Gotta Have Caterpillars to Make Butterflies!

Almost in hysterics, the caller wanted to identify the wicked looking thing eating her Maypop (aka Passionflower) vine to the nub! The vine flowered profusely all summer, attracting several varieties of bees and butterflies. One in particular hung around as if to claim it for his or her own, a beautiful orange butterfly whose coloring is reminiscent of a Monarch butterfly. But in the last week or so, leaves had been disappearing rather speedily, and on closer inspection, this thing, actually a caterpillar, appeared to be the culprit.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillars

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar

Dig back in your brain’s data banks and retrieve information “life cycle of a butterfly”. Remember or refresh the page labeled E.L.P.A., the acronym for Egg – Larva/ Caterpillar – Pupa/chrysalis – Adult. If any of those stages is destroyed, removed, or blown away in a storm, the cycle won’t complete. We opine “you can’t have an omelet without breaking some eggs”; well neither can we have butterflies without caterpillars. Remember this is the stage that consumes as much of the host plant as can be stuffed in its mouth, as that food sustains the creature during the next phase – the pupa.

This time of year, many butterflies are active as they begin migration flights to Florida and points South where they overwinter in frost-free areas of their range. So perhaps the “wicked looking” Gulf fritillary caterpillars seen on Passionflower vines are the last generation to pupate before adult forms leave to become “snow birds” somewhere in Florida.

“What do I spray to kill it” is not the next best question. What long-term benefit would we see by spraying and killing the ‘pillar’? The Maypop and many other caterpillar “food” plants will re-leaf and keep right on growing in the majority of cases.

Other butterfly populations such as the Monarch, are actually in trouble due to habitat loss and pesticide mis-use both in North American gardens and overwintering grounds in Mexico.

Bottom line: look closely at what’s feeding on plants. Some are truly pests and warrant control methods. Others, though basically “eating machines”, will morph into ‘delicate, dancing, creatures of the air’, brightening our days and our children’s faces.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly

Gulf Fritillary butterfly

By Sallie Lee, Urban Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.  Contact Sallie at

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.  Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

Alabama Extension

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities and answers home-gardeners' questions each week on Birmingham Gardening Today.

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