It can be scary at first, moving a caterpillar. They can hang on so tightly that sometimes it almost seems as if we’re going to pull off a leg. So let’s look closer at this simple thing we do when we raise caterpillars – move one.
The basics are wash, check for molting, and be gentle.
1) ALWAYS wash hands before touching a caterpillar. Before going walking to look for caterpillars, wash hands well. Things from petting a dog with a flea/tick medication (oral or topical) to having alcohol on hands from using a hand sanitizer, our hands are often coated with something that can be deadly to caterpillars.
2) Moving some species when they are molting is a death sentence for the caterpillar. If you aren’t sure whether one is molting or not, simply tickle its rear; touch its rear with an object like a pen or stick. If it will not move those last two prolegs (anal prolegs), don’t remove it from the object it is on unless it already is a matter of life or death for the caterpillar. If it moves its anal prolegs, it is not molting.
3) (Skip this step if picking up a butterfly caterpillar.) Some moth caterpillars should never be pulled from a stem. Some MOTH caterpillars will hold on so tight they they will literally tear a leg off before they let go. With these species (or if you aren’t sure if it is one of these species), slowly and gently lift them, starting with the front legs. If at any point they will not let go, even as you work with them, don’t pull. Sometimes it is necessary to cut the object they are holding on to, then move the caterpillar still holding on to that object.
4) Most species (after doing step 2) can simply be picked up with your thumb and pointer finger. Gently grasp and lift. That’s all there is to it!
5) Of course those itty bitty caterpillars can sometimes be picked up easier with a soft tip paintbrush, a great item to add to your ‘caterpillar care’ kit.
Side note: If you are picking up caterpillars on a long walk, do not place them in a plastic bag in the warmer months of the year. A short time in a plastic bag cooks them. When just going for a walk, carry paper lunch bags, folded to fit in your pocket, in case you find a treasure along the way. If caterpillar hunting, take many bags or other appropriate containers.