Anne Roberts Gardens bad-caterpillars

Bad Caterpillars v Good Caterpillars

The Difference Between Bad Caterpillars and Good Ones in Your Garden

Bad caterpillars can cause a lot of issues while seemingly offering no value to a homeowner or gardener. On the other hand, “good” caterpillars are the ones that turn into the beautiful butterflies that gardeners intentionally try to attract. Learn how to figure out the difference between the two. Then learn how to manage populations of “bad” caterpillars.

A Quick Overview of this Blog Post

As you presumably know, caterpillars are the larva of either moths or butterflies—and their sole purpose at this particular stage in their development is to eat. And eat, they do. What’s more is this: Because nearly all caterpillars are plant eaters (with very few exceptions), caterpillars can cause quite a bit of damage to your plants.

Because there are more than 12,000 species of moths and butterflies in North America alone, we won’t attempt to list them. Instead, we’ll talk about how to how to control bad caterpillars, we’ll identify a couple of caterpillars that are usually considered “good caterpillars” and we’ll also provide a link to help you to identify the caterpillars that you find around your yard.

Bad Caterpillars and How to Control Them

What makes a caterpillar a bad caterpillar? “Bad caterpillars” do substantial harm to your gardens, oftentimes by targeting specific plants and trees. They damage – and even destroy – your greenery.

That’s definitely not good. So, if you are seeing more destruction in your garden than you can tolerate from these voracious eaters, your caterpillars have gone from at least being a neutral presence to a bad one.

Caterpillars damage plants by chewing on fruits, flowers, shoots, and leaves, and signs of caterpillar damage include holes, rolled or webbed leaves, eggs, and excrement. This kind of damage is easy to spot, but caterpillars can also bore into wood, and finding wood-borers can be difficult. Therefore, it can be hard to control caterpillars in trees until substantial damage has been done.

While caterpillars do have their place – both as pollinators and as prey in the food chain – you simply may not want them in your gardens due to the destruction they can cause.

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These sawfly caterpillars skeletonize the leaves they chew on.

1. Controlling Bad Caterpillars

Caterpillars are pretty low on the food chain, and their soft bodies tend to make them easy prey for birds, insects and small mammals. Because of this, caterpillar populations are often kept in check organically and, typically, discovering a few caterpillars in your garden is of no great concern.

However, if you’re seeing growing signs of caterpillar destruction in your yard, there are things that you can do to manage them.

  1. Pick the caterpillars and immerse them in soapy water. Remember to wear gloves because some caterpillars can sting.
  2. Buy something called Bt – which is an insecticidal bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) at your local garden center. Bt is nontoxic to human, pets, bees, beneficial insects and other wildlife. Simply spray it directly on any caterpillars that are causing damage.
  3. Use sprays containing Pyrethrum when caterpillars are attacking vegetables.
  4. Do a little research on the Planet Natural Research Center for more organic methods of controlling caterpillars and other pests.

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2. What Are “Good” Caterpillars?

Good caterpillars, to many people, are the ones they intentionally try to attract because they will turn into beautiful butterlies, like Monarchs. Check out The Butterfly Site’s list of butterflies that call Illinois home to help you determine which butterflies you’d like to find in your butterfly garden.

"Good" caterpillars are simply the caterpillars that you want to nurture due to their beauty or their place in the environment.

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Many gardeners intentionally try to attract Monarchs and other beautiful butterflies.
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3. How to Identify Your Particular Caterpillars offers and easy Caterpillar Identification Tool. We suggest that you take a picture of the caterpillars you’re dealing with and then use their 4-point guide to tick off identifying features. You’ll then be presented with thumbnail images of the caterpillars that match the characteristics you’ve selected. Scroll through those images until you find the caterpillar that matches the one you are trying to identify.

The Wrap Up

Armed with the resources above, you should be able to determine which kind of caterpillars you are seeing in your gardens, whether they are desirable or not and how to control them.

Creating your outdoor space takes some time, patience, vision and creativity, whether you are landscaping a whole yard or just landscaping small areas. When you’re ready to move ahead, our team is highly experienced in all facets of landscape design. We’ll be happy to talk with you in person or over the phone to discuss how we can help you with your planning and outdoor overhaul. Feel free to call us or contact us online to get started with a discussion about your Chicago landscaping ideas and needs.

About The Author

Anne Roberts
Anne Roberts
Chicago Landscaper, Master Gardener, Green Roof Specialist & Degreed Horticulturist at Anne Roberts Gardens

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