The garden tiger moth and its caterpillar are vividly coloured creatures once common in Europe but quite rare in North America. Numbers have also been declining in Europe since the end of the 20th century. The reason larval and adult forms have such striking colours is because they are toxic. The caterpillar can also sting.
The moths lay eggs from late spring to early fall. Unlike many moths, which overwinter as pupae, garden tiger moths overwinter as caterpillars. The caterpillars then pupate and emerge as moths the following spring.
The garden tiger moth caterpillar eats quite a wide range of plants. Among the host plants are nettles, dandelions, docks, blackberries and strawberries. The caterpillars do not congregate in large groups and rarely kill the plant they feed on, although they might weaken it.
Because most of the host plants for this species are considered weeds, this moth is not a pest species. If you find the caterpillar feeding on a plant you'd rather it didn't, simply pick it off and place on a more appropriate host. Don't handle the caterpillars with your bare hands, as the spines can cause a rash. The best way to handle the caterpillars is to flick or push them into a plastic container with a paintbrush.
Raising the Caterpillar
The furry appearance of the caterpillar and beautiful colours of the moth make this a rewarding species for children to rear. A large plastic box covered with cheesecloth held on with an elastic band makes an appropriate house. The caterpillar needs an ample supply of suitable leaves, preferably those from the type of plant the caterpillar was found on and a twig to pupate on. Once the moth emerges and has been admired and photographed, it is safe to release, because it is not a pest species. In fact, because numbers are falling, the species may need help in some places.