Caterpillar–mysterious larvae that seem to magically transform into beautiful butterflies (although it is really a scientific process) play an important role in the food chain as they are rich in protein. They are also slow-moving, which gives an advantage to any hungry predators. With more than 20,000 species, caterpillars are found all over the world. This means that their enemies are abundant as well, with different predators (including humans) dining on them in different parts of the world.
What Animals Eat Caterpillars?
As already mentioned, in some parts of the world like Botswana in southern Africa and some East-Asian countries, caterpillar is considered a healthy delicacy for humans. There are many other creatures who choose to include caterpillars as a large portion of their diet
- Birds: There are many types of birds that eat caterpillars regularly. Depending on the season, caterpillars might be found in the treetops munching on leaves, or on the ground chomping away at grass or plants. This gives a wide variety of birds easy access. Even birds that usually eat seeds will occasionally dine on a juicy caterpillar. Warbling birds, like robins, thrushes, and wrens, eat caterpillars regularly. Birds are actually the main predator of caterpillars simply because of the ease of access and the nutrients found in these delicious treats.
- Yellow Jackets: These predatory wasps will carry caterpillars off to their nests to feed their young. Wasps of all kind help keep caterpillar populations under control by feasting on these slow-moving insects.
- Ladybugs: The brightly colored spotted beetles usually eat aphids, but will also eat on the soft flesh of a caterpillar. Ladybugs are a handy tool to keep these pests out of gardens, as both aphids and caterpillars can cause a lot of damage to plants with their voracious appetites.
- Reptiles: Insect eating reptiles like geckos, iguanas, and chameleons will also eat caterpillars. However, it is important for anyone choosing to feed caterpillars to a pet reptile to be cautious as to the type of caterpillar. Some species of caterpillars are toxic, which is one of their best defenses against turning into a meal.
- Mammals: Some small mammals enjoy a meal of caterpillar. This includes squirrels, foxes, raccoons, white-footed mice, chipmunks, shrews, and even bats.
While there are many species of birds, wasps, and other insects that dine on caterpillar, the biggest danger to them is dwindling habitat. If caterpillar populations dwindle, so will the population of butterflies and moths. Its helpful to understand the risks to specific species of caterpillars. Read on for more information.
What Eats Monarch Caterpillars?
One out of every ten monarch eggs survive to become the beautiful Monarch butterfly. This suggests that there are many predators of monarch eggs and caterpillars. Ants feed on both eggs and caterpillars (including others species than the monarch). Praying Mantis love eating the soft bodies of monarch caterpillars, especially when they are young. Wasps will go after Monarch butterflies, and also monarch caterpillars because wasp babies need to eat too. Spiders enjoy feeding on Monarch caterpillars for a late night snack. Monarch caterpillars are also at risk of being eaten from the inside out by various parasites. All in all, the life of a monarch caterpillar is fraught with danger.
What Eats Swallowtail Caterpillars?
Although black swallowtail caterpillars (and butterflies) are poisonous, that doesn’t mean they can avoid all the dangers in life. Although caterpillars occasionally use ants as babysitters, ants are just as likely to dine on a small caterpillar. I guess it is a risk worth taking. Wasps pluck swallowtail caterpillars off of leaves, and fly back to their nests. Swallowtail caterpillars also face a non-predatory risk. Sometimes they fall off the leaves of the plants as they are chomping away, fail to climb back up, and die of starvation.
What Eats Tent Caterpillars?
Those silky nests that dot the trees during caterpillar season are tents built by tent caterpillars as a means of protection at night. However, when they venture out of the tents during the day to forage for food, they face predation like any other caterpillar. Songbirds pick tent caterpillars off of trees and branches, gobbling them up greedily. Some of the birds that enjoy this protein-filled meal include: robins, blue jays, red-winged blackbirds, and cardinals. If they survive these birds, and crawl off the tree to pupate (the process through which they become butterflies) they risk being eaten by ground-dwelling birds like wild turkey. If, by some chance, they fall off their tree and land in the water, then there are still hungry birds there as well–ducks won’t turn down the opportunity to dine on caterpillars. Neither will fish, frogs, or turtles, for that matter. These soft, slow moving, packs of protein are simply too tempting to pass up..
The tents themselves protect them from some predation, but not from everything. Wasps eat both tent caterpillar eggs and caterpillars. Flesh flies, a parasite, eat them from the inside out. Other insect predators include: yellow jackets, stink bugs, hornets, and beetles like ladybugs (0nce they are on the ground). They also need to look out for reptiles, including: Eastern box turtles, garter snakes, copperheads, and skinks. Snakes and lizards will even sometimes attack the nests, since they have the ability to climb trees.
What Eats Gypsy Moth Caterpillars?
It’s always a little depressing when there is an invasion of gypsy moth caterpillars with their ability to defoliate entire areas quickly. Still there are some natural predators that can help to some extent, although not if there is a massive outbreak. Cuckoos, downy woodpeckers, gray catbirds, and common grackles eat gypsy moth caterpillars. White-footed mice and gray squirrels sometimes eat gypsy moth larvae and pupae (insects in the stage of transformation). Wasps and flies can be relied on to eat eggs and larvae. There are also some bacteria and molds that attack gypsy moth caterpillars. Large green beetles will eat gypsy moths as well. The adult green beetles eat larvae, and larval beetles eat pupae. Often insects like the green beetles are introduced to help control an invasion, but it doesn’t always work.