Butterfly Life Cycle

Let’s explore a butterfly life cycle in detail, including all four stages of life. All butterflies have “complete metamorphosis.” To grow into an adult they go through 4 stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Each stage has a different goal – for instance, caterpillars need to eat a lot, and adults need to reproduce. Depending on the type of butterfly, the life cycle of a butterfly may take anywhere from one month to a whole year. You can print out this Butterfly Life Cycle coloring page to follow along as we talk about the 4 stages. 

Butterfly Metamorphosis

Caterpillar Chrysalis Adult

The First Stage: The Egg

Butterfly eggs
Butterfly Eggs on a Leaf

A butterfly starts life as a very small, round, oval or cylindrical egg.  The coolest thing about butterfly eggs, especially monarch butterfly eggs, is that if you look close enough you can actually see the tiny caterpillar growing inside of it. Some butterfly eggs may be round, some oval and some may be ribbed while others may have other features. The egg shape depends on the type of butterfly that laid the egg. 

Butterfly eggs are usually laid on the leaves of plants, so if you are actively searching for these very tiny eggs, you will have to take some time and examine quite a few leaves in order to find some. 

The Second Stage: The Larva (Caterpillar) 

Butterfly Caterpillar
Butterfly Caterpillar

When the egg finally hatches, most of you would expect for a butterfly to emerge, right?  Well, not exactly.  In the butterfly’s life cycle, there are four stages and this is only the second stage.  Butterfly larvae are actually what we call caterpillars. Caterpillars do not stay in this stage for very long and mostly, in this stage all they do is eat.   

READ MORE:  Buckeye Butterfly Caterpillar

When the egg hatches, the caterpillar will start his work and eat the leaf they were born onto. This is really important because the mother butterfly needs to lay her eggs on the type of leaf the caterpillar will eat – each caterpillar type likes only certain types of leaves. Since they are tiny and can not travel to a new plant, the caterpillar needs to hatch on the kind of leaf it wants to eat.   

Caterpillars need to eat and eat so they can grow quickly. When a caterpillar is born, they are extremely small. When they start eating, they instantly start growing and expanding.  Their exoskeleton (skin) does not stretch or grow, so they grow by “molting” (sheding the outgrown skin) several times while it grows. 

The Third Stage: Pupa (Chrysalis)

Caterpillar Becoming a Chrysalis
Caterpillar Becoming a Chrysalis

The pupa stage is one of the coolest stages of a butterfly’s life.  As soon as a caterpillar is done growing and they have reached their full length/weight, they form themselves into a pupa, also known as a chrysalis.  From the outside of the pupa, it looks as if the caterpillar may just be resting, but the inside is where all of the action is.  Inside of the pupa, the caterpillar is rapidly changingNow, as most people know, caterpillars are short, stubby and have no wings at all. 

Within the chrysalis the old body parts of the caterpillar are undergoing a remarkable transformation, called ‘metamorphosis,’ to become the beautiful parts that make up the butterfly that will emerge. Tissue, limbs and organs of a caterpillar have all been changed by the time the pupa is finished, and is now ready for the final stage of a butterfly’s life cycle. 

READ MORE:  List of Butterflies in California

The Fourth Stage: Adult Butterfly

Butterfly Emerging from a Chrysalis
Butterfly Emerging from a Chrysalis

Finally, when the caterpillar has done all of its forming and changing inside the pupa, if you are lucky, you will get to see an adult butterfly emerge.  When the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis, both of the wings are going to be soft and folded against its body. This is because the butterfly had to fit all its new parts inside of the pupa.

As soon as the butterfly has rested after coming out of the chrysalis, it will pump blood into the wings in order to get them working and flapping – then they get to fly.  Usually within a three or four-hour period, the butterfly will master flying and will search for a mate in order to reproduce.  

When in the fourth and final stage of their lives, adult butterflies are constantly on the look out to reproduce and when a female lays their eggs on some leaves, the butterfly life cycle will start all over. 

How Can You See The Butterfly Life Cycle?

These kids got to observe live Painted Lady caterpillars turn into Butterflies
These kids got to observe live Painted Lady caterpillars turn into Butterflies.

There are many different ways that you can catch this miracle happen right before your eyes, for instance, there are live butterfly kits that come with caterpillars so you can see this amazing transformation right in front of you! 

These live butterfly kits are amazing for a science project or simply for children to learn all about the ever-changing caterpillar and the butterfly’s life cycle in general.  One of the greatest things about these live butterfly kits is the fact that after the butterflies hatch out of their pupas, you can observe them for a little while and then let them go!   

READ MORE:  Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle

Letting your butterflies go is not only a satisfying experience but it is one that is very important to teach your children.  Children have to learn that animals do not need to be locked up and while it is okay to observe them sometimes, it is always best to let nature take its course.   

Butterfly Kit School
Teachers can buy a live School Size Painted Lady Butterfly raising kit

Now that you have learned all about the butterfly life cycle, why don’t you teach someone else?  This amazing life cycle is a great lesson for anyone to learn and it is not only a lesson that involves an ever-changing insect, but it is one that we can apply to ourselves as well.  For instance, when a child is feeling down on themselves, you can explain to them that not only do people change inside every day, but insects like the butterfly do too. 

The butterfly life cycle is a great story to tell anyone and everyone and it is even better to observe it happen right in front of you.  Live butterfly kits allow you to see for yourself the entire life cycle of this incredible creature and allows your children to learn more and more about these beautiful insects!

You can also find out about the dragonfly life cycle, frog life cycle and ladybug life cycle and more information across Learn About Nature.

Butterfly Biology Links

Butterfly Life Cycle Coloring PageFREE butterfly life cycle coloring page for you to print out and color in!
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle Coloring PageFREE Monarch butterfly life cycle coloring page for you to print out and color in!
Berkeley’s Anise SwallowtailsLots of pictures of the stages of the Anise Swallowtail butterfly life cycle with emphasis on caterpillars and raising them, but many butterfly pictures as well. One of the best written and documented butterfly rearing sites out there. Also fun to read!!
Captain’s European Butterfly GuideProvides a series of pages with photos outlining the butterfly life cycle process from start to finish.
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle PicturesGreat article with images about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Did you know they have 4 generations a year, and that the last one migrates up to 2,500 miles?
Monarch Butterfly Biology and MigrationA gateway to news, information, activities, and resources about the biology and conservation of this fascinating insect.

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