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Raising Painted Lady Caterpillars

July 6, 2018

For our third year of butterfly rearing I decided to go with our first round of mail order bugs in the form of Painted Lady caterpillars.

I purchased a caterpillar voucher for our daughter’s 6th birthday from Insect Lore. They arrived via post in sealed jar containing everything they required up to the point of pupation, which I am still left with mixed feelings about as it felt sort of cruel. However we saw the process through to the end anyway, even if I don’t feel 100% great about it.

Below I’ve detailed our experience and observations. (with lots of photos)


The five tiny hairy black caterpillars arrived approximately a week after I redeemed the voucher online. The jar they were in was pristine aside from a bit of silk and a few nibbles and poops from the sleepy bugs.

The above photo is from one day after they arrived. I was positive one of them was dead as it never moved, but as it turns out, he was just lazy. :)

As mentioned previously, the jar contains everything that the caterpillars need until they pupate. The paste in the bottom of the jar is their food and it contains all the moisture they need to survive. You are not meant to open the jar until they have pupated as that could compromise the integrity of their environment by introducing bacteria or spores to the food.

At first we barely saw them move and the only evidence they were even alive was the fact that they were making plenty of poops (which are the same color as the food) Also each time they shed their skin and got larger they left behind the black husks.

After a few days I started feeling really badly about keeping them in that jar and the fact that they were eating paste. With the small and large cabbage white butterflies I’d reared in previous years, I could at least give them fresh food every day and clean out the faeces, but these guys are just meant to live in their own waste for two weeks, which isn’t great. I resisted the urge to clean the container though because after a bit of research I realised that their next best fresh food source I could drum up would have been fresh stinging nettles and I was paranoid that it might not work out, so I stuck with being safe and feeling bad about keeping them in the jar of silk and poop.

The above photo is the caterpillars at 1 week. As you can see, the poop situation hadn’t gotten totally out of control yet.

Behold 2 weeks! (photo above) The poop situation has gone from,  ‘you can still eat around it’ to, ‘ok, now you’re probably now just eating your own poo’…  The poor tubby caterpillars were also struggling to keep their silk stuck to the inside of the jar as it was so smooth so there was a big pile of silk over the food/poop mountain as well.

Despite all the silk and poop, both of my daughters really enjoyed being able to observe the caterpillars who were absolutely gorgeous and much more lively than they were the week before.

Soon after the second week they pupated. At this point the caterpillars were roughly an inch and a half long.  They hung in the J position for about a day and then shed their skins. after the skin is shed to reveal the pupa they are well compacted at only an inch long. I was able to observe them shedding their skins for the final time with most of them which was fairly facinating. I was also impressed by the way the caterpillars arrange themselves in such a nearly perfect equidistant fashion on the lid.

They can still observably shake and wiggle when the pupa is fairly new. This is meant to deter predators, but I’m not entirely sure how as they look pretty damn vulnerable and probably delicious, if you are a bird.

The chrysalis takes a day to fully form its spiky points and dry out and they are absolutely gorgeous afterward. I was really surprised by how the points were all tipped in a metallic gold color. Not the stealthiest move by Mother Nature… but she sure knows how to do fabulous.

The photo above is of a butterfly about 12 hours away from emergence.  You can clearly see the metallic points, the formed wings and the husk of the final moult hanging out at the top.

One caterpillar pupated a full day ahead of the other four and before its pupa completely hardened I observed another caterpillar attack it and it bit a hole in the very bottom of the hanging soft pupa. Red liquid, like the meconium that a butterfly expels after emerging from the pupa dripped out of the pupa for the next three days as it seems to lack any sort of natural coagulation. I was certain that there wasn’t enough moisture left inside the chrysalis for this butterfly to live, but there was nothing that I could do to help it.

I’m not sure if it felt threatened by the twitching or if it was just really hungry for non-poop paste and it thought that maybe the chrysalis was food. I’ve never observed a caterpillar attacking a chrysalis before, so that was a new one on me.

After the crysalises were all hardened I was finally able to separate the lid from the poop jar. I did this carefully and removed all of the silk strands, then stood up the lid in the provided cardboard stand that came in the box with the caterpillars.

Ideally I would have then put them in my butterfly tent, but unfortunately I seem to have lost it even though I was positive I knew exactly where it was, and didn’t have the money to buy another one so I made due with a plastic tub which I put some crumpled paper towel in for them to climb.

Five days later (that’s 7 days after pupation) the first butterfly broke free and much to my surprise it was the one that I was positive had died!  It looked perfectly healthy except for the fact that the two halves of its proboscis never seemed to fully zip together so I’m not entirely sure it was able to eat since that fusion needs to happen pretty soon after it pumps up its wings. At any rate, it flew away just fine and hopefully it didn’t starve to death soon afterwards.

In the photo above you can clearly see the dramatic color change that occurs in the chrysalis just before the butterfly is ready to emerge. The two on the left came out the following day and the two on the right were the day after that.

The second butterfly that came out was perfectly healthy, but the third unfortunately got stuck inside its chrysalis and as a result its wings are permanently deformed. Half of the chrysalis was still attached to the butterfly when I found it and it had already expelled all of its meconium so it had probably been out for at least a half hour at that point, but it was probably much longer. At first I didn’t think it would survive long as it was barely moving but it has a pretty strong will to live which it demonstrates with its healthy appetite.

I can’t let it go as it will almost certainly starve to death or get eaten straight away. Its legs are ok but not as strong as they should be and it has very limited mobility, so now I guess we have a disabled pet butterfly. Not exactly what I signed up for, but I can’t bring myself to kill it or allow it to suffer starvation or be killed, so this seems to be my only guilt free option.

I’ve managed to separate most of the chrysalis from the crumpled wings which has somewhat improved its mobility, but I have no idea what else I can do to help it.

Personally I think it’s still beautiful it its own way.

**Update** The butterfly with the crumpled wings lived for 4 weeks on homemade nectar and fruit juice. I figured as long as it wanted to eat, it had a will to live, and 4 weeks is roughly as long as an adult painted lady lives so there you go!

Anyway, the last two butterflies came out just as they should and we released them 8-12 hours later.

All in all my 6 year old really enjoyed this experience and my 2 year old thought that it was pretty wonderful too.

Even though the caterpillars are really just eating machines I still don’t feel great about the jar of food paste and poo, so I doubt I would ever order caterpillars which I couldn’t easily feed with fresh food again, or clean out but Insect Lore have been doing this for a long time and I have to admit, their system works.

They provide a lot of information with their caterpillars about how to keep them safe and healthy, including how to make nectar for the butterflies. They also send you email updates to notify you when the caterpillars are shipped, when they should be pupating and when they should be emerging as butterflies which I thought was a really nice touch.

So I don’t want to knock the company, but I guess this particular method of hands on learning just doesn’t agree with me.

Next year I would LOVE to order some Puss Moth caterpillars, but before I do that I need to grow them a food source, so we may be looking at 2020 for that adventure!

I never actually looked up how to sex the butterflies so I don’t know how many males and females there were in the end, but my daughter did name them all after herself which I thought was pretty amusing. :)

From → Garden, Scotland

  1. Crystal permalink

    Hi!! I’m hoping you will still get this comment, as it looks like your post is from 2018. Some people will probably think I’m crazy for worrying this much about a butterfly, but that’s ok😉 This is long and not grammatically correct!!! Thanks in advance for taking the time to read my comment!!!
    I have a butterfly who’s wings came out very crumpled, I was hoping to just keep him like you did yours, but it also can’t walk well☹️ My daughter has named him, Moose💖😆!!! She loves that we’ve saved him, checks on him often, and talks to him❤️ We’ve made homemade nectar and dipped it in a cotton pad that I move him to a couple times a day and he seems to eat and is hanging in there, but how do I know if it’s suffering🥴 He gets turned over and “flaps” like crazy so seems as if he has “normal functions” but only one leg works well. The other gets stuck under his crumpled wing. I was getting it out and he’d use it a little bit, but for the last day or so (today will make the 4th day since it started coming out of the chrysalis) it tucks the leg right back up under the wing and just sits…it’s so sad to me!!! It’s a great lesson for my daughter to always help others and she thinks it’s awesome that he’s still fighting to live, but I can’t stand the thought of him hurting and suffering!!!!! What do you think we should do?? Is there a nice way to put it down besides just smashing it if you think we should do that?? I would like to add I’ve not been able to get all of the chrysalis off for fear of hurting it, if you think we should let him continue living should I mist it with water to try to loosen the chrysalis and get it the rest of the way off???
    Thank you again for your time!! Have a great day!

    • Hi! I am so sorry for not replying sooner. I read this first thing in the morning during the chaos that is getting the kids to school and literally only remembered to reply now which I realize is 3 days later.
      Butterflies do not feel pain. Their nervous system can detect touch but they do not have pain receptors. You could even cut the wings off completely if they are causing the creature distress and as long as it’s wanting to eat, I figure it has a will to live.
      I’ve got no experience euthanizing insects though. I admit it’s something I’ve wanted to look into for a while though as when you find something suffering and there is nothing else for it (like a bee who has been exposed to pesticide) you just really want to put them out of their misery. Unfortunately though, I don’t have any advice there.
      Also the stuck bits of chrysalis on mine did need a bit of help coming free but eventually everything else fell away.
      Hope your little butterfly is still eating!

  2. Ann Marie Dalis permalink

    I recommend getting a cage, and then watching for black swallowtails or monarchs to come to you. When you see one of those laying eggs (Monarchs on Milkweed only and Swallowtails on any member of the dill family) you can put the milkweed leaves with eggs in an airtight container with a damp paper towel. Cut enough of the parsely, dill, queenanne’s lace (any Dill family plant) to make a bouquet in a little vase of water. About four days after gathering the eggs they will hatch looking like a tiny black line on the plant. Put them in a butterfly cage and supply with leaves only for the Monarchs and bouquets of organic parsley for the Swallowtails. 10 days later both will go to the top of the cage or for Swallowtails you can introduce 45 degree angled sticks into the vases for chrysalis to form. Read up on these two varieties ’cause you can clean the cages and it is fun to see process of egg to butterfly. And there will be deformities, but you will have a great percentage of success. Lots to find online and my grandson and I have been raising Monarchs for 5 years. We have released over 400! Doing it this way also means you create a butterfly habitat and that is good for everyone!

    • This is excellent advice for people who live in North America, thanks :) The easiest butterflies I’ve been able to collect as eggs here in Scotland are cabbage whites, large and small.

  3. Jen Fisher permalink

    I loved reading your painted lady experience. I too had very mixed feelings about the poop Jar,but I did end up cleaning alot of poop out with a cotton bud.My caterpillars were literally eating their own poop.Also I cleaned a leaf off a sunflower that apparently they like and popped it in with them and they payed it no attention ,so that paste that comes with them must be delicious!
    Out of 4 crysalis, I have had two deformed. One I just needed to help out of its crysslis.It struggled all night and had pooped inside so the chrysalis had stuck to its body .So sad to see this.I literally cried.
    I am hoping it can eat and I will keep it at home untill its time comes.
    Along with the other one that looks very similar to your deformed one.
    I am not sure if I can do this again,as I have not had much luck.And it’s so sad.
    But I am looking forward to releasing my two fit and healthy ladies.

  4. Anonymous permalink


    My first butterfly emerged yesterday and has been the only one for about a full day. Do I put the food in or wait for them all to emerge?

  5. Zane permalink

    Hey so I have a quick question! My caterpillars went into their cocoons mostly in the same day and I had one that went into the cocoon today and I was wondering if it was alright if one is a lighter color than the others? I still have a caterpillar that’s soon to go into their cocoon. The lighter one seems to have an opening already and I’ve hardly touched it too. Should I be concerned as it already has the little spots of orange/gold on the back like the other ones.

    • Sorry, just saw this. Just leave them be and let nature take its course :) The one I had with a nibble out of it that was leaking fluid ended up turning into a perfectly healthy butterfly.

  6. Elizabeth permalink

    Hey! I just came across this article and loved reading about your butterfly adventure! I have a cup from IL currently as well and while 4 of them seem to be thriving, there is one that is fairly smaller than the rest, and I’m not sure what to do about him. I’m hoping he’ll grow enough and they’ll all attach at the same time, but if not I may have to take him out after I transfer the others. Any advice?

    • Hi! Well, after they pupate you’re meant to not touch them for a few days as the chrysalis hardens, so that may very well give your little guy a chance to catch up with the others.
      If he needs even more time you can probably leave him in the food with another cover over the top for a while while he develops, but to be honest IL are actually really excellent at answering questions about their caterpillars so it might be best to get your answer straight from them. :)

  7. Anonymous permalink

    Our caterpillars check their butt after shedding.isthis normal?

  8. I had a painted lady butterfly emerge with the left wing severely deformed/tiny. The wing is stuck to the face somehow as well. I can send a picture as well. The crystalis is stuck on the lower part of the body. Please let me know what I can do for it! 😢

    • I had one last year that was much the same. Just remove the bits that are stuck as carefully as you can and offer it sugar water in a sponge or flowers. If its tongue has managed to fuse properly it will know what to do … You won’t be able to release into the wild, but they only live for 4 weeks anyway so if it eats you might have yourself a short term pet!

  9. Joan S Jung permalink

    Hello! So 2 of our caterpillars look like the ones that are attached to the top of your cup, where it looks like the chrysalis didn’t form all the way. Will those hatch? Or are they dead

    • Well, if it’s been over 2 days and they’re still like that, probably dead. They will hang like that for about a day though before they do their final shed.

      • Joan Jung permalink

        Thank you for the reply. Sad. I have 2 caterpillars that didnt finish the chrysalis. 1 that died before it started the process. Hopefully the 1 viable chrysalis will transform into a butterfly!

      • That is a shame. Sometimes you just lose the genetic lottery with your insects. I don’t know where you got them from, but insect lore have a policy that if you don’t get at least 3 butterflies they will send you more caterpillars. :)

      • Joan S Jung permalink

        That’s where I got it from! Good to know. Thanks!!

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