What is the life cycle of butterflies

True quick-change artists

Butterflies biology and life cycle

"Live like butterflies that only nibble on the flowers but neither steal their fragrance nor destroy their tissue". Butterflies as a standard bearer for a "sustainable life"?

Tree white butterfly - Photo: Dennis Wolter

Unfortunately, the well-meaning words of Buddha are based on a decisive mistake in reasoning: Each of the "exemplary" butterflies has a voracious caterpillar.


Egg of the blue oak moth - Photo: Helge May

Wedding and egg laying
In the summer months the butterflies get married. Often the pairing is preceded by graceful courtship games (wedding flights). Once the partners have found each other, it does not take long for the female, depending on the species, to lay between 50 and 3000 eggs on a typical food plant. Many butterflies have an extremely narrow spectrum of possible egg-laying plants. "Live like butterflies that only nibble on the flowers but neither steal their fragrance nor destroy their tissue".


Swallowtail - Photo: Ewald Thies

Gluttonous caterpillars
The larvae of the butterflies, the caterpillars, develop in the eggs. There can be 6 - 10 days between the laying of the eggs and the hatching of the caterpillars, some months for some species. The caterpillars - they are between a few millimeters and up to fifteen centimeters in size, depending on the species - start eating as soon as they hatch. As the "Very Hungry Caterpillar", a butterfly larva can increase its body weight a thousandfold in just a few weeks - it doesn't stop at "snacking" and some "flowers" are severely damaged after their encounter with the butterfly caterpillar. During this time, the caterpillar has to "drive out of the skin" again and again to make room for its enormous growth.


Pigeon tail doll - Photo: Ewald Thies

The transformation
At the end of its life, the caterpillar pupates, i.e. it creates a solid shell in which the transformation into the butterfly takes place. Once this phase, which can take a week for some species and eight years for others, is over, the finished butterfly hatches out of the pupa. After a few hours it will have unfolded and hardened its wings and will take to the skies. Then the cycle of the butterfly life can begin again.


Brimstone butterfly - Photo: Helge May

Butterflies in winter
Butterflies survive the winter in various stages of development: as an egg, as a caterpillar, as a pupa or even as a butterfly. The lemon butterfly proves to be a real "nature boy" - it winters outside, outdoors. By reducing all body functions (winter rigor), it reduces its energy requirements to a minimum. Because it also lowers the freezing point with the water content in its body, it can even survive deep freezing temperatures undamaged.