How to raise woolly bear caterpillars

banded woolly bear

It made for a memorable Thanksgiving a couple of years ago when we sat down for turkey and all the fixings and a large orange moth seemingly appeared out of nowhere, haphazardly fluttering above our heads.

“Whoa, where did it come from,” I remember asking no one in particular as I stared at it zigzagging around the kitchen table.

“Grandma! It’s our woolly bear,” my daughter, Vayda, erupted with joy.

Indeed, my daughter’s woolly bear had emerged from its cocoon to greet us on Thanksgiving and a short 72 hours later it would be dead. Isabella tiger moths only live long enough to mate, lay eggs and die.

Although our tiger moth never had a chance to mate, hatching in our kitchen, it provided delightful end Vayda’s science project and taught her about the life cycles of caterpillars in a way that can’t quite be captured in a book.

Fortunately, banded woolly bears like the one we raised are considered common all across United States, Mexico and Southern Canada. So it wasn’t a huge hit to the local ecosystem to enjoy the beautiful moth’s company indoors at the end of its life cycle.

Their abundance, wide distribution and flexible diet make banded woolly bear caterpillars an ideal choice for a home school science project. And by knowing even more than we did about their life cycle, you can ensure your caterpillar cocoons at a time that ensures reproduction.

Where to find woolly bears

Woolly bears are relatively easy to find because of their prevalence and willingness to eat any number of low-growing, broad-leafed plants. You might just as easily find one crawling across your lawn as you would in a field, pasture or prairie. So maybe the better question to answer is when to find woolly bears.

There are two generations of woolly bears every year. The first hatches in May, eats during the summer and changes into moths during the fall. The second generation hatches in the fall, eats a little, hibernates over winter, eats some more in the spring and turns into moths. Spring woolly bears can be found where food is plentiful in lawns and fields. Fall woolly bears can also be found in lawns and fields, but may also be found seeking shelter crossing roads or under dead plant debris where they frequently hibernate. Plant debris offers enough protection from the weather for many insects to hibernate.

We have typically found our woolly bears in the yard while raking leaves or under bark that’s fallen off logs near the wood pile and log splitter.

Taking care of your woolly bear

Caring for woolly bear caterpillars is fairly easy in comparison to some other species of butterflies and moths whose larva has limited host plant preferences. For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars only feed on milkweed and are completely reliant on that host to survive and pupate. In contrast to the monarch, woolly bears will feed on a wide variety of plants.

Some of the plants woolly bears feed on include:

  • Low-growing, broad-leafed plants. Woolly bears prefer to eat low-growing, seed bearing plants that have leaves instead of blades. These plants include lambs quarters, violets, clovers, dandelions, nettles, burdock, yellow dock, curly dock and many native plants. They will also occasionally feed on leafy garden plants such as spinach, cabbage, other greens, garden herbs and sunflowers.
  • Grasses and grains. In the absence of preferred food sources, woolly bears will eat grasses and grains. These plants include wild grasses, as well as, cultivated grains such as corn and barely. Note that they will only eat the leaves, so they will only eat grasses in their leafy green stage.
  • Trees. Although woolly bears typically stay on the ground, they can sometimes be found in deciduous trees feeding on their foliage. They prefer the sweeter leaves of maple, elm and birch trees and rarely bother fruit trees and decorative trees.

Aside from providing your woolly bear with fresh food daily, you’ll also need to take its life cycle into consideration if you want to avoid it emerging from its cocoon before the end of winter. When it starts feeding less or even stops, you might consider getting some plant debris – leaves, bark, hollowed out stems and twigs – and piling it in your habitat with the fresh food, so it has somewhere to hibernate. Then move your habitat to a garage, porch, patio or somewhere sheltered but cooler so it can hibernate over winter.

Make sure to check on it frequently to ensure it has access to fresh food when it comes out of hibernation. If everything goes as planned, you’ll get to release a beautiful tiger moth this spring!

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  1. I have the same problem. I am in Ohio where there is 6″ of snow on the ground. There are no native plants alive right now. All I have is Romaine lettuce. Not sure he likes that. Don’t want him to starve.

  2. We are in Minnesota and my seven year old just found a wooly bear in a puddle on our driveway. He rescued it and put it into to his insect container with a magnifying glass on top. Surprisingly, it was still alive but I thought it would be better for it to be released into our evergreen shrubs than to try and take care of it inside.

  3. i found mine while hunting with my dad and it says to feed it plants from where you found it but im not willing to walk over 5 hours there lol, is there anything else i can feed it? please i dont want little hunter to die

    • Woolly bears eat broadleaf weeds like plantain, clover, ground ivy and dandelion greens. You can probably find some of these in your lawn at home.

  4. Okayy so I’m in New Jersey. It is July 29th. My caterpillar has been doing great, eating so much and was very active at night. For the past few days he has eaten little to nothing and left little to no droppings. Otherwise he crawls around when I take him out just fine. Is he sick? Is it normal? Because I sure don’t think he’ll be hibernating in July almost August

  5. I found a wooly bear caterpillar on the ground all curled up. And I put it in a habitat with leaves green and brown. some sticks, and lots of green grass. But I never saw it eating. I kind of got worried. And for me where I live, I hardly see caterpillars around so I don’t know much about them. So I started to ask my Alexa about this type of caterpillar and she was kind of dumb. So… I looked it up on the web and found this set of information and I was quite grateful to know that he probably wasn’t going to die. Thank you for this helpful information it really helped me out

  6. We found 12 Woolly Bear caterpillars today. Do they need water as well as the greens? Our Alexa isn’t very smart either. We were very worried about them.

    • Will and Alli,

      I typically put a small sponge in there that I rewet daily or a milk cap with water for my caterpillars. Best of luck!

  7. Hi Sara,

    I have 2 wooly bears that I caught a few weeks ago. At first, they were doing fine and they were eating a lot. But, lately, I realized that they kept hiding under leaves and sleeping. I provided them with fresh dandelion leaves every day, but every time I put my caterpillars on them, they would just go back to hiding. Also, I am concerned about their size. They look like they shrunk. Today I caught a new wooly bear, and compared his size to the ones that I had at first. The new one was 2 times as big! Also,

    • Veronica,
      My guess is that they are getting ready to overwinter. You should provide them with some leaf litter and move their habitat to a cool place. Their bodies are equipped to survive winter covered by leaf debris.

  8. Thank you so much Sara! My caterpillars just became very lively and active (especially at night), so I don’t think they’re quite ready to hibernate. That have grown very much and are very chubby and bulky now. (SO CUTE!!) I just gave them a banana and they seem to like it very much. I haven’t ever seen them eating this happily!

  9. Hi Sara!
    My Wooly Bear is less active now. I have him covered with leaves a twigs, but do I still need to feed him daily if it looks like he is hibernating?
    Thank you so much! My students love this little guy. They named him Willy!
    Milissa :)

    • Milissa, feed him daily until he’s inactive and then check him periodically to make sure there is fresh food when he wakes up from his hibernation period. Best of luck to your class and Willy!

    • That’s so cool! It’s such a rare name that she was confused the first time she met someone else named Vada/Vayda/Veda.


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