The lifecycle of a butterfly is rather amazing. All species of butterfly go through a “complete metamorphosis,” meaning it completes four stages of development. These stages are the egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
The first stage is the egg stage. Butterfly eggs vary in shape from rounded to cylindrical. The shape of the egg depends on the butterfly that laid it. If you are very determined and observant, you may be lucky enough to find some butterfly eggs. They are usually laid on the leaves of plants, but they are very small. If you happen to find some, you will be able to see the tiny creatures growing inside.
Once the egg hatches, a caterpillar is born. The only job the caterpillar has is to eat! The first thing that caterpillars eat is the leaf that they were born on. When they are very small, it is hard for caterpillars to travel, so they eat what is closest to them. Therefore, it is very important that the mother butterfly lay her eggs on the type of plant the caterpillars will want to eat—believe it or not, each type of caterpillar prefers certain leaves. They are pretty picky eaters! With all of the eating the caterpillars do, they grow very quickly. Their bodies do not grow along with them like yours does, so they shed their skin several times (in a process called “molting”) as they get bigger. Some can grow up to 100 times their size! Can you imagine how big you would be if you grew that fast? The caterpillar stage does not last for very long—usually only a week or two.
Once a caterpillar has grown to its full size, they form themselves into a pupa—or chrysalis. It is like an envelope that the caterpillar forms around itself. It is usually hanging upside down on a leaf or a branch during this time but some bury themselves underground. It looks like nothing is happening, but this is where the magic of a butterfly takes place. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar is undergoing a metamorphosis, or transformation. The duration of this metamorphosis depends on the type of butterfly. Most take a few weeks but some take a month. There are a couple of species that stay in the pupal stage for two years! Caterpillars don’t have wings but their bodies and tissues are slowly forming the features we will recognize as that of a butterfly when it finally emerges.
Finally, when the caterpillar is done changing, it will emerge from the pupa as a beautiful winged butterfly. The job of the butterfly is to find a mate and to lay eggs. Some butterflies have a long tongue that they can use to feed on nectar from plants and flowers, but others don’t eat anything at all! Most species of butterfly live for one to two weeks. However, there are some species that hibernate during the winter—and those species can live for several months. The females lay their eggs and it starts the lifecycle all over again!