4 Stages of a Butterfly: Butterfly Life Cycle

The 4 different stages of a butterfly are egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adulthood. These different phases of development are collectively known as complete metamorphosis, meaning that butterflies change appearance with each stage, in contrast to insects that undergo incomplete metamorphosis.

Briefly on butterfly’s life cycle stages

Egg Stagelasts for approximately 7 days, the eggs are about 0.04 to 0.12 inches
Caterpillar Stagelasts about 2 to 6 weeks, caterpillars may measure between 2 to 3 inches
Pupa Stagelasts from a week to 2 years, depending on species, measures around 2 inches
Adult Stagelives 2 to 4 weeks, size depends on the species
Butterfly Life Cycle
Butterfly Life Cycle

Stage 1: Egg

The first stage lasts for approximately 7 days, depending on the species. Adult female butterflies usually lay eggs on host plant leaves. They will stick the eggs on the underside of the leaves to protect them from predators.

Each egg measures about 0.04 to 0.12 inches (1 to 3 mm). They are typically round or oval-shaped, while the colors can be hues of green, white, or yellow, depending on the species.

When these eggs hatch, the leaves serve as food for the caterpillars, that’s why the adult butterfly usually chooses young leaves. 

Depending on the caterpillar species, the hatching season usually takes place during the early parts of the spring or fall.

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Stage 2: Caterpillar

This stage takes about 2 to 6 weeks before the larva begins transitioning to several instars. Again, the time frame depends on the species of butterfly. During this phase, the caterpillar will eat the eggshell or the host plant leaves for its first meal.

The different caterpillar species have varying sizes, shapes, and even shades. The most common are green and yellow, with elongated bodies that can measure between 2 to 3 inches. Furthermore, almost all caterpillars have numerous segments with pairs of legs on each side of the thorax.

Larvae have a large appetite. They eat so much since they need to store energy for all instars and later butterfly development. Caterpillars can grow hundreds of times larger than when they first hatched.

Towards the end of this stage, the caterpillar will abruptly stop eating and hang itself upside-down against a branch, leaf, or stem in preparation for the next stage.

Stage 3: Pupa

butterfly emerging from cocoon
Butterfly emerging from cocoon

The pupa stage can last somewhere between a week and 2 years. However, the average waiting time is around 2 to 3 weeks.

The caterpillar undergoes rapid changes in its overall body configuration during the pupal stage. It will start to develop its eyes, wings, antennae, legs, and other parts that it will soon need once it reaches adulthood.

Like the caterpillar, the chrysalis or cocoon can come in different sizes, shapes, and colors depending on the butterfly species. The most common shade would be golden or silvery with shiny streaks and an irregular shape that measures about 2 inches in length (on average).

Once the caterpillar inside the pupa reaches its peak development, it will slowly break through the chrysalis and emerge as an adult insect.

Stage 4: Adult Butterfly

Once the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it’s already considered an adult butterfly. It may take about half an hour to dry its butterfly wings; after that, it will start exploring its immediate surroundings.

On average, the expected lifespan of a butterfly lasts from 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the species. The species known to live the longest is the Brimstone butterfly which lasted just a few weeks beyond the one-year mark.

What is Complete Metamorphosis?

Complete metamorphosis means that the insect will pass through several different stages and eventually turn into an adult with a fully developed exoskeleton. This process is the opposite of an incomplete metamorphosis. Incomplete metamorphosis means the insect’s body remains similar in shape/color and only grows larger compared to the moment when the egg hatches.

A butterfly is an insect that undergoes complete metamorphosis. Therefore, it will always undergo this process, starting its life cycle as an egg, then moving on to the larval, pupal, and adulthood stages.

How Can You Observe The Butterfly Life Cycle?

Fortunately, you can observe the life cycle of a butterfly if you get a butterfly-raising kit specifically designed to help you raise butterflies from eggs or caterpillars. Alternatively, you can create a DIY kit for raising butterflies. Here are some things you need to prepare:

  • Enough space for the butterfly cage
  • Butterfly cage, which may include metal or wooden reinforcements with nets as the main enclosure
  • Water sprayer
  • Plants such as milkweed, honeysuckle, parsley, fennel, alfalfa, or snapdragon
  • Mobile stands for your camera or mobile phone

Collect the butterfly caterpillars from your yard, or order them online. Set the scene, and use the camera to record the butterfly’s development.

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