How Caterpillars Turn into Butterflies

According to the North American Butterfly Association, “there are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world.” The names of butterflies include monarch, admiral, swallowtail, harvester, painted lady, lacewing, and yellow, to name just a few. The transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly is an amazing and extraordinary event. There are four stages to complete the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the egg, larva, chrysalis (pupa) and adult. Depending on the type of butterfly, the life cycle can take anywhere from one month to a year. Each type of caterpillar turns into a certain type of butterfly or moth. They usually lay their eggs in the spring, and continue until early September.

The eggs are attached to leaves by a sticky substance produced by the female, and it takes approximately three to seven days for them to hatch. The shape and color of the egg depends on the type of butterfly. The only natural defense that butterfly eggs have is their color and camouflage, for instance a green egg on a green leaf is invisible to its various predators. In many cases, the eggs are bound to the underside of a leaf or in a crevice to protect it. The larva (caterpillar) from newly hatched eggs proceeds to eat even the leaves they were born on. Nature’s young caterpillar will eat continuously for two or three weeks and during this time, it will shed its exoskeleton several times. It is a process called molting, (losing its skin) and some caterpillars may go through four or five molts before it becomes a pupa.

In preparation of becoming a chrysalis (Kris-uh-liss or pupa), it will attach itself to a stem or branch by spinning its own silk, creating its own protective cocoon. Hanging upside down, the silk holds it in place, and after firmly becoming attached (about 24 hrs) the chrysalis is then formed. At this point, it appears to look inactive, but a miraculous metamorphosis is taking place inside. The caterpillar’s anatomy is chemically broken down and reconstructs itself into an adult butterfly. The tissue, limbs, and organs of the caterpillar change in what one could describe as a remarkable transformation. It takes 1-2 weeks before the butterfly is ready to emerge.

When the butterfly is ready to surface, the hormones soften the chrysalis shell; the butterfly pushes its way out, and immediately clings to the chrysalis with its wings hanging down. The butterfly cannot fly at this point; it needs to pump fluid from its body into the wings to harden them. This process takes several hours, and then, vivid with color, it spreads its wings and flies.  It will fly in search of a mate to reproduce and the cycle with start all over again.

Butterflies belong to the Lepidoptera family, a large group of species found worldwide.  They are beautiful and fascinating insects and their life cycle is nature’s marvel.