The Life Cycle of a Butterfly: Their Amazing Metamorphosis

butterfly metamorphosis shown in stages on a stick

Butterflies are captivating, peaceful creatures that are the most prevalent example for demonstrating metamorphosis: a fascinating series of growth and development with distinct stages; there is a complete and incomplete variety. Both types of metamorphosis have a series of stages in which insects repeatedly outgrow and have to shed a hardened outer layer of their skin, or exoskeleton, from when they hatch until they are a fully mature adult (imago).

In incomplete metamorphosis, roaches, termites, and other “true bugs,” only change shape or form between their mature and immature stages of development by growing larger and growing wings. 

Order of Stages in Incomplete Metamorphosis: Egg > Nymph > Imago

In complete metamorphosis, butterflies change in a series of stages, each involving a drastic change in shape and form. 

Order of Stages in Complete Metamorphosis: Egg > Larva > Pupa > Imago

Learn more about the fascinating details involved in each stage of the life cycle of a butterfly!

Stages in the Life Cycle of a Butterfly 


Like most advanced species of insects, the life cycle of a butterfly begins when a pair of adult male and female butterflies mate, fertilizing the eggs within the female’s body. This is called internal fertilization. 

The female then lays her tiny fertilized eggs on plants she knows will be good for her babies to eat upon hatching. Monarch butterflies and a few other butterfly species lay eggs one at a time per plant, but most butterfly species lay hundreds of eggs at a time per plant. 

The gestation period of butterfly eggs ranges from four days to two weeks, depending on the species. Then, they hatch, emerging into their following form and stage of life.


After hatching, the next stage in the life cycle of a butterfly is the larval stage. You probably know butterfly larva (singular)/larvae (plural) best as caterpillars! 

Caterpillars have one job: eating as much of their preferred greenery as possible (for example, Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed plants) to grow and grow and grow, preparing their bodies for the subsequent phases in their life cycle.

Caterpillars expand in size so quickly that they outgrow the outermost layer of their bodies and have to molt (splitting and shedding) dozens of times before moving to the next life stage. So, not only do butterflies go through multiple stages of metamorphosis: They also experience lots of change within the stages!


The pupation stage follows the larval stage, which begins when the caterpillar has grown as big as it can from eating plants and multiple molts. The caterpillar enters the pupal form by hanging from a branch, curling its body upward into a U shape. 

Instead of molting its outer layer of hardened skin again, a caterpillar allows the skin to form a hard, protective outer shell called a chrysalis to cover its entire suspended form. Soon after, the caterpillar detaches itself from the skin, which forms the pupal wall, and sits inside it for several weeks for its final transformation.

Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar’s body begins to emit caspases, which are enzymes that dissolve most of the caterpillar’s body, apart from its vital muscles and organs, and imaginal discs. Imaginal discs are specialized cells that transform into the structures of an adult butterfly form (legs, wings, new antennae, and eyes).

Once several weeks pass and the imaginal discs finally finish transforming the caterpillar into a new, final form, it hatches out of the chrysalis, flying out as an adult butterfly! 


The final “adult” stage in the life cycle of a butterfly is also known as the imago stage. During the imago stage, most butterfly species fly around from plant to plant, pollinating them by drinking their nectar using their proboscis, a straw-like structure.

However, pollination is not the job of all butterflies. All adult butterflies share the job of mating and egg-laying during the last week or two of their life; after this job is complete, the adult butterflies pass on, and the life cycle begins again when the next generation of eggs hatch. 

Do Butterflies Count as Pests?

We appreciate butterflies’ beauty, fascinating metamorphosis, and roles in our ecosystem. Butterflies perform the pollination plants need to grow and produce food, fibers for clothing fabric and other textiles, and extracts that are processed to become chemical components we use in everyday products like food preservatives, herbal and pharmaceutical medications, hygiene products, and much more. 

Believe it or not, beautiful butterflies can also be pests when the appetites of their caterpillars overtake your garden or the crops of agricultural farmers we depend on for our daily necessities before!

That’s where our experts come in. We love butterflies, so we aren’t keen to use pesticides unless their caterpillars do significant damage. Next week, we’ll explore other methods to prevent pest damage in domestic gardens, yards, and agricultural farms that do not hurt the creatures. Until then, if caterpillars are causing damage to your property, it’s time to call our experts; we have safe and effective solutions for you!

At Vulcan Termite and Pest Control, we have proudly served families in Alabama since 1965, and we would love to help yours, too! Call us at 205-663-4200 or contact us online to learn more about our affordable, effective pest control solutions.

Thanks for reading! To learn more about the pests and other creatures found here in Alabama, check out our pest blog.