Butterfly Lifecycle and Moth Lifecycle Explained

A butterfly lifecycle and moth lifecycle are mostly the same.  They grow from an egg, to a larva, to pupa, and finally a winged adult.  This diagram and explanation will describe the lifecycle and show the minor difference – mainly a chrysalis versus a cocoon.There are other differences between butterflies and moths, but this is the only difference in their lifecycle.

butterfly lifecycle, chrysalis

A beautiful adult Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.

Complete Metamorphosis

Both the butterfly and moth undergo complete metamorphosis, which means they change form from the time they are born until they become an adult.

All insects undergo metamorphosis, but there are two kinds – complete and incomplete.  Complete means there are four life stages in the butterfly lifecycle.

butterfly chrysalis, moth cocoon, butterfly lifecycle

General lifecycle of butterfly and moth.

Butterfly Lifecycle and Moth Lifecycle

Egg – Both butterflies and moths begin life as an egg.  The egg is usually attached to a leaf or the stem of a plant.  The eggs can be laid by the adult in rows, stacks, masses, or singly by themselves (it depends on the species).

butterfly lifecycle, caterpillar

The larva or caterpillar of a Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly.

Larva (caterpillar) – The larva or caterpillar will emerge out of the egg.  The caterpillar eats leaves and other parts of plants.  I always remember the kids book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, that shows the hungry caterpillar eating everything and growing bigger and bigger.  I am not sure why, but as a kid I absolutely loved the book and read it over and over.

As the caterpillar grows it needs to shed its skin in order to get bigger.  It does this many times until it is ready to prepare a pupa.

Pupa (This is where there is a difference between a butterfly and moth lifecycle) – 

  • Moth – A moth will prepare to pupate by making a cocoon out of silk.  The caterpillar spins the silk around its entire body in order to protect itself.  Then inside this protective cocoon, the moth transforms from a caterpillar into a winged adult.
  • Butterfly – A butterfly will also prepare to pupate, but instead of making a cocoon out of silk a butterfly will simply find a safe, hidden spot.  Once it has found a safe spot, the caterpillar will form a chrysalis.  A chrysalis is a special, hard shell that the caterpillar makes out of protein.  A butterfly caterpillar uses a small amount of silk simply to attach itself and its chrysalis to something so that it won’t move while it is becoming an adult.

Adult – When ready, the newly formed adult will break out of the cocoon or chrysalis and the winged moth or butterfly will emerge.  The new adult will need a little bit of time to spread it wings open and let them dry before it is able to fly.  Then the adult is able to fly around searching for a mate so that it can reproduce and make babies.

butterfly lifecycle,

The adult form of a Painted Lady Butterfly.

You Can Grow a Butterfly at Home

We bought a ‘live growing butterfly’ set from a store that we found to be fantastic.  There are numerous kinds of these sets available to buy if you do a quick internet search.  Basically, you get a mesh enclosure, instructions, and info on sending away for five live Painted Lady Butterfly caterpillars.  Then you can watch as the caterpillars grow, make a chrysalis, and finally emerge as a beautiful Painted Lady butterfly.  It was so neat to sit around the table with my kids and watch the Painted Lady Butterfly emerge out of the chrysalis.  It was a great learning experience for all of us!

You can always learn more about the common bugs of the Rocky Mountains or what makes a bug a bug.