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Life Cycle of a Butterfly

| Updated September 26, 2017

Butterflies go through four life stages: egg, larvae or caterpillar, pupa and adult. At each stage, butterflies look different and require different types of care from their owners.

Stage 1: Egg

Female butterflies need to find the perfect environment to lay her eggs so she will fly around looking for leaves that will provide nourishment for her offspring when they emerge from the egg. When she finds these leaves, her eggs will stick to the leaves. The eggs are small, ribbed roundish objects. If you are breeding butterflies, you should not move the leaf for up to eight hours so the eggs will dry and stay attached to the leaf. At that point, you can move the leaf into a well-ventilated box that has its bottom covered in tissue paper. Spray water on the eggs to keep them from drying out. Typically, caterpillars will emerge from the eggs in three to five days.

Stage 2: Larvae

When butterflies hatch from their eggs, they are caterpillars. This form represents their larval stage. Caterpillars have short, stumpy legs and long, worm-like bodies. During this stage, the caterpillars focus on devouring food and growing. Caterpillars will molt at least four times before moving into their third life stage.


  • Newly hatched caterpillars are fragile. Avoid touching them with your hands. Doing so can kill them.

Your caterpillars will thrive as long as they have enough room and food. Their tank needs to be large enough so each caterpillar has at least three times its body size in space. Keep in mind that your caterpillars will grow quickly. Caterpillars require a lot of food so fill their tank with the type of fresh leaves preferred by their species. These preferences differ from species to species. Place the leaves in the tank in water so they will not dry out and will last longer. Clean the tank every day by removing the tissue paper at the bottom where the caterpillar's droppings and the dried leaves accumulate.

Stage 3: Pupa

At this point, the caterpillars have consumed enough food and grown large enough to start their transformation into butterflies. To do that, the caterpillar will wrap itself in a cocoon known as a chrysalis. When you see cocoons in your caterpillar environment, remove them to another enclosure and hang them on string above the ground to make it easier for the butterflies to emerge when they are ready.

During this stage, the chrysalis does not eat food or even move. The only care it needs is an occasional spritz of water to keep the cocoon moist. Otherwise, you simply need to wait for the next life stage to begin.

Stage 4: Adult

When the cocoons open, adult butterflies emerge. At this point, their main focus is reproduction. In fact, some adult butterflies do not even have mouths because eating is not a priority for them. Those adults that do need food will need a sugary liquid that can substitute for the nectar they would normally consume from flowers.

If you plan on keeping adult butterflies inside, you need a very large, mesh enclosure to house them. Butterflies need to fly around so the more space available, the more content they will be. You also do not want enclosures made from glass because the butterflies cannot walk on that surface. If you are planning to breed your butterflies, your enclosure will need to include the leaves commonly consumed by the caterpillars so the females will have a place to lay their eggs and start the life cycle all over again.