A Look into the Life Cycle of a Butterfly
The life cycle of a butterfly is an interesting and somewhat complex process in terms of the major changes that this little insect accomplishes. The butterfly is a flying insect that belongs to the Lepidoptera order, which is also made up of moths. The adult butterfly has large wings that are typically multi colored and sometimes appear to have a pattern. Butterflies are largely regarded as being very beautiful and friendly, but the resulting adult form certainly does require a lot of changes to take place beforehand! Let’s start at the beginning of the life cycle of a butterfly…
The life cycle of a butterfly begins with the egg, which is essentially a hard shell-like material called a chorion. The female butterfly will usually lay her eggs on the leaves, stems, and sometimes branches of plants where it is fixed to the surface with a glue-like substance. Her general intention is to lay the eggs as close to a food source as possible so that the ravenous newly hatched caterpillars won’t have to travel far for their first meal. A butterfly egg can come in a variety of shapes and colors, but most are circular or oval in shape. Some butterfly eggs are so transparent that if you were to look closely and shine a light at the egg, you might be able to see the tiny larva inside. During this stage the baby butterfly will take a few weeks to grow into a caterpillar and hatch out of its shell.
In this stage the caterpillar is a larvae and it will spend most of its time seeking out and eating large quantities of food. It takes a lot of nutrition and energy to grow at such a quick rate before the caterpillar must move on to the next stage of life. During the larvae stage the caterpillar will continue to eat and, as it grows larger, will shed a layer known as the “cuticle,” much in the way that a snake sheds its skin. The process of cuticle shedding is called apolysis and usually occurs at the end of each stage of physical change or growth called an instar. There will be several instars throughout the larvae stage. Caterpillars sport a worm-like body with several legs to help it move. Some caterpillars are smooth while others have bumps or even hairs. They come in a variety of colors depending on what type of butterfly species they are. As the caterpillar grows closer to the next stage of transformation its color may change and stripes may even appear.
At the last instar stage, where the caterpillar will drastically increase its size, it will start to develop wing disks and begin to scope out the area for a good place to transform into an adult butterfly.
The pupa stage consists of a very popular transformation that most of us are familiar with: metamorphosis. When the caterpillar has found a suitable and safe spot to spend the next stage of its life it will form a chrysalis. This is a coating that protects the caterpillar during this time of fragility and change. At this point the caterpillar has entered into the pupa stage where its entire body will undergo major changes—including the development of wings and changes in organ structures and limb lengths! The pupa will also take on a pattern and series of colors that will stick with it through the remainder of its life.
The pupa stage usually takes about two weeks, after which it will be time for the adult butterfly to emerge. The butterfly will split the chrysalis open and absorb the fresh air. It will usually stay in the same spot for a few hours so that its wings can dry. As the wings are drying the butterfly’s body will pump a liquid called meconium into the wings to help stretch and stiffen them. This liquid is orange in color and may drip or smear around the area where the butterfly emerged. Once the butterfly’s wings are dry it is ready to take flight for the first time!
Butterfly Fun Facts
Did you know that there are over 28,000 different types of butterflies all over the world? Only About 720 of these species reside in North America. Unlike the caterpillar version, which usually eats leaves and other types of plants, the adult butterfly typically lives off of nectar from flowers. They sip the nectar from a straw-like tongue. The most common type of butterfly is called the cabbage white while the rarest butterfly is the queen alexandra’s birdwing, which is found only in a secluded area of New Guinea. Something you may not have known is that the colors on a butterfly’s wings are due to the specific pigmentation of the scales that cover it? That’s right—butterfly wings are covered with scales! Each of these scales is pigmented for a single color which can account for some very colorful butterfly designs!
The life cycle of a butterfly involves so many stages of change and transformation. It truly is an awe-inspiring process that makes one appreciate the detail of such a little creature!