Have you ever observed a caterpillar transform slowly but surely into a butterfly? Maybe not from up close, but you’ve surely heard of it. The butterfly life cycle is a truly mesmerizing process--one that starts from a tiny egg.
You may think of butterflies as brightly-colored creatures, displaying their beauty wherever they go.
But butterflies do much more than just add color and beauty to gardens. They pollinate plants! This helps vegetables, fruits, and flowers to produce new seeds.
Start by educating yourself and your child about the butterfly life cycle. That’s what this article is all about--the four life stages of a butterfly, from an egg to an adult butterfly.
You’ll get to read some fun butterfly facts along the way. And if you’ve got curious kids around with tons of questions, we’ve come up with a fun and easy way to explain the butterfly life cycle to them.
We've also added some videos that show the entire process a butterfly goes through to become what it is. So what are you waiting for? Read on.
What Is the Life Cycle of a Butterfly?
Butterflies go through four major stages of transformation before they finally become the fab flyers with brightly-colored wings we know. Some people also like to observe this transformation as a hobby.
The butterfly life cycle has long captured people’s interest. And if you have found yourself captivated by the process, too, you’ve landed in the right place.
These delicate and graceful creatures start life as a tiny egg, sometimes as tiny as a pinhead. When the egg hatches, out comes a caterpillar.
You must have seen caterpillars creating a nuisance in your garden--like munching on the leaves of your beloved plants.
But you must forgive them. This stage focuses on growth and the caterpillar needs to constantly feed itself for the next stage. That’s the pupa stage–time for the caterpillar to completely change itself.
In the warm and safe pupate, a kind of a vessel, the caterpillar’s body liquefies itself. It then begins to slowly restructure, forming the butterfly organs one by one.
The result is an adult butterfly that emerges from the pupate with colorful, scaly wings.
But the butterfly is not yet ready for its first flight. It will linger on for an hour or so. After drying its wings and pumping blood into them, the butterfly begins to fly.
And what happens next? It eats, drinks, rests, and looks for a mate to begin the cycle all over again.
Good to know: This entire process of transformation from an egg to a butterfly is called metamorphosis. It comes from three Greek words: meta-morph-osis. “Meta” means “change”, “morph” is for “shape", and the suffix “osis” means “process”.
Butterfly Life Cycle Stages Explained
Butterflies conjure up images of sunshine, flowery meadows, and summer gardens blooming with life. With their varying colors and patterns, butterflies are hard to ignore.
Equally interesting is the transformation that each butterfly goes through to become the winged creature we love.
You know by now that the butterfly life cycle has four different stages. Each stage differs greatly in purpose and appearance.
Let’s now explore the four stages, from the egg to the air.
Butterfly Life Cycle Stage 1: Egg
No surprise, it all starts from an egg. The female butterfly lays eggs on leaves or stems of plants. And can you imagine how many? Well, an average of between 100 to 300. Whew!
The eggs vary in size--some are 3 mm in diameter, others are smaller than the tip of a pencil. They can be oval or round; smooth or textured; yellow, white, or green, depending on the species.
To protect the eggs, the mother butterfly uses a glue-like substance that sticks them to the plant leaf.
That way, the eggs cannot be separated from the leaf. What’s more, each egg has a hard outer shell that protects the caterpillar inside.
Each egg has a small, funnel-shaped opening for water and air. There are also enough nutrients inside the egg to nourish the developing caterpillar.
After 3 to 8 days, depending on the temperature and season, the egg hatches, and out comes a tiny, tiny caterpillar.
Of the hundreds of eggs laid, only a few reach adulthood. Some either rot or dry out. Others are eaten by predators such as spiders and birds.
Good to know: Butterflies generally lay their eggs on the underside of a leaf. This way, the eggs are better protected and not easily visible to predators.
Butterfly Life Cycle Stage 2: Caterpillar
Caterpillars, also called larvae, look like worms, have six pairs of eyes, and lots of legs. Not the most beautiful of creatures, eh? But they are simply the majestic butterflies of tomorrow caged in worm-like bodies.
After hatching, some newborn caterpillars eat their own shells as their first meal. Yuck or no? Don’t worry, most caterpillars eat parts of the leaf or stem that the eggs were laid on.
They may look small, but caterpillars have humongous appetites. All they do in this stage is chomp on leaves and other plant parts.
That’s because they will need plenty of energy for when it’s time to build a cocoon and complete their metamorphosis.
Survival is also challenging for caterpillars. Birds and spiders are on the constant lookout for the fat and healthy ones.
But they have creative ways when it comes to self-defense. Some caterpillars look like bird droppings. Others mimic twigs.
Caterpillars also shed their skin four to five times. They eat, grow, and outgrow their old skin, revealing a larger skin underneath.
Fact: An adult caterpillar can grow over 100 times its original size than when it first emerged from its egg. And its weight can be as much as 1,000 times more. Wow!
Butterfly Life Cycle Stage 3: Pupa
Here’s the most interesting stage in the butterfly life cycle–the stage for a complete change. Once fully grown, the caterpillar stops eating and becomes a pupa.
The pupa, also known as a chrysalis, is a kind of a vessel within which the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. You can also imagine it as a warm and cozy house.
First, the caterpillar begins to look for a safe and isolated place to pupate. It can be under a tree branch, a twig, hidden in leaves, or it can also be buried underground. It then starts spinning a silk pad to cocoon itself.
Cocoons can be hard or soft, translucent or opaque. And they come in a wide variety of colors, from yellow to green, brown, gold, or silver.
From the outside, a pupa may not appear much. But there’s a lot happening on the inside. The caterpillar’s body breaks down on a cellular level and becomes a nutrient-rich soup of sorts.
It then begins to reconstruct itself. Slowly, butterfly wings, eyes, antennae, mouth parts, and other organs are formed. The metamorphosis consumes so much energy that the pupa loses nearly half of its weight.
Did you know: Pupas are generally immobile. So it’s important for them to be camouflaged into the environment. But some pupas have the ability to wiggle a little. They also make a hissing sound to frighten predators.
Butterfly Life Cycle Stage 4: Butterfly
This stage is what most of us imagine when we think of butterflies. But there’s much that happens here that we may have not known earlier.
By now, the caterpillar is finally done changing itself–from the antenna to abdomen. The result? A colorful winged butterfly! If you’re lucky, you may even get to watch as the butterfly first emerges from the pupa.
The time it takes to break through the pupa varies from a few days to almost a year, depending on the species. This stage is also the stage for reproduction, as the butterfly is sexually mature.
Good to know: Butterfly wings are actually transparent. They are covered with thousands of tiny scales. All they have to do is reflect light to make the different colors we see.
The pupa will split open but the butterfly will not take off just yet. Why? Because the butterfly’s wings are wet, soft, and crinkled.
It will first hang with its wings down to dry them. It will also begin pumping a liquid into them so that they straighten out and become strong.
It generally takes only 3 to 4 hours for an emerging butterfly to master the art of flying. Pretty impressive, right?
Once fit for flight, the adult butterfly takes to the air in search of nectar to feed on. Most adult butterflies live for only 2 or 3 weeks. Only some species that hibernate during the winter live several months.
The main job of an adult butterfly is to look for a mate. Flying comes in handy. They can travel distances and find the right host plant to lay eggs in.
And that’s the complete butterfly life cycle, ready once more to start all over again.
Butterfly Life Cycle Video
You may not have been lucky enough to get to see a caterpillar turn into a butterfly in your own garden. But that shouldn’t upset you. You can still virtually watch the magical transformation below.
A time-lapse video is educational, mesmerizing to watch, and of course, it saves you time. You can also show it to your curious kids. It can help them understand the process better.
Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
Before we start looking at the monarch butterfly life cycle, there are two important questions to answer. One, what is a monarch butterfly? And two, why is it called a “monarch”?
A monarch butterfly is a large and brilliantly-colored butterfly with deep orange wings laced with black, and white spots along the edges. Yes, you have probably seen this common butterfly in your garden now and then.
The name monarch is believed to have been given to it in honor of King William III of England. That’s because the butterfly’s primary color is the same as that of the king's secondary title–Prince of Orange.
But that’s not the only reason for being given this regal name. Monarch butterflies are determined and strong. They are able to fly some 2,500 miles during their migratory period. How awesome is that?
Now let’s take a look at their life cycle.
Monarch butterflies, too, start with an egg and undergo a total of 4 life cycles. The adult butterfly lays each of her cream-colored eggs individually on milkweed plants. Interestingly, monarch caterpillars only munch on milkweed.
The plant provides both food and shelter for the caterpillar. It eats, grows, sheds its skin, and becomes almost 2,000 times its original weight.
After about two weeks, the caterpillar is ready to enter the pupa stage. It crawls away from the milkweed plant and looks for a secure location.
There, it weaves a silk pad, like any other caterpillar, and hangs itself upside-down, forming a J-shape.
The monarch can be inside the pupa for as long as two weeks. And then emerges the orange- and black-winged adult monarch butterfly.
It dries its wings, pumps liquid into them, and sets out in search of the right food and mate.
Good to know: Monarch butterflies that emerge in fall know “winter is coming”. They migrate towards the warm south, flying up to 3,000 miles.
Butterfly Life Cycle for Kids
The butterfly life cycle is a curiosity for kids. They have all sorts of questions to ask–from what a caterpillar eats to how it turns into a butterfly. But explaining the process to your kids does not have to be too technical or boring.
You can tell them a fun and educative story like this one:
It’s the story of a beautiful mother butterfly with large, blue, and purple wings. She lays a tiny egg on a big green leaf. After a few days, the egg hatches, and out comes a baby caterpillar.
The caterpillar likes to eat green leaves. She eats little by little every day and slowly becomes bigger and stronger. After eating too much, her stomach gets full. Now she feels tired and wants to rest.
So she starts looking for a place to sleep. And what kind of a place? A quiet place where no one can disturb her. Then she starts weaving, like grandma. She makes a soft and silky sleeping bag to rest in.
It is warm and cozy inside the sleeping bag. The caterpillar loves it and starts making herself prettier. She makes two antennas, two colorful wings, a tiny mouth, a stomach, and tiny hands and legs.
And when she comes out of the sleeping bag, she has become a beautiful butterfly with blue and purple wings, just like her mother.
She flies from flower to flower, drinking their yummy juice. And if children behave well, she also comes to sit on their fingers.
Idea: How about a fun, coloring activity for kids? Make them draw an egg, caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly. Then ask them to color these drawings. This easy activity will help them understand the butterfly life cycle better.
Here's also a butterfly life cycle video you may want to show them.
Common Questions About the Life Cycle of a Butterfly
Butterflies are some of the most loved insects around--blame it on their colors and airy grace?
Simply looking at a butterfly flutter past you and perch on a daisy and dahlia is a joy. Plus, their metamorphosis is a captivating and curious process.
Below are the most frequently asked questions about the butterfly life cycle. They may cover some of your curious questions as well. Read on.
What are the stages of a butterfly life cycle?
The caterpillar cocoons itself and becomes a pupa from which an adult butterfly finally emerges. Learn more about the fascinating butterfly life cycle stages.
How do you explain the life cycle of a butterfly to preschoolers?
Here’s a fun way to explain the butterfly life cycle to kids. It will catch their interest and also help educate them.
What butterfly lives for 24 hours?
Also, no butterfly can live for more than one year. The mourning cloak butterfly that hatches in early summer may live almost a year. Monarch butterflies may live up to six months.
What time of year do caterpillars turn into butterflies?
Some butterflies also lay eggs in the colder months. The newly-hatched caterpillars don't even take time to eat. They enter a form of hibernation and burrow into the soil to stay alive until spring. They turn into butterflies in early spring.
What You Can Learn from the Butterfly Life Cycle
Looking at a tiny caterpillar transform into a butterfly is mesmerizing. It’s a wonderful show of nature. But butterflies are also teachers in disguise. They teach many valuable lessons through their transformation.
What do we mean by that?
Observe a caterpillar morph slowly into a beautiful butterfly. There is a lesson of patience to be learned right there. All good things come when the time is right.
The caterpillar, without complaining, does what it ought to, waits patiently in its cocoon till it finally emerges as a butterfly.
And of course, caterpillars also teach that eating is growing. They keep eating until they are ready for the next phase of life. It helps them grow.
Similarly, people have to keep on learning in order for their emotional growth to happen.
You can also learn the importance of solitude from a pupa. Solitude gives the pupa body the space to take an internal journey.
Solitude is important for the big transition that’s about to happen in the life of a pupa. Maybe solitude is important for our transition, too?
Butterflies also teach us to embrace change. A butterfly has to change in every stage to finally become itself.
It is, of course, easier said than done, but sometimes, change can bring us closer to our true selves. Besides, wouldn’t life be boring without change?
Carpe diem. That’s another lesson to be learned from these beauties. Butterflies don’t have too long to live, but they make sure to live every moment as best as they can.
Don’t forget to ask yourself how you can live more in the now, like butterflies.
Butterflies also know just how to appreciate the little things in life. They appreciate sunlight, flowers, trees, and water.
They enjoy the life they’re given and bring joy to others as well. So pause and appreciate all that you have around you.
Butterflies also teach the value of being light and free. With not a worry in the world, they flutter from one flower to the next. They are spontaneous and go wherever their wings take them. Only, one needs to have the courage to fly.
These are some precious lessons to learn from the butterfly life cycle. If you can think of a few more, do mention them in the comments section below. We’d love to read what you think.
Time to Attract Some Butterflies to Your Garden
Merely looking at butterflies flutter past your backyard or flowery meadow is a joy. It can uplift your spirits and improve your mental health. That’s the power of these tiny winged beauties.
But sadly, the population of these fragile beings is in decline. It goes without saying that we need to protect them. And you can do your small bit, too. How?
Now that you have a better understanding of the butterfly life cycle, why not attract more of these delicate creatures to your garden? That way you can make their life easier--and help the environment in the process.
By creating a playground for them in your own garden. Grow daisies, snapdragons, crepe myrtle, lavender, wattles, and more. Butterflies will surely flutter awhile in your garden to thank you in return.
And if you have more questions about these colorful, winged creatures and their airy ways, feel free to ask, even if you feel a few butterflies fluttering in your stomach. We'd love to hear from you!
See you next post!