Butterfly life cycle phases and characteristics (with pictures)

Philip Kelley
Butterfly life cycle phases and characteristics (with pictures)

The butterfly life cycle It begins when the female butterfly lays her eggs and ends with the death of the butterfly, which can live for approximately 30 days. Butterflies are the insects that we usually recognize by the striking colors and patterns of their showy wings..

From hatch to the beautiful insects we see roaming gardens, butterflies go through 4 stages: an egg, a larva or caterpillar, a pupa, and the adult..

Butterflies belong to the group of invertebrates, specifically the phylum Arthropoda and the subphylum Hexapoda, which includes all arthropods that have 6 legs. Among the hexapods, butterflies are part of the class Insecta, one of the most important of the group, and to the order Lepidoptera.

There are more than 120,000 species of Lepidoptera and these insects are characterized, among many things, by their two pairs of colorful wings, the long proboscis that they use to suck nectar when feeding on flowers, and by the small scales that cover their head, body, legs and wings.


Illustration of metaphormosis

Most insect organisms have relatively complex life cycles that involve the transition between the four important phases we mentioned just now: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and the adult's.

We know this transition as metamorphosis, which means "shape change", and it is a very important biological phenomenon for these and other organisms such as amphibians, for example, by which organisms develop "in stages".

In both butterflies and other insects, metamorphosis allows the separation of three different physiological processes during the life cycle: the increase, the transformation and the reproduction

The tiny embryo in the egg it grows to become the caterpillar that, feeding vigorously, will also grow to form the pupa. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transform in the colorful adult that we see flying among the flowers, which is the one that has the ability to breed.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar eating

Each species of butterfly has eggs, caterpillars, pupae, and adults with very different characteristics, habits, and behaviors, making each emergence of an adult a surprise to the inexperienced eyes of accidental observers..

The phases of the butterfly life cycle

The metamorphosis of butterflies is also known as complete metamorphosis or holometabola metamorphosis and is characterized by the fact that the juveniles that hatch from the eggs are completely different from the adult stage, the opposite of what happens with incomplete metamorphosis, where the juveniles look like miniature adults..

All insects with complete metamorphosis go through the 4 stages of which we have spoken: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

1 egg

Eggs of a butterfly on a leaf

The life cycle of butterflies begins with a female laying her eggs somewhere, usually on the underside of leaves or on the stems of some plant. Eggs are generally very small and can have different textures, colors and structures depending on the species..

During a time, the embryos inside the eggs grow, with which the larvae develop that will later hatch and leave these structures.

The number of eggs that a female lays can vary from a few hundred to thousands, which can all be together in a kind of "mass" covered with a fragment of the mother's body, or they can be widely dispersed among themselves..

The time it takes for the larvae to "emerge" from the eggs also varies greatly depending on the species considered, and may take a few weeks or even full seasons or seasons (winter, spring, summer, autumn)..

2- Caterpillar or larva

Caterpillar of a monarch butterfly

After the time necessary for their development has elapsed and the environmental and physiological conditions are favorable, the caterpillars leave the eggs and discover the plant world that surrounds them..

In butterflies and other insects we also know caterpillars as larvae and, like adults, they often have striking shapes and coloring patterns on the thin skin that covers them.

In zoology, the term "larva" is used to define the immature stages of any invertebrate animal, although some entomologists (zoologists dedicated to the study of insects) only use it to refer to young insects that in their life cycle pass later by a pupal stage.

Many authors consider that caterpillars are feeding “systems” or “machines”, since it is the most energy-demanding phase of development, since it is where most of the growth occurs and, therefore, where they need to feed more (they have an insatiable appetite).

Does a caterpillar look like a butterfly?

A caterpillar

What is surprising about the process of complete metamorphosis in insects, and very particularly in butterflies, is perhaps how different the egg, caterpillar and pupa are from the adult individual..

Therefore, the answer to this question is not, a caterpillar does not look (to the naked eye) like an adult butterfly:

- Caterpillars do not have a suction apparatus, but instead feed using a chewing apparatus with which they crush the leaves on which they feed before digesting them.

- Caterpillars don't have wings, but butterflies do.

- Caterpillars have 3 pairs of true legs and an additional 5 pairs of “pro-legs” that later lose.

- Caterpillars have a hairy cover that protects them from potential predators, but this cuticle is thin and very flexible..

- Caterpillars can shed the cuticle 4-5 times during growth and as it pupates; the molting process of caterpillars is known as ecdysis.

- The caterpillars can increase up to 100 times their size in relation to the size they were when they first left the egg.

Butterflies remain as caterpillars for between 2 and 5 weeks and this phase of metamorphosis is one of the most delicate, since it is the one with the highest mortality rate, either due to environmental conditions or because they are prey to different predators..

We also have to mention that as they grow and move through the plants on which they feed, the larvae continuously produce threads of a kind of silk-like material, with which they adhere more easily to surfaces..

Many caterpillars also use the silk they produce to "build" nests or dens to protect themselves from environmental adversities or predators, which they also use as a final storage site before pupating..

3- Pupa


When the larva or caterpillar fully matures, it becomes a pupa and during this process the entire internal anatomy of the caterpillar is “destroyed” and “built” again, which is rigorously controlled by various internal factors..

The pupa is the last phase of metamorphosis in holometabolic insects and many authors establish that the average permanence time of the pupa until the emergence of the adult is a couple of weeks (this can vary between species and even between generations of the same species).

If environmental conditions are not favorable, some species of butterflies can survive for more than two years until they “produce” adults..

Evolution from the caterpillar, through the pupa, to the butterfly

A pupa is a kind of "container", within which the surprising physical transformation occurs from a caterpillar to a winged butterfly. We can find pupae suspended (hanging) from branches of trees or shrubs, in rolled leaves or in burrows or holes under the ground (underground).

It is a resting phase, during which the insect does not feed or significantly increase in size..

Are all pupae the same?

Pupa of the butterfly species Graphium agamemnon

Not, the shape and appearance of the pupae, as well as their structure, varies depending not only on the type of insect but also on the species.

Most of the pupae are covered by the silk produced by the larval stage (the caterpillar) and some species also include the larval cuticle hairs, processed (chewed) remains of plant material, secretions or waste products, etc..

4- Adult

Butterfly emerging from chrysalis

Adult individuals are formed during the pupal phase and can remain inside these structures for as long as necessary for environmental conditions to be suitable. To hatch, many species of butterflies have special structures to cut it.

Once released, the adults are able to hang by the legs with the head pointing towards the ground, which is able to push the body fluids towards the thoracic area, which when contracted allows the pumping of blood towards the wings, which are not expanded.

Life cycle of a commander butterfly, Moduza procris (Source: Rajeeshraghav, via Wikimedia Commons)

When the wings receive the blood, they take on the size and shape of the wings of an adult butterfly, which can fly a few minutes after this happens (or it can take a couple of hours).

Butterflies reproducing

Adult butterflies are the reproductive phase of the life cycle of these beautiful insects. Due to their ability to move through the air, males and females meet to copulate (sexual reproduction) and disperse to new places..

Monarch butterfly feeding

Adult butterflies feed mainly on nectar and other liquids found mainly on plants, which contrasts significantly with the feeding behavior of larvae, which are leaf-eaters..

An adult butterfly can live up to a month, but that varies considerably depending on multiple factors.. 

In this video you can see how the caterpillar forms the chrysalis and the butterfly exit:


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