Get in the spirit of Spring as you watch metamorphosis in our butterfly life cycle video! Then, raise your own butterflies and learn how to attract them to your garden with the projects in this issue of Science Explorations.

Watch the Butterfly Life Cycle

Butterfly metamorphosis is incredible to behold, no matter what age you are! There are four stages to a butterfly's life cycle:

The pupa stage of a butterfly is called a chrysalis

  • Larva. Caterpillars are butterfly larvae that hatch from the eggs. They like to eat! They'll grow startling amounts and shed their skin (molt) multiple times as they grow.
  • Pupa. The pupa of a butterfly is called a chrysalis. When the caterpillar is ready, it will molt for the last time, and this time the new skin will form the protective chrysalis shell. While the pupa seems completely inactive, inside it the caterpillar is being transformed into a butterfly.
  • Adult. After about 10-14 days, the butterfly breaks open the chrysalis and crawls out. Its wings are wet and folded up, so it has to pump fluids into the wings to expand them before it can fly.
  • >> Watch our butterfly life cycle video  to see the larva, pupa, and adult stages – you'll even see a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis!

    To raise your own butterflies, here's what you'll need:

    • a small aquarium or one gallon jar
    • cheesecloth and a large rubber band to cover the jar
    • caterpillars you collect
    • leaves from the plant on which you found the caterpillars
    • sugar water or oranges

    (Or you can raise your own butterflies with the much more convenient Butterfly Garden.)

    1. Collect some caterpillars. You can find these on common host plants like milkweed (monarch butterflies) and parsley (black swallowtail) or trees like cottonwoods and quaking aspens (tiger swallowtail). Check a field guide to find out what butterflies you have in your area and what their larvae eat. Place the caterpillars in the aquarium or jar along with fresh leaves from the plant you found them on.
    2. You will need to provide lots of fresh food for the caterpillars during the larval stage. They are very picky eaters; some caterpillars will only eat one type of plant.
    3. As the caterpillars get larger, you can prop some sticks in the jar a few inches off the bottom. The sticks will give the caterpillars a place to hang from when they transform into chrysalides.
    4. After your butterflies emerge from the chrysalides, they will hang still for quite some time until their wings are fully expanded. They will most likely secrete a colored liquid (usually red or orange) that is leftover pigment from the formation of their wings.
    5. You can feed the butterflies with sugar water sprinkled on carnations, or with fresh orange slices. They will drink by unfurling their proboscis, which they use for sucking up the liquid, like a straw. After observing them for awhile, release them near where you found the caterpillars.

    Find more information on raising butterflies on this page.

    Plant a Butterfly Garden

    Have fun watching butterflies in your backyard all summer long! All you need to get started are some butterfly-friendly plants to grow in your garden or in a planter or flower pot. Once the plants start blooming, you shouldn't have a long wait till the butterflies come.

    Flowers to Plant in a Butterfly Garden
    a butterfly drinking nectar
    Butterflies like sun-loving flowers that produce lots of pollen and nectar (a sugary liquid). They have sense receptors on their antennae and legs that allow them to smell flowers, and they have other receptors in their feet that they use to 'taste' whether the nectar is good to eat. Butterflies don't just follow sweet smells, though. Flowers with bright colors like red, yellow, and purple attract butterflies. And stable flowers that can support a butterfly while it eats are also important.

    Growing a mix of flowers and plants like these will help attract the most variety of butterfly species to your garden:

    • asters
    • joe-pye weed
    • bee balm
    • marigolds
    • butterfly weed
    • milkweed
    • clover
    • nasturtium
    • columbine
    • parsley
    • cosmos
    • verbena
    • daisies
    • violets
    • dill
    • yarrow
    • hollyhocks
    • zinnia

    Some vegetable plants and herbs give butterflies a place to lay their eggs, so in addition to parsley and dill, you might also want to grow carrots, chives, or sage. If you also want to attract moths that come out at night, plant light-colored flowers with strong scents.

    Plant these in the sun, water them well, and then keep your eyes open for butterflies!

    Butterfly Garden Nature Study

    To get the most out your butterfly garden, watch and see what kinds of butterflies come by (a field guide with pictures will help you to identify them) and keep track of which flowers each kind spends the most time at. Use a nature journal and colored pencils to make sketches if you want to keep a record the old-fashioned way – or use the macro on your digital camera to get close-ups of the butterflies.

    See if you can watch the whole butterfly lifecycle in your garden. Look for tiny eggs on the underside of leaves on 'host' plants like daisies, milkweed, parsley, and clover. Later you should see caterpillars on the same plants. You might even see a chrysalis! Look for these hanging from a twig or stem, but be careful not to disturb them so metamorphosis can take place.

    Adult butterflies, of course, feed on the nectar from flowers. But if there's a mud puddle around, you'll also see some butterflies sucking mineral nutrients that they can't get from nectar. Observe this habit by making a permanent mud puddle: sink a small bowl into the ground, fill it with sand, and add some water with a little salt.

    More Insect Projects:

    Science Links

    See beautiful photographs and learn more about butterflies at the Butterfly School site.

    Monarch butterflies make an amazing trek every year as they migrate from North America to Mexico for the winter, and back again – up to 3000 miles! Learn all about their journey with pictures and slideshows at this monarch migration site.

    The largest butterfly in the world is the Queen Alexandra Birdwing, with a wingspan of up to one foot. The smallest butterfly in the world is the Western Pygmy Blue, with a wingspan of half an inch.