Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle

The monarch butterfly life cycle has many stages. This article will examine each stage and help you fly through the monarch butterfly life cycle.


During its lifetime, an individual Monarch butterfly will have eight completely different outer surfaces in the monarch butterfly life cycle: each in a different size, shape, and color combination. The monarch butterfly life cycle is so quick, four generations will typically complete the life cycle in a year. If you were a monarch, that would mean your great-grandma, your grandma, your mom, and you would all be born in the same year.

Because most butterflies fly for up to two months, the generations overlap to some extent. The final generation (the individuals who hibernate) have a life span of up to eight months. Hibernation is when an animals body systems slow way down during the winter. It is almost like a long nap!

One adult female will typically produce 300 to 1100 eggs. A very small percentage of the eggs survive and continue onto the next stage, which tells us something about the survival prospects of a butterfly. The one, two, or ten eggs that become adult butterflies have literally been naturally selected as the fittest to survive out of a thousand.

The monarch butterfly life cycle includes four distinct phases: egg, larva (growing through five changes of skin, or instars), pupa, and adult.

Monarch Butterfly Eggs

If possible, the female Monarch will scout out milkweed plants to lay her eggs. She will place just one egg on each plant and will do this on up to 1,000 different milkweed plants! Why doesn’t she just lay all her eggs on the same plant? Well, it is pretty simple. The mother does not stay to babysit the eggs, nor does she help take care of her young once they hatch. Her only maternal act is to try to give each potential caterpillar enough food for it to eat without destroying its food plant. She lays them separately so the caterpillars will have enough to eat and not have to fight each other for food.

Because the mother monarch does not stick around, she may or may not ever see the baby butterflies hatch from the eggs. She has no noticeable instinct to watch her babies grow up, or interact with them in any way while they are growing.

Monarch butterfly eggs are whitish and egg-shaped. Typically the eggs are a little more than a millimeter long and a little less than a millimeter wide. Bigger butterflies tend to lay bigger eggs, and individuals tend to lay their biggest eggs first. You can see the egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf if one is present. Under a magnifying glass, you might even see the little ridges on the sides of the egg.

Monarch Butterfly Larvae

monarch butterfly larve

After the eggs are laid, caterpillars (larva) usually hatch in three to eight days starting the next stage in the monarch butterfly life cycle. Monarch hatchlings are nondescript pale greenish animals. Barely two millimeters long when they stretch themselves out of the eggshells, their translucent bodies grow up to six millimeters long during the few days they spend outgrowing their first, drab larval skins.

They are already very hungry caterpillars. As soon as they hatch, they are one the hunt for food. Luckily, the young caterpillars do not have to look far! The first thing they eat is their own empty eggshells, yum!

After consuming the egg they started their life inside, they will no longer need any animal protein. The caterpillars will forget their meal of an animal product and will become vegetarians. Their next mission will be to begin nibbling little holes in milkweed leaves. Milkweed will be their only food.

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The larva will begin to change colors and shape in this next small stage in the monarch butterfly life cycle. In the second instar/larva stage, Monarch caterpillars will have tiny bristly hairs on the skin that begins to show bands of yellow, black, and white. This skin grows up to a full centimeter long. Each of these changes of skin normally lasts less than a week.

The third larval skin is striped and begins to develop the distinctive tentacles a Monarch caterpillar uses to flail about and distract predators. To let the caterpillar continue on in the monarch butterfly life cycle, these tentacle will become useful. Some predators will bite off part of a tentacle, giving the caterpillar a chance to escape. During this stage, the caterpillar grows another half centimeter in length and begins to nibble around the edges of milkweed leaves as well as making holes in the middle of the plant.

By the third instar, Monarch caterpillars are starting to change the way they walk. Adult Monarchs have six legs but usually stand and walk on only four, holding their front legs up around their heads. Third instar stage caterpillars will develop this feature, with front legs noticeably shorter than the two other pairs of legs on the thorax. This is similar to most caterpillars. Most of the time, they also have four pairs of prolegs on the abdomen and a pair of claspers at the back end. They will also use their jaws to hold on to things while walking. The tentacles are short and may look like even more legs.

In the fourth instar, the caterpillars finally grow a full inch long. That is about as long as a paperclip! White spots are visible on their prolegs. The tentacles, which remain solid black, grow long enough to be whipped about.

In the final larval stage in the monarch butterfly life cycle, you will see a mature caterpillar. Monarch larvae can be 5 cm long or almost three inches. The caterpillars will weigh as much as 1.5 grams. The tentacles are now quite long and can be lashed dramatically. You may be wondering what being “lashed” means.

Tentacle lashing is basically a stress reaction. Caterpillars reared in captivity will exhibit this behavior more often than wild caterpillars do. Because this is a reaction that happens when a caterpillar is upset, it probably indicates that they feel stressed, rather than that they are waving hello. Wild Monarch caterpillars are likely to climb up onto your hand if you hold out a finger in front of them, while captivity-raised ones may go into fits of tentacle-whipping that probably indicate that they’d prefer to be left alone.

Over the years, humans have studied Caterpillars’ vision. Researchers have determined that they are nearsighted. What does this mean to us? Do we need to take the caterpillars to the eye doctor and purchase them some glasses? Of course not! What is does mean is that because caterpillars can only see very close up, they probably are not able to see all of a human at one time. They truly will not care what you are wearing, because they won’t be able to see your whole outfit!

Monarch caterpillars don’t seem to explore much of the world around them and may spend the whole caterpillar stage of their lives on one milkweed plant. What causes cage-reared caterpillars to seem more stressed than wild ones? It may be that they would much rather live alone. They can sense the presence of other caterpillars in the same cage. They did not ask to have a roommate! Humans are also close by, which again is different that what they are accustomed to in the wild.

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Monarch Butterfly Becomes Chrysalis
Monarch Caterpillar Becoming a Chrysalis

The Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis

All butterflies undergo an extreme makeover in the pupal stage of the monarch butterfly life cycle. When the caterpillars have eaten as much as they can, they stop eating and look for a safe place to rest. Some species of butterfly caterpillars spin cocoons of silk around themselves and then burrow into the ground or hide among dead leaves. Monarch caterpillars do none of these things. They will attach themselves to a little pad of silk to the underside of a sturdy surface. Then they will lock their claspers, hang upside down, curl their heads up toward their midsections, and hang tight waiting.

After about a day in this position, the final larval skin splits and falls off the caterpillar, revealing a smooth, rounded green chrysalis. The chrysalis is a case that goes over the entire body of the caterpillar. There will be no eyes, legs, or any other parts visible. The caterpillar will not be able to move. It shows no signs of life for about two weeks, during which the caterpillar inside is reshaping and transforming itself into a butterfly.

A few predators can attack Monarch chrysalides, these predators can be even smaller than the pupal butterfly. This is another good reason why if you raise butterflies in captivity, environmental scientists recommend not trying to rear a lot of them at one time. Tiny wasps will hunt them down and can bite through the chrysalis and kill the butterfly inside.

Monarch Emerging from a Chrysalis
Monarch Emerging from a Chrysalis

Adult Butterflies

The adult butterfly is sometimes called the imago in the monarch butterfly life cycle. The imago is the image by which the species is best known: orange and black wings with a black outline all tied together with white dots.

The newly transformed adult butterfly crawls slowly out of the back of its chrysalis looking dull, wet, and crumpled. The first experiences of struggling out through the chrysalis and resting on the empty shell for a few hours, are essential in order for the butterfly to have a healthy adult life in the monarch butterfly life cycle.

As you begin watching Monarch butterflies first steps post moving out of the chrysalis, The following will happen. The wings will develop and the colors will brighten. The butterfly will begin an exercise of stretches, flexes, but it will remain on its perch. The perch sitting can often be described as a lesson in patience. These butterflies have bigger, stronger wings than other species and take more time before they are ready to fly.

Adult Monarchs need a lot of space. They don’t form pair bonds; individuals usually mate more than once and flutter about looking for different partners. They will also search for different milkweed plants. Ecologists teach that this behavior pattern is typical of Monarchs. Monarchs need biodiversity to survive and should be allowed to roam naturally rather than farmed or bred in captivity.

While most big moths live entirely on fat stored up from the food they ate as caterpillars, adult butterflies require some food. They eat liquids slurped up through the proboscis, which looks like coarse, curly hair and functions as a drinking straw. They also touch food sources with their feet, which probably have some sense of taste or at least of succulence. How would you like to have taste buds on the bottom of your feet?

Monarchs get most of their nourishment from flower nectar during the adult stage of the monarch butterfly life cycle. They can take nectar from a variety of sources, but their favorite flowers grow on big, tall plants and bear drops of nectar in clumps of narrow tube-shaped petals.

Like many butterflies, Monarchs seem to prefer muddy, polluted water. They need biochemicals from milkweed, which are toxic to most animals, as part of their diet and probably get some benefits from the minerals in mud.

It’s interesting to watch Monarchs flutter and jostle among other butterflies, and other insects, at flowers and puddles. These other insects are neither predators nor competitors, so the Monarchs seem to tolerate their company more than they tolerate other Monarchs’ company. Monarchs like to crowd together only during hibernation. When two Monarchs do fly together, they are usually play-fighting. Males are usually a little bigger than females and sometimes manage to knock them to the ground, which is rougher play than is usually observed in butterflies. (Nevertheless, even Monarchs don’t hurt each other. One observer reported that about one out of three collision flights ended with the participants mating.)

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The Great Migration

Monarch butterflies are very popular among nature lovers in North America. One reason they are so well known is because they are seen in many different areas of the continent. How does this work? Monarchs move around in a migration pattern throughout the year!

These beautiful creatures will fly up to 2,500 miles in their trip! They begin in Canada, fly all the way though the United States, and end up in Mexico. They complete the mating stage to continue the monarch butterfly life cycle in the beginning or during their trip, somewhere in the USA or Canada. When they get to Mexico, they will stay there over winter and will hibernate.


Unfortunately, there are some threats to the monarch butterfly species. Because they travel to so many different places in the monarch butterfly life cycle, they are susceptible to habitat change caused by humans. Because of city expansion, monarchs are losing their natural habitat.

Other factors that are taking the natural habitat away from monarchs is climate change and farming. While farmers mean well when they spray milkweed to keep it out of their fields, it is detrimental to the monarch butterfly life cycle. Farmers are trying to feed humans and other animals by growing our food, and milkweed is a nuisance in doing so. Thus, they take precautions to get rid of the milkweed to help their own crops.

When farmers spray the milkweed, is takes out the home for the eggs in the monarch butterfly life cycle. Climate change is affecting the butterflies because the new weather patterns make it difficult for the animals to know when to migrate, after all the butterflies do now carry a calendar around! If the butterflies do not migrate at the proper time, they may get caught in a cold spell before they make it to Mexico and will die. This will put a halt to the monarch butterfly life cycle for the next generation.

Although the future may sound grim, there is hope for the monarch butterflies. There are efforts currently being made to plant more native plants that they feed on in the adult stage of the monarch butterfly life cycle. You can help by planting wild flowers in your flower beds, gardens, or even just putting a pot with a few plants outside! If you have milkweed, you can also make sure you do not destroy it and leave a place for the eggs to sit in the monarch butterfly life cycle.

If you have enjoyed this article and would like to color your own butterfly, click here for printable Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle Coloring Pages. You can find more butterflies to learn about there.

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