They may not be as cuddly as a cat, or quite as swift at fetching a stick as a labrador, but a recent blog from Kate Bradbury of the Guardian suggests that these little creepy animals may have uses beyond just destroying the leaves in your beautiful gardens, and hanging around waiting to turn into butterflies. Why not keep a caterpillar as a pet?
The idea has particular merit if you’ve got some kids who are liable to complain of boredom across the school holidays. Since Eric Carle’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar and beyond, keeping a wee creepy-crawly as a pet could be a great project to get your kids involved with your garden over summer, as well as keeping them out of your hair.
Part of the fun is that, unless you’re a butterfly expert, you probably have no idea what kind of beautiful insect your grubby little friend will turn into! There’s more than 50 species of butterfly in the UK – and more than 2,400 types of moth!
Read Bradbury's blog for a full list of advice, including on the best places to find caterpillars in your garden, but the basics are these: keep your caterpillars in a jar, or an ice-cream tub for larger species, and make sure you open it every couple of days to allow the air to refresh. Keep your caterpillars fed with leaves from the same plant your kids or you found them on; be wary about keeping more than one caterpillar in the same container, though, or they might just start eating each other!
You’ll need some compost in there too, for the caterpillar to burrow into when it needs to pupate – Bradbury recommends up to 10cm for larger species. And finally put a stick into the compost that they can climb up: butterfly caterpillars will want to build their chrysalis on this. Keep the tub on a windowsill out of direct sun, and sit back to watch (no forgetting to feed it!)
Do encourage your kids not to disturb their new friend, but make sure they engage with the project by taking careful notes; measuring its size, checking what it does, and recording exactly when your Very Hungry Caterpillar decides to hide away in its chrysalis.
And then, next spring, you can release a brand new butterfly into your garden, and watch it flap its way happily into the air! Now who said anything about a labrador…?