All About Butterflies

  • Butterfly Parts
  • Life cycle
  • Butterfly Habitat
  • Behavior
  • Watching Butterflies
  • Do You Know?
  • The Amazing Monarch
  • Glossary of Terms

Life Cycle

Butterflies have a "complete" life cycle which includes four stages. Each stage looks completely different and serves a different purpose in the development of the insect. This is called metamorphosis.

Stage 1: The Egg
After butterflies mate, the female lays eggs on or under the leaves or stems of the host plant (intended food) for the caterpillars which will hatch from the eggs. Some butterflies lay their eggs singly, others lay them in clusters. Depending on the species, adults can lay eggs several times each season.

The egg is a tiny round or oval shape. Sometimes they have ribs or other markings. Generally, only 2 out of 100 butterfly eggs will survive to adulthood. Spiders, wasps, and parasitic flies are their primary predators, and some eggs will also be eaten by birds and reptiles.

Stage 2: Caterpillar (larva)
After the caterpillar (larva) hatches from the egg, it will spend several weeks eating and growing. Look for them on or near the well-eaten leaves of the host plant.

Depending on the species, a caterpillar may be smooth, hairy, or spiny, be a solid color, or have stripes or a colorful pattern on its body. As it grows, the caterpillar will molt or shed its exoskeleton numerous times.





Stage 3: Chrysalis (pupa)
After a few weeks of eating, molting and growing, the caterpillar will select a protected area to make its chrysalis (similar to a cocoon) and will spin a thread to attach itself to a leaf or branch. The change into a chrysalis takes only a few minutes.

The chrysalis (or pupa) is the final stage of metamorphosis whereby the caterpillar's tissues are dissolved and reformed into the adult insect's organs, limbs, and wings. The chrysalis of most species is brown or green, which provides excellent camouflage. Some butterfly species spend all winter in their chrysalides before they emerge in the spring. Other pupate only a few weeks during warmer months before emerging to begin the cycle of metamorphosis again. View video of Monarch going from "J-mode to Chysalis.

Stage 4: Butterfly
The adult (or imago) is a butterfly. It is the reproductive and mobile stage for the species. The adults will go through courtship, mating, and egg-laying. The adult butterfly migrates or colonizes new habitats. Many butterfly species migrate northward during the Spring and early Summer, feeding on freshly sprouted larval plants.



Most butterflies live for only a few weeks. Those species that migrate northward during the spring and summer look for young larval plants to lay their eggs on so the next generation can continue the journey north.

Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, and Buckeyes are examples of one-way migrators form southern areas to Canada. Monarch butterflies are two-way migrators. (view The Amazing Monarch section)

Butterfly Habitat

A successful butterfly habitat requires plenty of sunshine, shelter from the wind, a water source, nectar plants in bloom from early spring to late fall, and host plants to provide a place to lay eggs as well as food for hatched caterpillars. Nectar obtained from plants is the primary food source for butterflies. Nectar plants include flowering trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals, including wildflowers and weeds.

Look for these nectar plants in the garden: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Cosmos, Monarda (Bee Balm), Asclepias (Butterfly Weed), Echinacea (Coneflower), Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan), Zinnias.

Butterflies pollinate plants as they move from flower to flower. They are attracted to certain shapes, colors, and fragrances of the nectar flowers. Composite, panicle, and umbel shapes are particularly attractive.

Butterflies see in the ultraviolet spectrum and are attracted to strong colors like purple, yellow, and orange. The UV light enables them to see hidden ultraviolet patterns on the petals that lead them to the central nectar source.

Butterflies are fond of flowers with heavy perfume scent, typical of many older plant varieties. Newer plant hybrids often lack a strong fragrance.

Host plants include wild plants, herbs, vegetables, and certain trees. Look for asters, blueberry, milkweed, thistle, parsley, dill, borage, broccoli, and cabbage. Each butterfly species is very specific about which plants they choose for hosts. For example, Monarchs always choose Asclepias (milkweed) as their host plant.


Butterflies tend to fly during the day, while moths fly at night. In cool weather, they will hang from branches with their wings closed. This is called roosting. Male butterflies will gather in drinking clubs after rainstorms and will extract salts and other nutrients from the rain puddles. This behavior is called puddling. When butterflies rest in sunny protected areas with their wings open, they are said to be basking.

Most butterflies are dormant in winter, in egg or chrysalis form. The Mourning Cloak, which can live up to 9 months, will overwinter in Maine in its adult form. When it emerges in late March or early April, it will feed on pine sap when there are no nectar plants available.

Eastern Swallowtails puddling image

Watching Butterflies

Butterflies are sensitive to motion and shadows. Stand or sit quietly for several minutes.

Look low to the ground. Butterflies in the garden are often below eye level.

Do not handle butterflies or caterpillars,they are very fragile. Just lightly touching a butterfly wing can be harmful.

Do You Know?

What is the origin of the word “butterfly?”
No one knows for sure. The name may be derived from European Sulphur Butterflies that are a creamy buttery color.

What are the differences and similarities between butterflies and moths?
Butterflies and moths are related insects from the taxonomic group, called Lepidoptera. The word Lepidoptera means scaly (lepido) winged (ptera). Both butterflies and moths have wings covered with scales.

Butterfly antennas are shaped like a golf club, with a long shaft that has a "club" at the end. Most moths have antennas with either a simple filament, tapering to a point at their ends, or have many cross filaments, looking somewhat like a radar antenna or a feather duster.

Many butterflies are very colorful and almost all butterflies are active exclusively during the day. Most moths have fairly drab colors and are active at night. But there are some butterflies that are dull and some moths that are brightly colored and fly during the daytime.

How many kinds of butterflies are there?
There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species occur in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the continental United States. About 275 butterfly species occur in Canada and some 2000 occur in Mexico.

How long does a butterfly live?
Most butterflies live only a few weeks. Smaller butterflies may live only a week while large butterflies like Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks, and tropical heliconians can live up to nine months. Butterflies are very fragile and face numerous hazards including predators, inclement weather, and pesticide poisoning.

Where do butterflies go at the night or when the weather is bad?
At night, or during bad weather, they hide under leaves, crawl under rocks, or hold their wings tightly together while hunkering down wherever they can find cover. Butterflies are very fragile and sometimes do not survive severe weather.

How do butterflies spend the winter?
Most butterflies that live in cold climates spend the winter as caterpillars or as pupas. A few species, mainly tortoiseshells (Nymphalis) and anglewings (Polygonia), spend the winter as adults, hibernating in holes in trees or wherever they can find shelter. A very few species spend the winter as eggs.

Do butterflies have a sense of smell?
Yes, they have chemoreceptors at the ends of their antennas and on the bottoms of their feet.

The Amazing Monarch

Monarch on Cosmos
Monarch Caterpillar
Monarch Chrysalis

Monarch Butterflies are members of the Brushfoot family of butterflies and are referred to as the milkweed butterflies, because their larvae or caterpillars feed on different varieties of Asclepias, or milkweed.

Many varieties of milkweed are found throughout the United States. Other milkweed butterflies are queens and are found in southern regions with warm winters.



Monarch butterflies, east of the Rockies, are well know for their lengthy fall migration to the mountains of Central Mexico, where they overwinter in huge clusters on Oyamel fir trees at 11,000 feet. The following spring millions of these same butterflies will travel to the southern coastal areas of the United States. There they mate and lay eggs on emerging asclepias (milkweeds); successive generations will continue the return migration north.

Scientists are still researching this amazing phenomenon, studying how creatures can fly to the same area each year from such great distances.

Monarch/Milkweed: Ann Judd; Monarch migration:USFWS

Glossary of Terms

Chrysalis – (similar to a cocoon) The chrysalis (or pupa) is the transformation stage whereby the caterpillar's tissues are dissolved and reformed into the adult insect's organs, limbs, and wings. The chrysalis of most species is brown or green, which provides excellent camouflage from predators. The chrysalis is usually incapable of much movement, although some species can rapidly move the abdominal segments or produce sounds to scare potential predators.

Larva – This is the familiar caterpillar stage. Caterpillars consume plant leaves and are constantly feeding. As they grow, the caterpillar will molt or shed its exoskeleton numerous times.

Lepidoptera -is the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies. It is one of the most species-rich orders in the class Insecta, encompassing moths and the three super families of butterflies, skipper butterflies, and moth-butterflies.

Metamorphosis - The biological process by which butterflies (and other insects) undergo noticeable physical changes in their form or structure during their life cycle. Butterflies go through a "complete" life cycle that includes four stages.

Overwinter - Hibernate.

Palpi - The two appendages on each side of the proboscis, near the mouthparts of a butterfly.

Proboscis – The elongated, extendible tube near the mouthparts of a butterfly used to take in nectar, sap, and minerals. It is coiled up when not in use.

Pupa - In butterflies, the stage of the life cycle occurring between caterpillar and adult; the chrysalis.