Do you want to keep a cute little woolly bear caterpillar as a pet? This article will show you how to take care of a woolly bear caterpillar, including where to keep it, what to feed, and so on.
Woolly bears make great pets for kids. They are non-toxic, non-aggressive, and can be a great passive learning idea for kids to understand the moth life cycle.
It’s also fun to count their rings and observe the weather that season, in accordance with the legend that their colors signify the intensity of the weather.
Moreover, they’re easy to take care of. These caterpillars can be kept in glass jars and fed regularly with leaves found around your lawn and some occasional misting.
Generally, the entire life cycle will take a few months. But there are cases of extremely cold environments where moths such as the Arctic woolly take a whopping 14 years to turn into their adult selves!
Creating a Habitat
Woolly bears can be kept in a small glass or plastic jar that is well-aerated. You can close it with a lid that has small holes in it – smaller than your caterpillar.
To create a welcoming environment, add twigs for the caterpillar to climb on and explore. These also allow the caterpillar to find a place to hang its pupae later.
As the caterpillar eats and grows, you will need to clear its droppings (called frass) daily. It’s best to keep a napkin at the bottom for easy cleaning.
Keep a secondary jar handy to transfer the fuzzy caterpillars while cleaning the jar. Make sure the jar isn’t too small for them.
It’s a good idea to keep multiple caterpillars in 1 jar to allow them company but get a jar of at least one gallon capacity for multiple caterpillars.
Old fish tanks or netted enclosures can be a great alternative as well.
Keep the jar in a well-ventilated and cool place that is shaded from direct sun.
Glass jars should not be exposed to the sun as they trap heat. It’s best to give them a pile of leaves they can hide under and keep cool.
During their growth, the woolly bear caterpillar will molt up to 5 times. After each molt, it will grow bigger and have more bristles which help keep the caterpillar warm.
Make sure to clean the dead skin cells from the habitat as well.
Finding Your Caterpillar
Woolly bears are native to the US, Canada, and Mexico. In any of these places, they are found aplenty during the spring and winter months.
You do not need to go to a store or online to get them.
Start looking for them in your yard itself if you have one. They prefer leafy, broad-leafed plants such as cabbage, so you can begin by searching for them there.
They do not prefer grass in their diet, though they might be found in open pastures or roads as they cross them looking for food.
Look under rocks and leaves since they take shade in cooler places when it is hot during the day.
As they travel from one leaf to another for food, they produce a thin silky twine. Look out for these signs in your garden plants.
Once you find a caterpillar, gently drive them onto a large leaf and put them in a jar. Avoid touching them as they feel threatened (though it is safe to).
Every year, there are two cycles of woolly bear births. In May – when they hatch and turn into moths during Fall. And in fall, when they again hatch and grow into May.
During fall, you might find them in the pile of raked leaves.
If you find a cluster of eggs underside a leaf, it’s best to leave them alone unless you’re 100% sure that they will hatch into woolly bears.
Unlike these fluffy caterpillars, there are many that are poisonous and can cause rashes or even toxic shock.
If you find eggs, leave them for a couple of weeks to hatch, and then pick up the babies if you see they are woolly bears.
Introducing Them To the Habitat
If you pick up a woolly worm, you will notice that they curl and play dead. This is simply a defense mechanism.
After bringing them, you can gently release them into their new enclosure. To make the transition smoother, get some of the original host plants from where you found them.
It might take some time for your woolly bear to grow accustomed to the new environment and unfurl. Adding dry leaves can also help them hide. A good measure is to bring in multiple of them.
While most caterpillars have no issue in being transplanted this way – remember to leave a cocoon alone if you ever happen to see one.
Changing the environment of a cocoon can result in the sudden and early development of the moth.
If you see caterpillar cocoons in winter, especially in the colder parts of North America, it’s best to leave them alone.
Some caterpillars can thrive only on a narrow range of diet items. But the Wooly Bear Caterpillar is a generalist feeder.
This means it eats pretty much any type of broad, fleshy leaf and hence, is spread across a large geography and climate.
Usually, they prefer broad leaves such as dandelions, cabbage, burdock, golden rock, nettles, sunflower, and more.
The only item barred would be grass blades and tree barks. Any plant with blade leaves should be avoided.
To feed them, introduce a fresh pile of leaves into their jar every day. By observing the leaves they feast on more, you can gauge their preferences and provide more of those.
This can be a fun activity for kids who can maintain records of their caterpillars and their favorite food items.
You will mostly find them sleeping during the day under dry leaves while they feed voraciously at night. As they do not eat at all while they remain in a cocoon, they are heavy feeders in the larval stage.
Since they source their water from the leaves, there is no need to provide them with a separate water container.
These can also be drowning hazards for them. You can simply mist the container or its leaves to allow for some humidity.
Releasing Them Back
The lifespan of a woolly bear caterpillar depends on the climate. In warm climates, they will hatch, pupate and turn into a moth within a span of months.
In cold climates, they might pupate multiple times a year to escape the harsh winter months. Here, it can take up to 2 years for the larvae to grow enough to pupate and turn into a moth.
If your caterpillar pupates in winter, keep the jar warm. You can do this by adding more leaves for insulation.
Do not use other heating methods like placing them near heaters! However, you can bring them inside from an external, cool place.
Eventually, as winter passes over, a moth will emerge from the pupa. The emergence is a slow process and one that you will easily be able to track and observe.
As the wings become visible through the pupa, add fresh flowers inside the jar for the adult tiger moth to feed on.
Release them after some time (or a few days) into the wild so that they can find a mate. Adult moths have a very short life span ranging up to 2 weeks at most and sometimes only a few days.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do woolly bear caterpillars live long?
Hatching eggs takes up to 12 days. Following this, the woolly worms stay in the caterpillar stage for either a few months or a year, depending on the climate.
They pupate to escape freezing temperatures; hence in cold climates will only emerge into their adult moth form after a couple of years.
What all can I feed a woolly bear caterpillar during the colder months?
During winter, the caterpillar form will transform into a moth by placing itself into a loosely woven cocoon.
These caterpillar cocoons are in a dormant stage, and during this time, you need not feed your caterpillar. However, you can keep some flowers for when they emerge and need nectar.
What do wooly worms need to survive?
Woolly worms thrive in an enriching environment with dead leaves, branches, lots of fresh leaves, and shade.
They require a slightly humid environment with warm temperatures and long days to grow up quickly. They pupate to survive colder months, thus needing more time to grow in colder areas.
What happens if you touch a wooly bear caterpillar?
Touching woolly bears isn’t dangerous at all. But the caterpillar itself will pretend to be dead and curl itself into a ball. It’s safe to hold them, but beware – they are fast movers and can slip away easily.
Whether you’re looking to simply teach your kid a few things or help them with a science project – watching an entire life cycle over months can be an enriching experience.
Seeing the beautiful orange-colored moths finally develop and emerge can be rewarding.
Like any pet, taking care of a woolly bear caterpillar requires regular care and maintenance. Do not store leaves and give them old ones, but gather fresh ones daily.
As long as your caterpillar is eating every day, you can look forward to seeing a tiger moth emerge.
Thank you for reading.
Over the years, many of our readers have shared their experiences in keeping these beautiful creatures in their homes and caring for them.
Here are a few of their emails, checking in with us about methods for taking care of them. Do read on to learn a few tricks from them – you can use them in your own home to care for a woolly bear caterpillar.
Letter 1 – Unidentified Wooly Bear species
Do you have an id for this one? Hi, Checked through your website with great interest, but didn’t find my caterpillar there. This guy lived on a yellow blossom lupin branch this last Spring in Bodega Head (northern California above San Francisco). I’ve been unable to identify the pretty thing. Got any ideas? Sure would appreciate your help. Thanks, Alice Steele (San Francisco) Hi Alice, The best we can do is tell you it is a Wooly Bear caterpillar, the larva of a Tiger Moth. Sorry it is so general.
Letter 2 – Wooly Bear Caterpillar
caterpillar hello, i found this caterpillar outside my house in L.A., and i was wondering what kind of caterpillar it is and if it’s poisonous. thanks. Stephanie Hi Stephanie, Your caterpillar is a Wooly Bear, the larval form of Tiger Moths from the family Arctiidae. Many Wooly Bears are similarly colored. Based on your location, a good bet is the Painted Arachnis, Arachnis picta, a very pretty moth common in Los Angeles. We have photos of the adults on our moth page. The Wooly Bear eats a wide variety of weedy plants including wild radish. It is not poisonous
Letter 3 – Unknown Tiger Moth Caterpillar from the British Virgin Islands
Subject: Hairy Caterpillar Location: Eustatia, BVI March 3, 2013 11:48 pm In late December, 2012 we saw many of these caterpillars crawling on the ground during the daylight hours while visiting the small island of Eustatia in the British Virgin Islands. They measure about 1 1/2 inches long. Eustatia is located NE of Virgin Gorda, BVI. Signature: Donald Gudehus Hi Donald, This appears to us to be the caterpillar of one of the Tiger Moths in the subfamily Arctiinae. Many species are commonly called Woolly Bears. We had no luck pinning down a species in the little time we had available prior to posting. We suspect the Moths of Jamaica might be a good place to begin digging.
Letter 4 – Tiger Moth Caterpillar from Argentina emerges as Wasp Moth: Eurata igniventris
Subject: Orange caterpillar with black spike-like hairs Location: Córdoba, Argentina March 2, 2016 1:41 pm I would like your help in identifying this species of caterpillar. Has you can see in the photos, is body is bright orange with some sort of clack spikes and little black hair all over the body. They appeared on a creeper-weed like plant, and seems to be quite the number on them in a small area. Its summer in here, with days with high temperature and high humidity and rains, so it’s possible the plant and/or the bugs are travelers of these stormy weather. Thanks a lot for any input in the mater. Signature: López, Eduardo Dear Eduardo, We have not had any luck finding any matching images online from Argentina, but your caterpillar reminds us of the Polka Dot Wasp Moth Caterpillar or Oleander Caterpillar, Syntomeida epilais, a species found in the Caribbean and in Florida. We believe your individuals are either members of the same genus, the same subtribe Euchromiina or a member of the Tiger Moth tribe Arctiini, depending upon how closely they are related. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to assist in this identification. Knowing the name of the “creeper-weed” upon which they were feeding might help. Update: March 16, 2016 Today we got a comment from Eduardo that included these two images. Our general identification remains unchanged, and this is most definitely a Wasp Moth in the subtribe Euchromiina. We will check with Julian Donahue to see if he can provide an identification.
Letter 5 – Tiger Moth Caterpillar on Water Hyacinth
Subject: Caterpillar eating water hyacinth Geographic location of the bug: Lake Hiawassee, Orlando, Florida Date: 02/12/2019 Time: 02:02 PM EDT Your letter to the bugman: Closest I can find is Larva of the arctiid moth Paracles sp. How you want your letter signed: Phil Dear Phil, We believe you might be correct. We found an Invasive.org posting of Paracles tenuis and the site states: “Host: common water hyacinth” and we are presuming the water hyacinth is the invasive species in question. iNaturalist lists the genus Paracles in South America. We don’t find the species listed on BugGuide, so this might be a new North American sighting. Right now we are being thwarted in our research by a glacially slow internet. We want to browse all Arctiinae caterpillars on BugGuide before we eliminate any native species. Dear Daniel, Thanks for the reply and your efforts in this matter. The one I sent you a picture escaped when I wasn’t looking. I found a second smaller one (earlier instar, picture attached) and am continuing to look for others as I am mechanically removing the water hyacinth from the lake as it is an exotic and extremely invasive plant. I will attempt to rear this and any others I find to the adult moth to better secure the identification. Thanks so much for your help. Saludos, Phil https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/lake-hiawassee-slc-yard Dear Phil, Good luck eradicating those water hyacinths, an invasive plant species from the Amazon. We wonder if the caterpillars you found are part of a program to help control the water hyacinths with biological methods. We look forward to any further updated you can provide, including images of the adult moth. Dear Daniel, I wouldn’t suspect the caterpillar as a means of control. I have found only 5 in an area of 400 sqft and from what I have seen they only sample a few leaves before moving onto another plant. In addition to my hand removal of the water hyacinth, the city has sprayed a herbicide twice so far killing (and leaving to rot in place) far more than I could hope to remove by hand. Bit by bit, but is an aggressive plant and dense to the point of killing all plants below it. Thanks for your help. I will be back if I am successful in rearing a caterpillar. Saludos, Phil Wittman Come look a Cobra in the eye! www.reptileworldserpentarium.com