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Home / Science lessons / Learn About Butterflies
  • Learn About Butterflies

    The Life Cycle of a Butterfly

    A butterfly is an insect. It has three main body parts - a head, thorax, and abdomen. It also has six legs, two compound eyes, and two pairs of wings. Before a butterfly becomes a butterfly, it is a caterpillar, which is also an insect, even though it looks very different from a butterfly and does not have any wings. The incredible transformation that a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly is called metamorphosis. (Do you remember learning about a ladybug's metamorphosis in an older issue of this newsletter?) There are four stages that a butterfly goes through in its life. The stages are called a life cycle and are explained below.

    Egg

    When a female butterfly becomes an adult, she will lay an egg - or maybe a cluster of several eggs - on a leaf of her favorite plant. A butterfly egg is very tiny and a little bit sticky so it will stick to the leaf until it hatches. About 4-10 days after the egg is laid, a tiny caterpillar will hatch from it! All the little caterpillar will want to do is eat. It will start eating the leaves of the plant it hatched on almost as soon as it is out of its egg. Lots of caterpillars also eat the shell of the egg they have hatched out of.

    Larva

    The tiny caterpillar is called a larvaand will eat a lot to prepare for the amazing transformation it will go through during the next stage of its life. As it eats, it will get too big for its skin and will shed its top layer of skin to reveal a larger brand new layer of skin underneath! This will happen about four or five times during the larva stage. Because a caterpillar is an insect, it has three pairs of true legs on the front part of its body (the thorax), plus lots of other legs called prolegsthat it uses to climb and cling to things. The caterpillar will keep eating and growing for several weeks until it is time to move on to the next stage.

    Pupa

    After awhile the caterpillar will stop eating. It is now much bigger than it was when it first hatched from its egg and it is ready to develop into the next stage - a pupa. The caterpillar begins searching for the perfect place to turn into a pupaor chrysalis. It looks for a place that feels safe and then attaches itself securely, usually upside down, to the spot (like a plant stem or side of a leaf or solid object) using strands of silk. Then it sheds its skin one last time. This time, the new skin underneath is not soft and flexible; it is hard and smooth and makes a case around the caterpillar's whole body. The chrysalis hangs from the spot for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on what type of butterfly pupa it is. While the butterfly is in the pupa stage, some incredible changes are happening inside the chrysalis and it will look much different when it finally comes out!

    Adult

    Soon the pupa will be finished developing and a butterfly will break out of the chrysalis. It has changed from a long caterpillar that crawls along and uses jaws to eat leaves into a dainty butterfly that can fly using its colorful wings and eats by sucking nectar from flowers. When a butterfly first emerges from its chrysalis, its wings are folded up and slightly damp. It will stay there for awhile and pump blood through the veins in its wings and allow the air to dry them. Then it will fly away and look for its first sip of nectar and begin its search for a mate. A female butterfly will lay eggs and the life cycle will start all over again.

    Butterfly wings are usually very colorful with pretty patterns on the top side of their wings while the underside of their wings are usually darker, more drab colors. Butterflies usually rest with their wings closed and the dark colors help them blend in with their surroundings, making it harder for birds and other predators to see them. The colors on the surface of a butterfly's wings are made up of lots of little tiny scales. If you were to touch a butterfly's wings, you would notice some colored powder-like substance on your fingers. Those are the tiny scales! A butterfly eats through its proboscis (say: PRO-BO-SIS), which is very similar to a straw that you would use to drink a beverage, except that it is connected to the butterfly in place of a mouth. Female butterflies are usually larger than males and they usually live a little longer than males.

    Links:

    Butterfly Senses

    butterfly drinking nectarButterflies do not see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the way we do. Even though they can do all of these things, their senses are very different from human senses and might not be quite what you would expect!

    Seeing - Butterflies have large compound eyes, just like most other insects do. Compound eyes have many lenses instead of just one like our eyes and they allow insects to see in many different directions at once, which helps them know when there are predators or other dangers around. Their compound eyes are part of the reason that butterflies often fly away so quickly when you start to get close to them.

    Hearing - Butterflies do not have ears, so they can't hear sounds like we can. However, their wings are very sensitive and they can feel the vibrations (very fast back and forth movements) that different sounds make. Since they feel sound instead of hearing it, they can really only "hear" loud sounds or big changes in the amount of sound around them.

    Smelling - Butterflies can smell quite well, but they don't have noses! They can smell through their feet and their antennae.

    Tasting - They can also taste through their feet! They have special parts on their feet that help them sense what something tastes like to help them decide if it is something that is good to eat or not. They can also taste through their antennae.

    Feeling - Since they have six feet, they have lots of things to feel with. Butterflies, like all insects, have two antennae, which help them feel too. They also have lots of tiny hairs on their bodies that help them feel movements.

    Butterflies vs. Moths

    Butterflies and moths look and act pretty similar, but here are some important differences that will help you tell them apart:

    • Butterflies have thin antennae with "clubs" on the ends and moths have fuzzy or feathery antennae, usually without "clubs."
    • Moths usually have shorter, fatter, and furrier bodies than butterflies.
    • Moths are nocturnal, which means they are most active at night and sleep during the day. Butterflies are most active during the day.
    • Because moths are nocturnal, their wings usually have darker colors than most butterfly wings.
    • Butterflies rest with their wings folded and pointing up above their bodies and moths land with them open or else down covering their bodies.
    • Butterflies make chrysalides during the pupa stage and moths make cocoons.

    Science Words

    (Note: plural means more than one.)

    Proboscis- the straw-like tube that butterflies use to drink nectar and other liquids.

    Symmetrical- having two sides that look exactly the same.

    Metamorphosis- a transformation that many insects and animals go through before getting to the adult stage. The changes that take place are very dramatic.

    Larva(plural = larvae) - a middle stage of an insect's life cycle. In a butterfly, the larva is a caterpillar.

    Prolegs- legs on the end section (the abdomen) of larvae (caterpillars).

    Pupa(plural = pupae) - a later stage of an insect's life cycle. The complex changes that happen before the insect becomes an adult happen in this stage. In a butterfly, the pupa is a chrysalis. 

    Chrysalis(plural = chrysalides) - the protective outer covering of a butterfly pupa.

    Nocturnal- active at night and asleep during the day.

    Printable Worksheet & PDF

    Use this worksheet to help kids review symmetry. Discuss how butterflies and moths exhibit symmetry or use with the Observe Symmetry activity.

    To view a printable PDF version of this newsletter and the worksheet together, click here.

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