Tag Archive: rearing projects

A Smiley Caterpillar

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 6 Sep 2012

The spectacular Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar

After all the mad leafmining caterpillars I adopted over the summer, with varying success, it was nice to get back to the much simpler macro caterpillars. This is a Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar, which I collected from Murlough less than a month ago. It’s grown very fast since then (compare 10 Aug, below, with 6 Sep, above), moulting at least twice, and is probably still munching his hawthorn leaf as I type.

I called him Smiley as soon as I saw him. Why?

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 10 Aug 2012


That’s why. 🙂

[Project 31A: Coxcomb Prominent]


Absolutely extraordinary

This photo will take some explaining.

Ruby Tiger male and Cinnabar female; Murlough NNR; 9 June 2012

A Ruby Tiger… and a Cinnabar. WHAT???!!!

The good news is – both my Cinnabar moths emerged from their pupae on the 4th (“Cindy”) and 8th (“Cecelia”) of June!

The bad news is that when the first one emerged I didn’t realise the critical importance of giving the moth peace and quiet to pump up its wings. The wings of butterflies and moths begin as small sacs which have to be pumped up to full size, flattened and dried over the course of some hours before the moth can fly.  And if you make them feel threatened, which I probably did by coaxing it onto a stick, they stop concentrating on their wings and go into survival mode, staying still or running away.



And so Cindy never pumped up her wings. It may not have been completely my fault – she struggled to get the exuvium (chrysalis case) off her wing, the abdomen seemed to be lacking most of its black scales and there seemed to be dents on the thorax, suggesting she was deformed anyway. Nevertheless, a wakeup call.

What a depressing story. But you’ll be pleased to know that four mornings later it was a perfectly-formed Cinnabar that emerged from the second pupa!



On 9 June, I returned to the spot where I had collected the original four caterpillars last July, to release Cindy and Cecelia. And this is the part where I explain the photo above.

I had released Cindy and was just about to release Cecelia when a male Ruby Tiger moth came whizzing into the vicinity. Never ceasing to buzz his wings, he landed on my hand started crawling over my sleeve. The strange thing was that his genitals were extruded… obviously he was very excited indeed! Then he began crawling over ragwort plants near where Cindy was, before flying off over the hill and away – just as I managed to clear space on my SD card!

A bit galled at not getting any good photos, I went on with releasing Cecelia… and then the Ruby Tiger returned! This time I caught it to get some photos. When I released it, it got very excited again… and mounted the crippled Cinnabar moth!!!

Ruby Tiger (male) mounting crippled Cinnabar (female), 9 June 2012

Male Ruby Tiger (left) and female Cinnabar (right)

Two moths of different species shouldn’t be doing this. The only explanation for this behaviour is a chemical one. The Ruby Tiger detected a pheremone given off by the female Cinnabar moth, which must have been changed by the moth’s deformity (or the honey water it had been drinking) to be similar to the scent of a female Ruby Tiger moth.

Weird or what?

Ruby Tiger (project 2B), Murlough, 13 Jul 2011

I usually name my children. (!!!) Say hi to “Ron” 🙂

For those of you who haven’t been following this blog and/or don’t know me, one of my favourite hobbies is rearing caterpillars. It all started when I was primary school age: during the summer the nasturtiums in our garden would become infested with Large White butterfly caterpillars. One time I decided to collect three of them, put them in a container which was supposed to be used as a wormery along with some nasturtium leaves, and see what would happen.

Unfortunately I never got to see what happened – they all escaped (I suspect my sister had a hand in it, but I’m not sure) and the two that we found crawling around upstairs were promptly placed back outside.

Although nothing came of it and although I never made any notes and although I haven’t even the foggiest idea what year it happened, I consider it such a pivotal moment in my life that I called it “Project 1A”.


Since then, I’ve worked with more or less 22 species of butterfly or moth. The projects may be rearing projects like Project 1A should have been – I find the caterpillars full grown, young or sometimes not even hatched out of their eggs, and take them home. I feed them leaves and keep them in sheltered containers as they grow, pupate (enter the ‘crysalis’ stage of metamorphosis) and eventually emerge as butterflies or moths. Then I release them exactly where I found them.

My first major project, when my ‘inner butterfly’ at last fluttered into live in late 2009, was my ‘Brown Furry Caterpillar Experiment’ (project 2A). I described this project in detail in my post last year “My caterpillar rearing projects: Ruby Tiger“. It involved 8 Ruby Tiger caterpillars which I collected from Murlough NNR – half I kept outside over the winter where they hibernated, while the other half I kept indoors. In the warm conditions the latter four began the pupation process. I hoped that they would all turn into moths, that they would mate and I would be able to release lots of eggs in the spring! Sadly two had parasites, and another died for no apparent reason, leaving only “Ruby-wan-kanobe” – she emerged from her pupa as a beautiful little red-brown moth but had no-one to mate with.

Happily one of the outside caterpillars, “Ricky”, successfully pupated and was released back where I found it in Murlough in the springtime.

Since then the Ruby Tiger caterpillar has become the figurehead of my blog.

Blog Figurehead: Ruby Tiger caterpillar (project 2A), 20 Feb 2010

Recognise him?

Not all of my projects are so extensive as that one. Sometimes I just collect pupae and give them a bit of safety in a jar until they emerge. In some cases the project just consists of keeping an eye on a particular species in an area (eg. the Marsh Fritillary, project 6. In this case it would be illegal for me to collect the caterpillars as it’s an endangered species).On one occasion I collected sawfly larvae (related to wasps, bees and ants) by accident (project 14A). Another time I collected a dead Knotgrass caterpillar, thinking it was alive (project 10A)!

Unfortunately the living ones don’t all make it – disclaimer: this is usually not my fault. Oftentimes they’ve been parasitised by ichneumon ‘wasps’, Tachinid flies or had fungal infections.

But I admit, I have had some ‘haemolymph on my hands’ (that’s insect blood, spot the entomological metaphor-hijack). It’s never intentional – last summer I collected a whole batch of Cinnabar moth eggs by accident (they were on a Ragwort leaf which I collected to feed my Garden Tiger and Ruby Tiger, projects 5B and 2B). It is incredibly hard to muck out a jar with twenty-six tiny caterpillars in it, and in the unsanitary conditions I lost them all (project 15A).

Cinnabar caterpillars (project 15A), 27 Jun 2011

Lovely things caught in unfortunate circumstance


But “what about now, what about today?

The story is…

Project 13B: Mother of Pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis)
Sadly this caterpillar, which I collected from the nettles in my neighbour’s garden a few months ago, has died while preparing to pupate. I don’t know what killed it.

Project 15B: Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)
After the disaster with the batch of 26 eggs, I collected four large, healthy caterpillars from Murlough, two of which successfully pupated and are still pupae at this very moment in time. As with all my other pupae, they are in soil in a jar in my back yard, and when they emerge it’ll be a matter of taking lots of good photos and releasing them back where I found them.

Project 16A: Buff Ermine (Spilosoma luteum)
This is probably one of my most successful projects: I found two of this species of caterpillar in my back garden (they were quie young) and fed them various weeds as they grow from 25mm to over 40mm. Like the Cinnabars, they have spent the winter as pupae, and appear to be still healthy.

Project 17A: No-one has the foggiest idea what this one was.
Five large plain green caterpillars on a very distinctive scented herbaceous plant, and I don’t know what either of them are. I posted pictures on Back Garden Moths to see if anyone on this forum could identify the caterpillars – but to no avail. One of the larvae, “Pippin”, I collected and it pupated but unfortunately died. This was the pupa I described in my posts “Gutted” and “Ungutted” – I thought it was dead, then I thought it moved (as pupae of the Noctuid family can). Now I’m sure it’s dead – it appears to be decomposing. Yuk.

Projects 18A and 19A: Garden Carpet and/or Flame Carpet (Xanthorhoe sp.)
A green ‘looper’ caterpillar I found on the wall in my back yard is now a pupa – this is project 18A. I don’t know whether it’s the same species as the five loopers I had on a wild plant in my back yard around the same time (project 19A), two of which I collected for pupation but which died. Hopefully the pupa has survived the winter and should emerge soon and shed some light on this identification mystery.

Project 21A: Lesser Yellow Underwing (Noctua comes)
The pupa, which I found as a caterpillar in my back yard earlier this year, is still healthy – it wiggles when I touch it! It will probably be the last of my pupae to emerge.

Project 22A: Wood Tiger (Parasemia plantaginis)
This project began and ended last weekend at the family caravan at Murlough. I collected one Wood Tiger caterpillar from Murlough on the Saturday and it began pupation prep: spinning a silk pad on its container as a base for a cocoon to pupate in. I decided to release it the next day as I already have too much on my plate! Besides, it will be much happier to emerge in the place where it belongs, and not have to endure a car journey from Newcastle to Belfast and back!

This has probably been the longest post I have ever written! Please don’t tell my teachers I spent two hours doing this when I should have been revising!!

‘Twas Aprillig

I’ll let the slithy toves do the gyring and gimbling. Here are some photos from my weekend jabberwocking.

Our front garden

Kiss my tulips.


Hebrew Character (released from trap), 1 Apr 2012

I put the trap out again over Saturday night and got another two Hebrew Characters, both fresh specimens, and both actually inside the trap!


Speckled Wood, Murlough, 1 Apr 2012

My first Speckie of the year, in Murlough on Sunday.


Small Tortoiseshell, 1 Apr 2012

Finally - a decent Small Tort photo. None of this faffing around in trees business.


Shoulder Stripe, Murlough, 1 Apr 2012

I had my net with me this time when I went dusking in Murlough, and found a few of this species: Shouder Stripe. A new tick for me. Double-striped Pugs as well... all the Stripes.


Mother of Pearl or Small Magpie caterpillar (captive, project 13A), 1 Apr 2012

Ah yes. As well as Lesley, I've got a nettle leafroller that I'm keeping inside as well. It's most likely Mother of Pearl, but possibly Small Magpie.


2012 MOTHS: 6, 2L
  2012 new ticks: 4
  life list: 140 

Species study 13, project B: unidentified Pyralid

Lesser Yellow Underwing caterpillar, 01 Apr 2012

LESser YELlow Underwing... Lesley!

My latest caterpillar rearing project is a caterpillar I found in my back yard last Wednesday — a Lesser Yellow Underwing. It’s a moth I’ve never seen before so I’ll be taking very good care of it to make sure it reaches adulthood this summer.

Lesley, as I’ve called it, is a bit like a Weeping Angel (out of Doctor Who). It does move around and eat quite a bit, but every time I go to look at it it’s stock still. This is probably its response to light and/or movement (it’s a nocturnal caterpillar so every time I turn off the light to look at it it stops  what it’s doing).

It moulted a few days after I collected it – the photo above is post-moult. I’m not sure what instar it’s at — probably last or penultimate as these caterpillars  reach around 40mm and it’s currently 32mm. It’s very fond of elder leaves.

I’m keeping it indoors in an ASDA lemon yoghurt tub with airholes, 1.5cm of compost in the bottom, a pine twig to climb on, and the all-important vegetable matter.

And that’s project 21A in a nutshell.

Species study 21, project A: Lesser Yellow Underwing (Noctua comes)


Yesterday, I thought I’d lost Pippin, my big-fat-green-caterpillar-cum-big-fat-red-pupa, when I saw what I thought was excess fluid under its pupal skin.

But I checked on it today and found that it moved its abdomen of its own accord when I touched it. So it’s alive!

Hopefully it’ll emerge soon and I’ll find out what it is!


Species study 17, project A: unidentified Noctuid


(UPDATE 21 Mar 2012: see below)

I checked on my overwintering pupae today. “Pippin”, the caterpillar-cum-pupa I was really looking forward to seeing has swelled up because the soil was too wet. There’s a pocket of fluid surounding the tissues inside the case. I’ve changed the soil in case there’s the slightest chance the swelling will go down and it’ll be OK, but I expect the worst. I’ll probably never know what it was. The Flame Carpet hasn’t made it either, for the opposite reason – it’s dried out. So remaining are two Cinnabars, two Buff Ermines, and the unidentified “Green Looper” pupa.


(21 Mar: Panic over, the pupa is OK – it responded to touch today by wiggling slightly. Project 17A back in action.)

Species study 17, project A: unidentified Noctuid

Goings-on in my back yard

(UPDATE 22 Sep 2011: Foties!)
(UPDATE 7 Apr 2012: New project numbering system, and spelling corrections!)

When I seeded a small planter in my back yard with wildflower seed earlier this year, I didn’t really know what to expect. Perhaps a neat little tussock of poppies, daisies and ragged-robin?


What I got was a magnificent marigold vigorously munched by five fat green Noctuid caterpillars, a few large weedy brassicas that attracted Flame Carpets, Diamond-back Moths, Large Whites and at least two other species, some spindly purple-flowered plants trying to look inconspicuous in fear of the lepidopteran onslaught, while all the tiny, delicate weeds in another planter evaded the caterpillars but were strangled by a ginormous sweet-pea.

It was quite spectacular.

I took daily notes of how the caterpillars were getting along, so I’ll try and briefly tell the story so far. I haven’t IDed half of the species. The ‘main brassica’ (or relative) I talk about here is one with many small round disc-shaped seed pods, which you can see in the first photo. I think it’s Lepidium or something.

  • 1B: I originally found 6 small Large White caterpillars, but there wasn’t a whole lot to eat. 3 large ones remained, usually on the main brassica, before they seemed to disperse, and the one I found on a wall, collected and fed died a few days later.

03Sep11 Large White caterpillar

  • 15B: The 3 Cinnabar pupae are doing just what they should be doing: absolutely sod all.
  • 16A: As have the two Buff Ermine pupae.
  • 17A: The 5 or 6 plain green Noctuids on the marigold probably mostly left the planter, although at least one died. I collected one huge one in a jar, called it Fat-one and then Pippin (which LOTR fans will appreciate) and fed it elder leaves – but for the past few days it has been chewing up leaves and spitting them out! My Angle Shades caterpillar last year did this too when he was making a cocoon, but Pippin is just making a mess!!!

03Sep11 Noctuid caterpillar on Marigold

  • 18A: I found one green looper on a wall, which has now pupated. It didn’t come from the planter as far as I can see.

03Sep11 Geometrid pupa and pupal moult

  • 19A: I identified the five brown/grey/green loopers on the brassica as Flame Carpets. I collected two of them and they have continued to eat the bits of foodplant I’ve been giving them. They nibble the edge of the seed pods.

01Sep11 Flame Carpet caterpillar

  • 20A: On the same plant as the Flames were 3 tiny caterpillars and 2 tiny pupae in ‘string-vest’ cocoons. They were pale green with dark red eyes, which made me think they might be sawflies, but four days ago I found a Diamond-back Moth clinging to a stick in the jar and pumping up its tiny wings. I think the other pupa may have drowned, although it might be waiting for spring.
  • Plus, there was a mottled brown noctuid caterpillar which completely defoliated another brassica in the space of a day, before disappearing. And yet another small green cater on the main brassica. (7 Apr: The former is a Cabbage moth, the latter another Diamond-back)

And while I’m here, I’d like to wish Richella Duggan the best of luck with the (now unfortunately quite improbable) five-ish butterfly species she’s still to photograph this year… and if not, then even better luck for next year!

Species study 1, project B: Large White (Pieris brassicae)
Species study 15, project B: Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)
Species study 16, project A: Buff Ermine (Spilosoma luteum)
Species study 17, project A: unidentified Noctuid
Species study 18, project A: unidentified Geometer
Species study 19, project A: Flame Carpet (Xanthorhoe designata)
Species study 20, project A: Diamond-back Moth (Plutella xylostella)

Project 16A: Buff Ermines

As I’ve mentioned, one of my sub-hobbies under the grand heading of Lepidoptera is rearing caterpillars. My latest ‘big’ rearing project is the Buff Ermine moth: the 16th species whose life cycle I’ve observed (well, technically 15th seeing as the Knotgrass caterpillar I captured last year was actually dead – and then again technically 14th since I mistook some sawfly larvae for moth caterpillars… but anyway.) I’ve finally got round to writing this, a month after it all started.

I was out weeding in the garden on 9 August when I found two little 15mm aterpillars: one hairy, and the other green and bald – so that’s what I named them: Hairy and Green. Guess which one is in this photo!

09Aug11 Buff Ermine caterpillar

Green, as it turned out, was bald becuase had shed his hair in preparation for moulting his skin, which he did two days later. Hairy followed suit (without shedding much hair) three days later – in fact he would do everything about three or four days after Green did it.

They went through two moults to get to their final instar – here Green has just emerged from his old skin to reach this stage. As you can see, his hair came out with a sheen that would put Pantene Pro-V TV ad models to shame, but he soon gave a little twist to puff the hair out, assuming the classic furry-caterpillar-style.

18Aug11 Buff Ermine caterpillar... feeling nourished after final moult

I kept them in separate containers – Green in a transparent one, Hairy in an opaque one, and they grew noticeably accustomed to the light levels: when I brought them outside into bright sunshine, Hairy would retreat under a leaf while Green would carry on regardless.

24Aug11 Buff Ermine caterpillars (last instar)

When Green lost interest in dandelion leaves and started running around his container I transferred both caterpillars to a pupation house (my fancy name for a peanut butter jar with a stick in it) and put it outside in a shady spot a few days later. After spinning a really bad excuse for a cocoon, Green pupated 1 Sep (below). Hairy did less running around, made a slightly better job of his cocoon, and pupated today, 5 Sep.

03Sep11 Buff Ermine pupa

They’ll stay as pupae over the winter, and emerge… some time next year. I am very much looking forward. As I am looking forward to seeing the 3 Large Whites, 5 Noctuids, 5 micros and 6 Geometrids of two different species, all of which have taken up residence of their own volition in my back yard, and some of which have pupated already. And I’ll try and post some photos of them… soon. Which, like the Biblical ‘eternal’, is an indefinite period of time.

Species study 16, project A: Buff Ermine (Spilosoma luteum)

The Emperor

There are caterpillars.

And then there are big caterpillars.

21Aug11 Emperor Moth caterpillar

21Aug11 Emperor Moth caterpillar

This is one Fully Grown Emperor Moth Caterpillar, Discovered while Walking with Family in the Mournes, Just Behind Slieve Loughshannagh. (And no, the purple nail varnish is not mine.) This was one slooooowwww caterpillar. He must be saving his energy for avoiding my butterfly net next spring.

As an aside, I have about 5 different species of caterpillar in my back yard which I’m keeping an eye on and which will hopefully appear on the blog in due (or ridiculously late, like 2033) course: Buff Ermines, Large Whites, unidentified loopers, and unidentified micros.

In other news, I saw my 100th British bird at the weekend: the Little Stint.