Raising Painted Lady Caterpillars

Did your caterpillar hatch from its egg? Are you even able to see it? Painted Lady 'babies' are super tiny when they first hatch. At first they appear to be little black specks.

If your egg was on a leaf (you didn't take the egg off the leaf) then check the underside of the leaf as the caterpillars often will travel there upon hatching.

If you had taken the eggs off the leaves then look carefully for these little black specks. Get out your magnifying lens. If you look super closely, you will see that the black speck isn't an ant but a Painted Lady baby! Yep, it is a caterpillar! A hatchling! A larva!

Okay, now it is time to get serious. You now have an important job as a foster parent. It's time to get your 'nursery' ready. What tools do you need? It isn't as difficult as you may think and many of the things are probably around your house.

Tools for the Caterpillar Nursery:

  • rearing container (small plastic cup with lid)
  • fine-tipped paintbrush (NOT one that has been used!)
  • Q-tip (if no paintbrush is available)
  • coffee filter or toilet tissue
  • camera (if you want to take pictures)

For the Painted Lady a small container is best for rearing the larva (caterpillars). You do not have to worry about poking little air holes in the lid as long the container isn't airtight (in other words, don't use Tupperware!). Get one of those small condiment containers from a fast food restaurant; they are perfect! The ones that hold ketchup can be used for the first week then you can 'graduate' to the bigger /larger sized ones that hold salsa...

NOTE: The 5 1/2-oz. size is the PERFECT size because it can be used during the entire life-cycle

Place your hatchling into your 'rearing' container. IF the hatchling is already on a leaf, then it is simple! Just cut/pinch off the leaf from the plant and put the entire leaf into the container.

If the baby is not on a leaf then you will need to use the paintbrush (or Q-tip). This is where it is MOST important to note the delicacy of the 1st instar Painted Lady. Most butterflies die during the 1st and 2nd instars of their lives. The Painted Lady goes through five instars (stages) before they pupate. The 1st instar is when they first hatch from the egg. They are just minuscule! Too much handling is hazardous at this point. So, if you don't have to handle them, then don't. If you do, then be super careful. The fine-tipped paintbrush is a great tool as it does little to no damage if used correctly.

Gently touch the tip of the brush to the baby. Then, transfer the little one to a leaf, softly touching the tip of the brush to the leaf. IF you don't have a paintbrush you can use a Q-tip instead.

Food! Like any baby your hatchling is HUNGRY! What do you feed it? The mama Painted Lady knew exactly where to oviposit (lay the egg): on the 'right' host plant. Host plants are those plants that a butterfly utilizes for its larva. Adult butterflies can sense which plants are the right ones and may 'scratch' the surface of a leaf with their 'feet' to taste it to be sure before ovipositing (laying eggs). The Painted Lady has a number of different host plants so finding baby food isn't very difficult. It will be important, however, that you feed your little young ones food that has had NO pesticides or other poisons sprayed onto it.

What are some 'baby foods' you can feed your little ones?

Cheeseweed is a common 'weed' that you can probably find growing wild in your garden or in the local park. If you live in Southern California you will probably find this plant just about EVERYWHERE!

The scientific name is Malva parviflora. It is also known as Little Mallow. Common mallow (Malva neglecta) can also be used as can most plants in the Malvaceae family.

Note: The Spanish name is also Malva…

Another plant that you can use it the Lavatera maritima. Many people have this plant in their gardens as it is a very pretty, decorative plant (although I must say, personally, I feel that the flower blossoms are NOT at all fragrant!). You will need to feed your larva a leaf. One leaf is all it will need. Give it a fresh, young leaf. Remember, Painted Ladies use plants from the Malva family for their host plants. You can give it a Lavatera leaf, Hollyhock leaf, Cheeseweed leaf, Malva leaf, Thistle leaf...One small leaf will be just fine for two days. Once the leaf dries up then you will need to give it another fresh leaf. Dried leaves are NOT good or healthy for the youngster.

For the first week, don't even worry about the frass (poop). It is so small it won't matter much. Just be sure a fresh leaf is available. The first two days the one leaf will probably last and be fresh. After that, be careful and tear away the leaf around the caterpillar, throwing the dried leaf away and place a new, fresh leaf in the container. Every two days do this.

It takes approximately two weeks for a Painted Lady caterpillar to eat and poop before it is ready to begin the next stage in the life-cycle. It will have undergone four instars (molts—shedding of the skin) and grown considerably by now. It is no longer a teensy little caterpillar, the size of an ant but about 1.5" or so long! When it is ready to pupate, caterpillars to stop eating and begin to roam. If you have the larvae in a large container/habitat, you will notice this behaviour as it is quite unusual. The larvae begin to move quickly and start wandering around with great purpose (almost like a little kid who has to go to the bathroom right NOW!).

Painted Ladies, like many other brush-foot butterflies, will pupate by hanging in what's called a 'J' position. This means the caterpillar will look for a place to make a silken pad, attach its last prolegs to it, and hang head down, so its body looks like the letter J. When raising Painted Ladies indoors, you can provide a really simple and inexpensive medium for the caterpillar by using coffee filters or toilet tissue! Simply cut the coffee filter (or if using toilet tissue, Charmin's Ultra is excellent! You don't have to cut it; just tear off one square from the roll…) and place it over the top of a cup (if you are using a cup) containing the caterpillar, place the lid on top of that, and that's it! The caterpillar will soon make its way to the lid and pupate onto the paper.
Here's a cup with the paper (and a few Lavatera leaves) to show what a ready-to-pupate Painted Lady container would look like. Of course, you'd want the cup to be UPRIGHT, not tilted on its side like in this picture.

If using a large enough cup/container, the pupa can remain in it during its entire 2-week period as it undergoes metamorphosis. If the container is rather small, then it will be important to transfer the pupa to a larger habitat. Keep in mind that the pupa needs to 'harden' before it is moved. Pupae are quite fragile while still in the early stages (they appear to be wet; you want to wait until they look dry—wait a few hours before moving). Once a pupa has hardened, you can easily move it to a different habitat, if necessary. Having the pupa on paper makes it VERY convenient as you can cut a small circle around the pupa and simply tape the paper to your larger habitat!

IMPORTANT NOTE: IF your Painted Lady happens to NOT attach itself to the paper (i.e. the chrysalis falls off) do not worry! This does not mean you won't have a butterfly…instead, simply take the pupa (after it hardens, of course) and carefully place it on the bottom/floor of your habitat. Don't try to glue or tie the chrysalis to a stick or something…it isn't necessary. Just be sure to provide something for the eclosing butterfly like a stick or chopstick, so that it can climb up and pump up and dry its wings.

It will take around two weeks for the pupa to undergo metamorphosis. Soon, a beautiful butterfly will eclose (NOT hatch! It isn't coming out of an egg, for goodness sake!). As the Vanessa cardui is not an overly large butterfly it shouldn't take more than a few hours for it to pump up and harden/dry its wings and be ready to take flight!

If you notice a reddish-orange coloured liquid, don't fret. This is called meconium and is the waste product from the pupa. If you use a mesh habitat, it is easiest to clean the meconium using an organic soap made from coconuts. Meconium can stain and can be difficult to remove but coconut-based soaps work very well at removing the stain (and are not at all harsh to your skin). Many health food stores and eco-friendly sections of stores carry coconut-based soaps and detergents. Clorox now has their 'Green' products that are eco-friendly. The dishwashing detergent is a GREAT product to have on hand to use for cleaning meconium off of your clothing, hands, or habitats!

*Side note: Coconut-based cleaning products like the Clorox Green Works products work GREAT at cleaning stains that you would not normally be able to remove like crayon, adhesive from labels, ink, etc. The Butterfly Guide editor does NOT work for the company...in case you wondered.