7 Things That Attract Caterpillars To Your Yard & What To Do About It

Details of papilio machaon caterpillar

The life cycle of a butterfly has a gorgeous final state and butterflies themselves provide several environmental benefits. However, during the caterpillar stage, these little critters can prove to be an impressively destructive pest for their size, and homeowners may welcome them unintentionally.

Here are seven things in your yard that could cause you to see an increase in caterpillar activity:

  1. Caterpillar-friendly plants and herbs
  2. Woody areas
  3. Lack of birds
  4. Too much ornamental grass
  5. Lighted garden areas
  6. Keeping screenless windows open
  7. Indoor / Outdoor plants

The first step in limiting caterpillar populations near your home is to determine the potential culprit and then get to work. Let’s explore the damage these critters can do, what attracts them, and learn more about the ways we can diminish or eliminate their negative impact!

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Can Caterpillars Really Cause That Much Damage?

The short answer is yes. After all, we all know the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so we know these little guys can eat like there’s no tomorrow. 

More active during the warmer months of the year, caterpillars can use your plants, trees, herbs, and flowers as their feeding grounds, putting your yard and garden at risk of being damaged. These pests can easily chew on the leaves, stems, and flowers of your plants if they remain unidentified and untreated.

So, while the destruction of your plants is weighing heavily on your mind, and the thought of that stinging sensation you may get if one of these little critters walks across your arm gives you a chill, we’re ready to dish out some tips and tricks on how you can rid your yard of these little guys.

Caterpillars Love Certain Plants And Herbs

Caterpillar of the Machaon crawling on green leaves close-up

Everyone has their favorite type of snack during the day, and caterpillars are no different. If your garden or landscape includes various plants that caterpillars like to eat or lay eggs on, you may be holding a “welcome” sign to these little creatures without even knowing it.

Here are some common plants and herbs that are likely to attract caterpillars:

  • Dogwood
  • Clover
  • Milkweed
  • Parsley
  • Fennel
  • Dill

How To Fix It

Don’t be alarmed—even if you have one or all of these plants currently in your yard, you don’t have to get rid of these plants! Let that garden bloom, and just get rid of the caterpillars!

Depending on your comfort level with these creatures, here are some ways you can protect your garden from a potential caterpillar infestation.

  • Pick them off. Now, this may not be the best option if you don’t like the direct, hands-on approach, and this option can be time-consuming depending on the level of activity you have. However, if you’re up for the challenge, you can pick individual caterpillars off your plants and drop them into some soapy water to eliminate the problem.
  • Use an insect barrier. There are several insect barrier fabrics you can use to cover your plants and protect them from a variety of insects, especially if your plants may not require as heavy a pollination period as others.

If you use one of these barriers on your crops, you’ll want to make sure any current caterpillar infestation on the plants has first been removed, as this option is best used to prevent moths from landing on your plants and laying their eggs in the first place.

Woody Areas Provide Shelter For Caterpillars

Caterpillars prefer darker, woodier areas, so keep an eye out for these little critters in areas of thick foliage, as well as on the shadier side of your shrubs and larger plant life.

They may also hide in piles of leaves, in open compost bins, or depending on the species of caterpillar, directly on wood bark.

How To Fix It

Cutting down your trees and shrubs probably aren’t on your to-do list—you like a good shade tree just as much as the next guy or gal (and these fuzzy little guys)!

Sure, you may not be able to easily relocate some of these wooden havens, but there are some regular maintenance items you can add to your yardwork routine that will help discourage these creatures from sticking around.

  • Trim your trees and bushes. The next time you’re trimming your hedges, add those low-hanging tree branches and the bush that grew a little crazier last year to the list! If you limit the amount of ground cover that some of these larger shrubs and trees provide, the amount of available shade coverage will be limited as well. 

As a bonus, you’ll have a better view to see if these pests–or any others–are hanging around where they shouldn’t be.

  • Keep your lawn short. Also, don’t forget to weed whack! These two maintenance items help play a key role in pest management, just like trimming the larger plants in your yard.

If you maintain your grass height and get rid of unwanted weeds, you’re limiting areas that moths may look to lay their eggs and also limiting food sources for the caterpillars themselves.

  • Hire an expert. If you think you might have caterpillars that are chewing holes and boring into wood, we recommend you contact a professional to help you identify the source and get rid of a potential infestation without delay to avoid potential further damage.

And also, incase you didn’t know – caterpillars don’t just disappear totally in the winter.

Less Birds Around Means More Caterpillars

American robin in birdbath

Do you remember how I mentioned caterpillars have their favorite plant snacks? Well, these little critters are a bird’s favorite snack!

Now, don’t get me wrong, not all of us like the maintenance of a bird feeder or birdbath, and these contraptions can come with their own set of caveats.

After all, birds aren’t the only animals that eat from bird feeders.

However, if you’re not seeing birds coming and going from your yard regularly, you may also notice an increase in your yard’s caterpillar population.

How To Fix It

So, there’s a few simple things we can do here. All of which involve increasing bird populations near your home.

  • Add a bird feeder or birdbath. Again, we recommend weighing the pros and cons of adding these to your backyard, as they might attract more than just birds. However, if you add either of these items to your yard, you should see an increase in bird activity in your area.

With more birds in the area, there’s an increase in bird food needed, and a larger caterpillar population provides the perfect snack for these winged friends. Other than the birds snacking on the caterpillars before they have the chance to lay their eggs, the birds may just scare off the caterpillars altogether.

  • Add a birdhouse. This bird-friendly add-on will require less maintenance than a bird feeder or birdbath, but still rolls out the red carpet for birds of all kinds and says, “Hey, feel free to snack on some of the insects in my yard!” at the same time.

You Have Too Much Ornamental Grass

I know that having a well-manicured lawn can be a point of pride for many, myself included.

Who doesn’t love a pristinely landscaped yard with a variety of flowers and ornamental grasses that are pleasing to the eye?

These plants may be a great conversation starter with your neighbors, but they may also be unintentionally welcoming caterpillars to your yard to feed and repeat their life cycle.

Much like other caterpillar-friendly plants and other vegetation, ornamental grasses can provide a great habitat for a variety of species of caterpillars–food and shelter are easily at the ready–and you may quickly find yourself at the early stages of a caterpillar infestation.

How To Fix It

Break out the lawn mower! All jokes aside, here’s how to decrease your caterpillar populations near your favorite grass.

  • Relocate plants, if you can. Depending on the age and size of the plant, this may or may not be a viable option, and relocating the plant doesn’t guarantee getting rid of the underlying caterpillar problem. However, if you choose to relocate your plants, you’re disturbing the caterpillars’ home and any eggs that may have been laid, which should help reduce the activity in your yard. 

Moving these decorative grasses and plants further from your food garden will also help reduce the amount of caterpillar damage done to your food-producing plants and herbs. 

  • Treat these larger grasses with insecticides. Using insecticides is a personal choice, but still an option and, therefore, a recommendation to our readers. Our goal when recommending the use of insecticides is simply to control and/or eliminate the pests in question and not harm your plants and other nearby vegetation in your yard.

Need an insecticide recommendation? Making a trip to your local garden center and trying out some research on the safest and most effective insecticides in your area is always a good bet.

Don’t forget to consider organic pesticides as an option beyond your usual store-bought pesticide.

Pyrethrin is an organic insecticide extracted from a particular species of the chrysanthemum flower. Not only does this product help control any lingering caterpillar population, but it also controls a variety of other insect pests.

Try out Bonide Pyrethrin Garden Insect Spray Mix if you’re interested in a concentrated mixture of pyrethrin as a test for your garden areas, but there are other options as well.

For an even more sustainable option, you can grow some things, like lavender, that caterpillars dislike the scent of. You can view our full list of scents that caterpillars hate here for more options!

Caterpillars Are Attracted To Lighted Areas

I know this one sounds counter-intuitive. You’ve put in all that hard work to make yourself a beautiful garden and backyard getaway, so you want to put up some decorative lights and enjoy the space as the sun goes down each evening.

But think of it this way…

We’ve all seen those electric bug zappers that emit an odd blueish purplish light, and we’ve all heard the constant “ZAP!” from the insects who can’t help themselves but to be attracted to the light and fly right into it for their timely demise. (Yeah, you know the ones.)

So, if you have too much light in your garden or yard when it would otherwise be dark, you may be waving another welcome flag to moths. The light welcomes them to come lay their eggs on your plant leaves and once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are right at home.

How To Fix It

  • Skip the garden lights. Or at least skip the lights near your garden or other planted areas you don’t want to be affected by a potential caterpillar population.

Feel free to add lights to your front walkway or other less planted areas, but you’ll want to steer clear of excess lighting in garden areas you don’t want to be destroyed by these little critters.

Screenless Windows Can Allow Caterpillars Easy Entry!

Lot of green plants and open balcony door in modern apartment

I love opening up the windows and doors to my house on a gorgeous day. A cool breeze that brings in all that fresh air, especially after being cooped up all winter, is something you simply can’t beat.

As the temperature gets warmer, an increase in bug and insect activity is inevitable. Caterpillars may find their way indoors from your garden by crawling through open windows or doors, or through holes in your screens.

How To fix It

  • Repair or replace torn window and door screens. If you notice a tear in one of your screens, that’s a potential entryway for these little critters to make your home their own.

If you have a large hole or tear in your screen, you may need to replace the entire screen. However, if you have a more manageable area, you can use a screen repair kit like Screenmend Window Screen Repair Kit for a quick fix and deterrent.

  • Sweep exterior walls. I know what you’re thinking–sweep my siding and other outdoor wall areas? Yep, that’s exactly what I mean.

If you sweep around your windows and doors, along your eaves, and all those other little nooks and crannies, you’re disrupting the path of any caterpillars or other insects that may have been making the trek toward the inside of your house.

If you already have caterpillars inside, take a look at our piece on what to do if they’re inside your house!

Indoor / Outdoor Plants Attract Caterpillars

I’m a plant collector, not going to lie, and I have the tendency to rearrange my indoor plant décor probably more than most.

When I get this itch, go through a thorough housecleaning, or am ready to re-pot some of my indoor plants, I sometimes switch them!

What I may not have realized though is that during their time outside, my indoor plants could become a temporary home for caterpillars, and then–you guessed it–I bring these caterpillars inside when I bring the plants in too.

How To Fix It

  • Keep indoor plants indoors. I know it’s a challenge, but try not to fall prey to the temptation of bringing your plants outside to repot them. Instead, you can try creating an indoor gardening area with all the tools and supplies you may need to trim, feed, and rehome your indoor plants.
  • Clear yourself a work area. If you don’t have space inside to repot your indoor plants, clear yourself a specific outdoor work area. Make sure you sweep the area clear before bringing out your plants. Then, once you’ve finished the task at hand, check your plants for any caterpillars, eggs, or other potential creatures before bringing them back inside your home.

Putting It All Together!

Caterpillars have the potential to do some serious damage to your garden plants, trees, and shrubs.

If you’re able to identify the source of the problem, using one of these methods, or a combination of several of these fixes, should allow you to see a decrease in caterpillar activity.

If after trying these methods you notice there hasn’t been a change, or even have noticed an increase in activity, please reach out to your local pest professional for additional help on getting rid of these pests. 

References

Fitzgerald, T. D. (1995). The tent caterpillars. Cornell University Press.

Wagner, D. L. (2010). Caterpillars of Eastern North America. In Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press.

Mols, C. M., & Visser, M. E. (2002). Great tits can reduce caterpillar damage in apple orchards. Journal of applied ecology39(6), 888-899.

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