Illustrated Guide to British Caterpillars

 

How many different species of British caterpillar are there?
There are over 2,600 species of moths and butterflies in the British Isles. The caterpillars of this large family of insects known as Lepidoptera can vary greatly in size, colour, shape, pattern and behaviour. Even the number, position and type of legs can vary between species and features such as this can help with identification.

Caterpillar identification queries

PLEASE NOTE – We welcome identification queries but have closed our comments page for logistical reasons. In 2013 we were pleased to received over 700 emailed caterpillar enquiries, some of which were featured on our latest sightings and in our galleries. Please see help with caterpillar identification.

Butterfly and moth galleries

See the Galleries of Butterfly caterpillars and Moth caterpillars containing images of many caterpillars likely to be seen in the British Isles.

Latest caterpillar sightings

See reports of the Latest caterpillars sightings

Caterpillar pests

Certain species of caterpillars can at times become so prolific that they can cause significant damage to vegetable crops, garden shrubs and trees.

Hairy Caterpillars

Although in general British caterpillars are not a danger to our health there are some species of hairy caterpillars that can cause unpleasant skin irritation unless care is taken.

Click on the links below to view the other pages in our Illustrated Guide to British Caterpillars.


Caterpillar anatomy

Life-cycle

Survival strategies

Other facts
Anatomy Life-cycle Survival strategies Other facts

  67 Responses to “Illustrated Guide to British Caterpillars”

  1. A caterpillar fell to earth on a leaf whilst I was gardening yesterday.

    It was about 50mm long, with pale yellow alternating with brown stripes along the body. The brown stripes had orange spots in pairs about 6mm apart. It had very little hair.

    Ant ideas as to its ID ?

    Thanks

    • Hi Dave, sounds very distinctive with those orange spots but as yet I can’t make anything fit. Brown form of the Swallow Prominent moth was as near as I got but that doesn’t seem to tick all the boxes. Send a photo if you have one, doesn’t matter how poor it is. Thanks for your enquiry. Steve.

  2. Caterpillar of the week – many thanks to Peter Harvey for sending me a photo of a Convolvulus Hawk-moth caterpillar.

  3. I saw a caterpillar climbing up an oak stump in the wood the other day (in Kent). It was green with white hairs & a tale. As it moved it revealed shiny black stripes under/between each body section. It was between 1 & 2 inches long. Any ideas which butterfly or moth this is? Thanks.

    • Hi John, Yes, as below, this is the caterpillar of the Pale Tussock moth. It feeds on the leaves of Oak trees as well as other deciduous trees. The dark bands are particularly noticeable when the caterpillars body is bent around a twig or curled up. October is the time they are often seen wandering about as they are looking for somewhere to spin a cocoon in leaf litter and overwinter. Thanks for your query. Steve.

  4. What sort of caterpiller is fluffy / hairy “lime – yellow” with 4 white tufts along its back / black underneath and body / green face and head with a dark red tail spike. 4cm long found near a beech hedge.

  5. I found a caterpillar in amongst my Marigolds today. It’s light green with very small dark dots along it’s sides, it has 4 pairs of “false legs” and does not have a hairy body (although that might be because it’s young?). It’s about maybe 2 cm long. I live in the North East of England (if that’s of any help). Curious to know what it’ll be! :)

    Thanks!

    Kayleigh

    • Hi Kayleigh, small green caterpillars are not easy even when seen in the flesh. As well as four pairs of false legs I guess it also has three pairs of true legs at the front. Fairly confident it’s not a butterfly. Leg distribution and number rule out many insects such as beetles and sawflies. Almost certainly a moth and a large number of those, in the Geometridae family, can also be ruled out because of the legs. But from there it is very difficult even with a specific food plant. It may still have a lot of growing to do and, although unlikely to become hairier, more obvious markings may show with each skin change. To be about still suggests it could overwinter as either a caterpillar or a pupa. I haven’t yet come up with a species that is strongly linked with marigolds which would be helpful. Sorry can’t be of more help but thanks for your enquiry. Steve.

  6. hello i was walking home from placement today and i found a large black caterpillar about as big as my index finger with lighter rings around its body, two half blue half black spots on what i thought was its bottom end one on each side and a black line down its back it was about as thick as my finger aswell. it was on a plant at the side of the road near some fields. what was it?

    • Hi Jessica, size suggests the larval stage of a large insect such as a hawk-moth. The large eye-like spots, which I would expect to be at the caterpillars head end, suggest Elephant Hawk-moth. These spots, when seen close up, are usually black and a subtle pink but colours can be deceptive and caterpillars variable. It would have been useful to have known the plant it was on but I would guess it was Rosebay Willowherb. The caterpillar is probably a very dark form and about to pupate any day now – perhaps, having a last feed. The adult Elephant Hawk-moth is stunning. Thanks for your caterpillar identification query. Steve.

  7. My class at school today found a orangy brown furry catepillar at school today, it has a black head and black and white dots going up its back. It is about 50mm in length. Any ideas what it is? Many thanks

    • Hi Miss C.
      Sorry for the delay. It sounds very much like the caterpillar of the The Sycamore moth. Food plants are commonly Sycamore, Horse Chestnut and Maple but also recorded on other species of trees. Why not ask the children to try and identify a tree it may have come from? The caterpillars are far more eye-catching than the adult moth which is a very subtle shade of grey. Thanks for your caterpillar query. Steve.

  8. Hi, I found a small green caterpillar. It’s smaller than my pinky, (I’m fifteen and seem to have average sized hands). Its front legs seem very pointed and as they go down they become very pronounced suckers before the back two legs. If I try to take it off my finger and it clings on, you can actually hear the little suckers coming loose. It has two very small yellow spots on one of the back segments of its body and its mandibles seem to be black. Its face is very shiny and it has very small hairs all over its body, although they get longer at the back. I was wondering if you could give me any idea on what to feed it? I’m interested in trying to watch it develop ^^

    • Hi Kendra, Many moth species have 3 pairs of legs at the front called true legs and then further down the body they have four pairs of stumps with suckers called prolegs and finally a pair of claspers. As to the species then it becomes tricky as there are quite a few ‘small green caterpillars’ to choose from. Where it was found would possibly give a clue if it was on a particular plant. However, I guess as you are wondering what to feed it on that you found it wandering about on the ground, in which case you may well find that it is fully grown and looking for somewhere to pupate. If this is the case then it would have stopped eating and, depending on species, may require some soil or foliage in which to spin a cocoon or turn into a pupa. If you have a photo then it may be identifiable. Sorry I can’t be of more help. Steve.

  9. I found a 1 inch caterpillar on a garden chair which may have fallen from a sycamore, long bright yellow hairs with tufts of bright orange/red hairs towards its rear. could you identify it please,
    thanks Keith

  10. Hi, I found a caterpillar in Oxford and I would love to know what it is.
    It was quite big and chunky, almost 2 inches long I’d say. It had a black/dark blue stripe running down its back with a bit of yellow either side and the rest was green. Its head was green and it had kind of turquoise legs. It didn’t have any kind of hair. I don’t know whether its a moth or butterfly and I don’t know what kind of plants it eats as it was on the pavement although there were some trees around, I don’t know what species though.

    • Hi Jessica, sorry, despite the useful information provided I’m struggling. It’s probably a moth but when it comes to medium sized green caterpillars there are an awful lot to choose from. I feel the bluey dorsal stripe should be the give away clue but as yet nothing springs to mind. It’s almost certainly looking for somewhere to pupate in readiness to overwinter. I’m probably over looking the obvious and it will hopefully come to me. If you took a photo, even with a phone, that would be useful. Steve.

  11. Just been for a walk in the woods and my son found a large hairy (big spiky hair) black caterpillar with a very fine thin orange stripe down its back. Any ideas what this will turn in to? Thank you.

    • Hi Lucie. It sounds very much like the caterpillar of the White Ermine moth but not sure if it is the correct size. Rather depends what you term as large. The caterpillars only reach about 45mm in length, which is not particularly big in the world of caterpillars, and your caterpillar may have been much larger. Large, 70mm, black hairy caterpillars often reported at this time of year are those of the Fox Moth caterpillar but they don’t show a fine orange line extending down the back, the hairs aren’t ‘big spiky’ and are not really associated with woodland so that seems to rule that out! So, if the size is right, I’d suggest White Ermine Moth. Thanks for your caterpillar enquiry. Steve.

  12. i have a very small garden which has become over run with nasturtiums and the inevitable caterpillars but i need to clear it to plant spring bulbs . . . so what do you suggest? i want to help the moth/butterfly population so how long could i put off clearing the old plants or could i relocate the caterpillars to another leafy location?

    • Hi Rose, good question. It really depends on the species of caterpillar. Any caterpillars about at this time of year will probably be wandering off to pupate within a few weeks. Some species will pupate in the soil and if you dig them up while planting you can soon bury them again somewhere safe. As the caterpillars are on Nasturtiums they are likely to be Large White butterfly caterpillars, also known as Cabbage White caterpillars, considered by vegetable growers as a pest of the Brassica family of vegetables. If they are Large White caterpillars and approaching 45mm in length then they are almost fully grown and will soon be wandering off to pupate somewhere sheltered such as on fences or the walls of buildings. If you can’t wait then bag up all the Nasturtiums, complete with caterpillars, and move them elsewhere to a patch with their foodplant. Not near someones veg plot! Good luck. Hope this helps. Steve.

  13. I was out walking with my dog Titch when I looked up into the trees and saw these huge Green Caterpillars about 7.5cm. and the wiidth of my little finger 3.5cm and I could actually see them eating the leaves.
    Could you please give me some idea as to what they are as I have never seen them before.
    Thank you Annie

    • Hi Annie, without knowing the species of tree its difficult but, because of their size, I would say they are the caterpillars of a species of Hawk-moth. Depending on what they are feeding on they could be either Lime Hawk-moth, Privet Hawk-moth, Poplar Hawk-moth or Eyed Hawk-moth. Although, just to make it confusing, the name of the caterpillar doesn’t always reflect their only food plant. Eg Poplar Hawk-moths feed on Willows and Aspen as well as Poplar! If you can remember any more features, such as the presence of any colourful stripes, then we should be able to identify them. Good find. Thanks for your post. Steve.

  14. Hello, I found a caterpillar on a raspberry leaf – it is brown/black, with bright orange stripes spots along its back and white splodges either side, it also has orangey brown tufts of hair on each segment and head and was about 35/40mm long any ideas what it might be?

    • Hi Cathy, sounds like the caterpillar of the Knot Grass moth. Time of year and size is also right. They feed on a wide range of plants including Bramble which is the same family of plants as raspberries. It’s a fairly common moth throughout most of the British Isles and the caterpillars will be fully grown and ready to pupate at this time of year. Thanks for your caterpillar identification enquiry. Steve.

  15. Could someone id this caterpillar please, I have looked through all my books but can’t work out what it is.

    Pics

    http://img542.imageshack.us/img542/5109/p1050329fileminimizer.jpg
    http://img26.imageshack.us/img26/6857/p1050324fileminimizer.jpg

    Thanks!

  16. I have found a caterpillar which was about 4 inches longn it looks segmented and brown and orange, smooth skinned blach head with a yellow band across it

    • Hi Stuart – sounds very much like a Goat moth caterpillar. Great find – a fascinating and scarce moth. The caterpillar can spend up to five years feeding within the tree trunk of various species of deciduous trees but often Willow species. When fully grown the caterpillars leave the tree in the autumn and wander off to look for a suitable place in the soil to overwinter. They first spin a strong cocoon before pupating in the spring. The adult moth emerges in late June and July. Reference – Colour Identification Guide To Caterpillars of the British Isles by Jim Porter. Thanks Steve

  17. I found this strange caterpillar wondering across the path on a walk in liecestershire. It has lots of black hairs with a orange line down the middle. It is fairly big too. Please can you help me identify it.

    • Hi Jamie, I think your caterpillar is a Fox Moth caterpillar. They are often found out in the sun at this time of year, often on paths, preparing to overwinter. They are very hairy and in the right light can appear to have an orangy tinge running down their sides. Steve.

  18. Hi Steve, I have just found the most unusual caterpillar on the path in my garden. it is about 3inches long and half an inch wide it has markings on its head which make it look like a snake and it is very smooth.It is either black or very dark brown and it has a large head. IT is not a pretty caterpillar at all and I am wondering just what it is going to turn in to.
    Sheila

    • Hi Sheila, I think it may be an Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar. It’s the right time of year to find them wandering around looking for somewhere to pupate. The moth is one of the most beautiful of British moths and are named after the caterpillar which resembles an elephants trunk. When not stretched out the caterpillar has a large head and as you say is not the most attractive – but look at what it turns into! Steve.

  19. hes not hairy at all, 2cm long. but ill put him in the garden and hope hes sense of direction will improve, currently hes been kept in a jar with lettuce but he only lightly nibbled. hope this lil guy will be ok.

  20. hi i came across a caterpillar in Hampshire that had a few long hairs and had red, green, black and orange on it. it had a small amount of black fuss. any thoughts?

  21. My son stan found what looks like a big fat catapillar in the front porch. It is dark green with black dots running down either side of it, it has what looks to be six little legs at the front and then eight nobbles in the middle and a spike tail, when it moves its head emerges from within it. It also has six black with white spots on the head end which look like big eyes. Can you help tell him what it is.

    • Hi Stan, sounds like an Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar. They will be wandering about at the moment looking for somewhere to pupate. The caterpillars feed on willowherb and bedstraw and can be either green or brown. The adult moth is one of the most beautiful British moths and is named after its caterpillar which resembles an elephants trunk. Congratulations to your son for finding it and sharing it with us. Steve.

  22. hi, i found a caterpillar ramdomly walking across my carpet in the house,thats a new one lol! (birmingham uk) its a tan brown colour with a dark brown face, could you please tell me what species it is, and what to feed the lil guy thanks.

    • Hi Laura, Sorry, not too much to go on, size and whether it’s hairy or not would have helped. Habitat doesn’t exactly help matters either! Can’t even make an educated guess. Best bet, put outside because it is probably wandering around looking for somewhere to pupate. Any shrubby or rough grassy area will be better than your carpet. Sorry, I can’t be more helpful. Steve.

  23. 21/08 … 2.30 pm

    I have just found a most unusual caterpillar on the inside of my open dining room window. It is about 3/4 inch long; has ‘furry’ legs, grey sides with tiny red dots on them. On its back are 4 lumps (as opposed to tufts) and a tall tuft on its rear end.
    Looks like 4 sets of legs and is bristly all over. It is quite frisky!

    Outside near window is a clematis – I need to know what food you suggest it eats so that I can put it back in its own environment. Please, a quick reply is needed

  24. Hi, I’ve recently noticed an abundance of caterpillars in my yard in Liverpool. I only have a few plants, Lavendar, clematis, holly, mint, and strawberry. The caterpillars are about 1 1/2″ brown/black with thickets of hair. They have a single white strip down one side of them (left side). Any idea what these may be? Will they kill my clematis? I can provide pictures upon email request :)

    86ajsc@gmail.com

    Thanks

    • Hi Aaron, I think they may be the caterpillars of the White Ermine moth. They feed on a variety of herbaceous plants and will be about at this time of year.

      If there are alot of them and a limited food source then they will cause defoliation but shouldn’t cause any longterm damage, with the plants coming back strongly next year. You could move some on by gently potting a few and taking them somewhere where there is a good supply of herbaceous plants.

      Try not to handle as hairs of some hairy caterpillars can be irritating. They will soon be pupating to over-winter.

      Hope this is of use. Steve.

  25. My 4year old granddaughter found a caterpillar that had just removed itself from its casing in or front door plastic mat. We put some leaves from a hydrangea close to it and an hour later it had eaten most of one of them. The caterpillar was approximately 1.5 inches long, light purple in colour with two blue stripes down its body. It had a forked tail.
    We then placed it in the hydrangea to continue its life.
    Is it possible to identify what butterfly or moth this will become please.

    • Hi Douglas, Well, with a description like that it should be easily identifiable, but no caterpillar springs to mind. I don’t suppose you have a photo. If something suddenly comes to mind I’ll post it. Sorry, I can’t be more helpful. Steve.

  26. Hi anyone came across a caterpillar at a golf range in Kent recently black fat about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long white lines (indented near middle) front front back moved quite fast no picture (sorry) best description I can remember Any ideas?

  27. I found some small caterpillars on my rose bushes. They are dark green I think and spotty. They have six legs only which are at the front, and they curl their bottom end up to look like that is their head. Both ends have the same look as camouflage. I brought one inside so my toddler can watch it pupate but I’m curious about what it is. I can’t find a picture of it online but could email one if you give me an address. I’d be grateful for any help. Thanks.

    • Hi Emma – I think it very likley that they are the larvae of one of the Arge species of Sawfly that feed on roses. Counting legs can be tricky and you may find that there are legs/stumps extending all the way down the underside of the larva. Those feeding on roses certainly will take up a defensive tail up posture. If you’d like to send an image then see contact details in the side bar. Hope this helps. Steve.

  28. I have found caterpillars on brambles in the garden and think they are of the Vapourer group. What type of moth do they turn into?

  29. Hi,

    I have a few caterpillars on my Wisteria, they are fairy small and very hairy. Chocolate brown with tufts of hair running down it’s back.
    It has 2 tufts at the front which look like a beetles front pincers for want of a better word, the smaller tufts of hair down it;s back, 2 brown followed by 2 yellow, then 2 tiny orange spots finally finished off with one large tuft of hair at it’s rear.
    It is a gorgeous looking thing.

    I just wondered if it was rare with all the recent comments about butterfly numbers decreasing rapidly. Plus I also wondered if my Wisteria is safe.

    Cheers
    Claire

    • Hi Claire,
      Sounds like The Vapourer moth caterpillars. The time of year is right and they can eat a wide range of plants. The young caterpillars can look very different with each skin change and by now will be developing their wonderful tufts. Keep an eye on them as they’ll become even more dramatic in their final instar or skin change. Great caterpillars and should be enjoyed. The adult males fly during the day in the early Autumn and smell out the pheromones given off by the flightless females. See images of The Vapourer moth life-cycle at the top of the life-cycle page of our Caterpillar Guide. They are fairly well distributed throughout the UK. Neither moth nor caterpillars are likely to damage your Wisteria apart from chomping a few leaves. Thanks for the comment. Steve.

  30. My children have brought home a hairy caterpillar that’s slim and about 3/4 of an inch long. It doesn’t seem to like the leaves they’ve given it so I want to find out what kind of plant it eats. It’s black with gingerish and white hairs, white spots down each side, two orange spots on its back and four little bumps near its head. It has legs along the length of its body. Does anyone know what it is? Thanks

    • Hi Sophie
      Thanks for your enquiry. It’s always difficult to identify caterpillars from a description without a photo. However, there is a possibility that your caterpillar is a Brown-tail in which case a word of warning here…the hairs of this caterpillar can be a major irritant and should be left well alone.

      Another possibility is the Garden Tiger which is a very easy caterpillar to rear as it can eat a number of plants including plantains, dock and dandelion. Hopefully your caterpillar is the Garden Tiger which will spin a lovely coccoon and then a beautiful moth will emerge.

      Please be aware that with all hairy caterpillars handling should be kept to a minimum in case of irritation. Hope this helps.
      Kind regards
      Claire

  31. Have been walking in Wales recently and seen hundreds of red-brown caterpillars on the mountains -any ideas what they might be?

    • Hi Wayne – Without having more information eg size, plant they are on, hairy or not we can’t be certain but the most obvious caterpillar seen at the moment, particularly on moorlands and coastal areas, is the very hairy Fox Moth caterpillar which can be seen lying around on the tops of grasses and heathers prior to overwintering. They may be as large as 100mm and show a rufousy tinge to their brown hairs. See our post Caterpillar: Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi).

  32. Encountered a caterpillar in Lyme Park , Cheshire today. It was about 3 inches long, Half an inch in diameter, densely hairy and curled up the size of a £2 piece. Black and Brown banded. Any idea what this is going to be please?

    • Hi Denis,

      Difficult without knowing foodplant etc but brown and black and densely hairy suggests Fox moth. They have a habit of sitting around basking in the sun during the day and so are often noticed by walkers. A photo would confirm.
      Sorry I can’t be more certain.

  33. i came across a white caterpillar when i moved some wood on the ground. it was white/clear with a greyish rear end about 2 inches long. it was fat had an orange head and six legs at the front. none at the rear. never seen anything like it or the size of it. i think it was trying to bury itself in the ground. what was it.

    • Hi David,

      The best I can do is to suggest that it is not the larvae of a moth or butterfly due to the distribution of its legs. It seems likely that it is the larvae of a species of beetle, many of which have only six legs at the front and live and hunt amongst the top soil and leaf debris.

      Sorry I can’t be more specific.

      Thank you for your enquiry.

      Steve