5 Native Caterpillars You’ll Find Outside

By Ta’Leah Van Sistine, Marketing & Communications Intern

Whether it’s hiding underneath a leaf or inching across a trail, a caterpillar may catch your eye this summer. Caterpillars are constantly eating so they can grow into butterflies or moths. Whether they are traveling to find a snack or already nibbling on greenery, plenty of caterpillars will be roaming around the outdoors this summer as they prepare to transition into adulthood.

Here are five native caterpillars we want you to know about in case you encounter one:


monarch caterpillar on leaf

Milkweed is a monarch caterpillar’s host plant, so you’ll either find these butterflies laying their eggs on them or the caterpillars nibbling on the leaves. When they do crunch on the milkweed leaves, monarch caterpillars absorb the poison and end up tasting bad to any predators who try to eat them!

butterfly drinking from flower

PC: John Oates Photography

During the wintertime, the adults living in the eastern and northern United States will migrate south to Mexico and those living west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to California. People can distinguish the male and female butterflies from each other because males have a black spot on their hind wings that females don’t. Adult monarchs are even very strong, as they can fly for 11 hours straight!

Painted Lady

paint lady caterpillar

These caterpillars can be found living in silk nests and on more than 100 host plants! The silk nests actually protect them from predators because they are built on top of leaves, away from wasps, spiders, ants and birds. Among these plants, their favorites are thistles, hollyhocks and mallows. Painted ladies live individually in protective silk nests and spend a majority of their larval stage inside this one nest.

Painted Lady butterfly on Butterbur PC: Teresa Hilgenberg Riehl

The adult painted lady has four distinct eyespots on its hind wings and prefers nectar from composite flowers like thistles, asters, cosmos, blazing stars and Joe Pye weed.


viceroy caterpillar

Look for viceroys on their host plants: the willow, poplar and cottonwood trees! To protect themselves from being eaten, the viceroy caterpillars are actually camouflaged to look like bird droppings! The caterpillars also hibernate in a tube-like shelter built with the base of a leaf during the winter.

Viceroy PC wisconsinbutterflies.org

When the caterpillar eventually transforms into a butterfly, its nectar sources become quite interesting and include dead animals and animal droppings! This butterfly’s colors and wing patterns look very similar to the monarch’s, so they trick predators into thinking they are monarchs and don’t taste good.

Red Admiral

red admiral caterpillar

Red admiral caterpillars make shelters for themselves by sticking the sides of leaves together with silk. They’re often sighted along the edges of wet wooded areas where a lot of plants in the nettle family (the red admiral’s host plants) can be found as well! The stinging nettle plant, in particular, allows the red admiral caterpillar to protect itself from predators. Over the winters, adult red admirals travel to the south and migrate north in the spring.

Red Admiral PC Teresa Hilgenberg Riehl

Cabbage White

Holes in cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and turnip leaves are indications that a cabbage white caterpillar has been there! The small cabbage white caterpillars are pale green and covered in short, velvet-like hairs. As a pupa (otherwise known as a chrysalis), cabbage whites spend their winters attached to leaves and garden debris. While in their larval and pupal stages, the cabbage white caterpillar camouflages itself with its green, leafy color.

cabbage white caterpillar

Adult cabbage whites are often mistaken for moths because of their white color. Male and female cabbage white butterflies can be told apart because males have one spot on each of their front wings and females have two.

Cabbage White PC Constance Gleason

Want to see the caterpillars and butterflies in action? Join us for Butterflies & Blooms this summer to see these beautiful insects and to practice your identification skills. The exhibit is open daily from 10 am-5 pm through August 31.

Hope to see more of these caterpillars and other pollinators in your own living space, whether it’s a backyard, patio or front porch? Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge and plant your own pollinator paradise with these simple garden designs. Don’t have space for a garden? Don’t worry! You can buy sunny or shade plants depending on where you’ll put them in your living space. You can also buy these plants at local nurseries like Stone Silo Prairie Gardens, too!