Skip to main content

Striped Caterpillars: An Identification Guide (With Photos)

GreenMind publishes authoritative and detailed guides to the things you're curious about.

The striped caterpillar of the American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis

The striped caterpillar of the American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis

Caterpillar With Stripes: Species Guide

This guide will help you identify the striped caterpillar that you found. Identification of caterpillars, like all insect species, relies on certain characteristics, and it can be difficult to tell them apart. This quick and easy guide to striped caterpillars is here to help.

All insects have a scientific name, and many have a common or popular name. For example, the insect with the scientific name Papilio glaucus is commonly known as "the tiger swallowtail butterfly." This guide will give you both the scientific and the popular name, if there is one.

This caterpillar identification guide will also answer the following key questions:

  • Does it sting? Some caterpillars have stinging hairs and spines and need to be handled very carefully. Striped caterpillars are no exception.
  • What does it eat? Every caterpillar has specific trees and plants that it eats.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Most caterpillars do little to no damage, but a few pest species can really destroy a garden—or even a forest. In fact, a few species (some with stripes) need to be reported to authorities to protect the local environment.
  • Is it rare? Possibly! The striped caterpillar you found may be an unusual species!
  • What does it turn into? Caterpillars are the immature form of butterflies and moths. Your striped caterpillar will turn into some kind of winged adult, some of which are very beautiful.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? It's possible to keep a caterpillar and raise it to a moth or butterfly. You will need to know what it eats, provide an adequate habitat, and be patient while it grows and changes into its mature form.

Identification Chart for Spiny Caterpillar Guide

NameIdentificationHabits

Monarch

Yellow and black stripes; black tentacles

Queen

Similar to monarch

Found only on milkweed

Black swallowtail

Black spots in green-yellow bands

Southern version of the monarch

Cinnabar moth

Bright yellow and black horizontal strips

Western; feeds in groups

Striped Garden Caterpillar

Variable; look for stripe along side

Very common on garden plants

Orange-striped oakworm

Dark brown with orange stripes; spines

Found on ground in late summer

Giant sphinx

Huge caterpillar with bright black and yellow horizontal stripes

Feeds on frangipani; southern; can bite!

Zebra caterpillar

Thin black and yellow vertical side stripes along sides

Feeds on marsh plants; can swim

Brown-hooded owlet

Very similar to zebra cateprillar

Eats asters; many similar species

White-lined sphinx

Variable; some have bright green/black stripe

Common on many garden plants

Azalea caterpillar

Thin bright longitudinal stripes

Feeds in groups on azaleas; can be a pest

Angle shades moth

Green with pale longitudinal line

Camouflaged larve and moth; seldom seen

Cross-striped cabbagworm

Thin horizontal stripes on top of body

Can be a pest on cabbage

American painted lady

Black with horizontal striped bands

Often found on asters; common

Gulf fritillary

Orange and gray striped; spines

Southern; feeds on passion vine

Rosy maple moth

Green with pale green longitudinal stripes

Not often found; moth is pink and yellow

16 Caterpillars With Stripes Common in North America

  1. The Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)
  2. The Queen Caterpillar (Danaus gilippus)
  3. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)
  4. Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
  5. Striped Garden Caterpillar (Trichordestra legitima)
  6. Orange-Striped Oakworm (Anisota senatoria)
  7. Giant Sphinx (Pseudosphinx tetrio)
  8. Zebra Caterpillar (Melanchra picta)
  9. Brown-Hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis)
  10. White-Lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)
  11. Azalea Caterpillar (Datana major)
  12. Angle Shades Moth (Phlogophora meticulosa)
  13. Cross-Striped Cabbage Worm (Evergestis rimosalis)
  14. American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
  15. Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
  16. Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)

Continue scrolling for more information about each of these striped insects, along with photos of the caterpillars and the butterflies or moths they become.

Note: At the end of this article, you will also find information about how to safely control any pest caterpillars that may be plaguing your garden.

1. The Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)

The iconic butterfly has an equally iconic caterpillar. The adults are highly photogenic, and their well-documented migrations—in which they wind up wintering in the millions in a small patch of forest in Mexico—have captured the attention and awareness of people who otherwise know little about butterflies.

This cool, striped caterpillar feeds only on milkweed, with an apparent preference for swamp milkweed. The adults lay eggs on the plant and the caterpillars eat the leaves. It's thought that the toxic sap of the milkweed plant (the "milk") imparts toxicity to the caterpillars, protecting them from predators. But at in my experience, at least, they're not protected from wasps and other insect predators; I have seen them wipe out an entire population from my backyard milkweed patch.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, these caterpillars are harmless.
  • What does it eat? Exclusively milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not much, although they do eat leaves and young flowers.
  • Is it rare? No, although the species is challenged by industrial agriculture, since pesticide run-off kills milkweeds.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the big, beautiful monarch butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

2. The Queen Caterpillar (Danaus gilippus)

This butterfly is a lesser-known relative of the more wide-spread monarch butterfly (above). The queen occurs in the southern United States, down through Mexico and into Central America, where it is one of the most common species to be found (whereas the monarch is very seldom seen). Interestingly, in areas where the queen is more common than the monarch, a butterfly called "the viceroy" that mimics the monarch has developed to mimic the queen instead.

The queen resembles the monarch but is a darker "burnt-orange" color and is a bit smaller. The caterpillar is also similar to the monarch but has more sharply defined stripes and an extra pair of tentacles on the back.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, these caterpillars are harmless.
  • What does it eat? Exclusively milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not much, although they do eat leaves and young flowers.
  • Is it rare? No, although the species is not typically found in northern areas.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the big, beautiful queen butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

3. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)

Occasionally confused with monarch caterpillars by people who aren't looking too closely, this caterpillar has a fascinating natural history of its own. They eat carrots, parsley, dill, and occasionally rue, which may give them chemical protection due to those plants' bad-tasting sap.

Like all swallowtail caterpillars, this species has a forked, bad-smelling organ called an osmeterium that it can evert from behind its head. This organ looks like a snake's tongue and may deter predators.

The butterfly this cat becomes is big and beautiful and can often be seen visiting gardens to lay eggs on leaves.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Dill, carrot, parsley, and rue
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not really, although if you eat a lot of parsley you may find yourself competing with them.
  • Is it rare? No.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

4. Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

This moth occurred only in Europe before it was introduced into New Zealand, Australia, and North America, primarily as a measure to control ragwort. This has proven to be effective, as the caterpillars are voracious feeders on this plant and can keep it from spreading as fast as it might. They eat so much that they often strip a patch of ragwort of all of its leaves . . . and then begin eating each other!

The striking black-and-yellow caterpillar turns into a truly beautiful moth, with bright scarlet markings on rich brown wings (although occasional yellow-marked individuals have been known to occur). The moth flies during the day, and its bright colors suggest that it's protected from predators by the illusion of having a bad taste (remember the monarch).

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Ragworts, and a lot of them.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, but that's kind of the idea.
  • Is it rare? It has been fairly recently introduced in the Pacific Northwest.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful scarlet-and-gray moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, theoretically.

5. Striped Garden Caterpillar (Trichordestra legitima)

This caterpillar is among the most commonly encountered garden "worms." It belongs to a large family of similar species, and many of them are quite commonly found; in fact, it's best to think of this caterpillar as a group of nearly identical insects that will all take a bite out of your garden.

The striped garden caterpillar eats almost anything, and close relatives are those caterpillars you sometimes find munching away inside an ear of corn. There are several ways to control these common garden pests, but the one I prefer is picking them off and smashing them into your compost pile. (For more information about how to control pests, scroll to the bottom of this article.)

The moth that these caterpillars grow up to be is a rather plain brown number that you will often see flying around your porch lights. It takes a specialist to tell some of the moths apart.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Almost anything in your garden.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a medium-sized brown moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you really want to.