Butterfly Life Cycle Activities & Free Printables
Raising butterflies in our classroom is always a highlight and this year was no different! We went hands-on all the way as we learned about the stages of the life cycle, metamorphosis, pollination, the compound eye and more. Read on to see all of our butterfly life cycle activities, experiments and the fun ways we integrated math! You’ll definitely want to try these high engagement activities when it’s time to raise butterflies in YOUR classroom!
Butterfly Life Cycle Activities
Waiting anxiously for our caterpillars to arrive, we read several informational books and started a KWL chart to write down any questions we had. Most students have some prior knowledge about the butterfly and its life cycle, but my students still had a lot of good questions.
With our books at the ready and our charts in place my class was very excited to get started! What was taking those caterpillars so long?
Butterfly Life Cycle Lessons
I use a teaching PowerPoint with vivid, real-life photos to teach lessons on metamorphosis, adaptations, pollination, the compound eye and more.
Click here to see the butterfly PowerPoint lessons.
Each lesson has embedded videos so students can see what they’re learning happening in real life.
Students can also label parts of a caterpillar and butterfly with interactive diagram slides in the PowerPoint.
Observe the Changes
When our caterpillars finally arrived, the first thing we learned was how to handle them with care.
Each student received their own caterpillar and of course, they named them! Pure kid-heaven! I order a classroom butterfly set from Amazon with a coupon for a class set of caterpillars. Some years when they arrive the caterpillars are as small as a tiny thread and other years they are about 5 or 6 days away from forming a chrysalis. You never know what you’re going to get, so be ready!
To help observe the changes up close everyone got a hand lens. We used our butterfly life cycle journals to record dates and the changes we observed each day.
Students added the dates of significant changes in their caterpillars to a calendar.
Once the life cycle was complete and our last butterfly emerged from it’s chrysalis we compiled and discussed the data we recorded. I then placed everyone in groups with discussion cards. Students used their calendars to compare dates and data, discuss with their friends, and count the days between changes in the butterfly life cycle. We later graphed this data on 4 brightly colored graphs, but more on that in a minute!
Get students writing about science
As our butterfly life cycle activities progressed, we had several mini-lessons along the way. After each lesson we added our written responses to our culminating project, a foldable butterfly booklet.
Each piece of the booklet coincides with a mini-lesson and a writing activity. It’s a great way to get students writing about science as they explain what they are learning about the butterfly’s life cycle.
Another fun way to get kids writing is to make a butterfly life cycle on a string. Students write about each stage in the mini leaf booklets. All of the pieces tuck inside the large leaf pocket.
Click here for the templates for this craft.
Explore Pollination with Mac & Cheese!
To go along with our lesson, I showed my class this stunning pollination video from Ted Talks on YouTube made by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg. It’s an amazing look at insects pollinating flowers through time lapse and slow motion photography.
Try A Pollination Simulation
This cheese powder pollination experiment answers the question, How do butterflies help plants grow?. To find out, we did an easy pollination activity to simulate how butterflies, bats, birds and insects transfer pollen.
To my 2nd grade class, heaven on earth is wearing butterfly feet on your finger!
The bristles of the pipe cleaner represent the tiny hairs on an insect’s legs and feet. Perfect for holding pollen.
What to do with all the leftover macaroni?
Make commas of course! Use the leftover macaroni for students to practice using commas in a series. Add this easy activity to your literacy centers for students to practice reading skills using science content.
Click here to download this FREE Butterfly Facts commas in a series page.
Explore the Butterfly Compound Eye
Exploring the compound eye is always a hit! Students get a first hand look at how the compound eye is unable to change focus or see detail. Using kaleidoscopes to simulate an insect’s eye helps students to understand that an insect sees color and movement through thousands of lenses.
As we learned how a butterfly’s compound eye helps to protect them, my students explored this further in a learning lab. Students used toy kaleidoscopes (I purchased them on Amazon) to imagine life through an insect’s eyes and to compare a compound eye to a simple eye.
“Looking” through a butterfly’s compound eye is so much fun! Students get a first hand look at how the compound eye is unable to change focus or see detail. Using kaleidoscopes to simulate an insect’s eye helps students to understand that an insect sees color and movement through thousands of lenses. Their vision isn’t necessarily clear, but they can see the important things, like color to signal food and movement to signal danger or a predator may be near. Butterflies, and many insects, see the things that are important for their survival.
Incorporate Butterfly Math Activities
As we watched the life cycle progress, students added the dates of significant changes to a calendar. I then placed everyone in groups with discussion cards. Students used their calendars to compare dates and collect data, discuss with their friends, and document the days between changes in their caterpillars.
To integrate math into our butterfly unit, we did this teacher guided activity measuring how far a caterpillar crawls.
Students carefully placed their caterpillars on the page then marked the distance the caterpillar crawled before stopping. After a few stops and starts students measured and compared the lengths of the paths their caterpillars crawled.
Graph the Life Cycle
In addition to measuring and adding lengths, we also graphed the life cycle. Students used the calendars they kept to determine how long it took to reach each stage. These easy to prep butterfly graphs are so much fun and they give students a visual reference for comparing how long it took individual caterpillars to pass through each stage of the life cycle.
Read more about our butterfly graphing and see how students used their data to make bar graphs and line plots. (Be sure to download the FREE butterfly measurement activity there too!)
Incorporate Reading Skills
Being a butterfly is not all sunshine and nectar. Butterflies have their problems too. Match solutions to the problems that all butterflies face and assess your students’ knowledge at the same time!
Because we read many informational books, students had lots of opportunities to decode longer words. My class was quite proud of themselves as they used words like camouflage, metamorphosis, and pollinators during our discussions and in their writing.
As a way to fit it all in, we completed some of the writing, vocabulary mini books, and diagrams for our butterfly booklets during our literacy center time. Others parts we did after our learning labs or during our writing time.
Once we were finished and our butterflies released, we added all of our mini-books and writing to the butterfly booklets. We delighted our families with by displaying them at our Spring open house where we turned our hallway into a life cycle garden!
Find all of these hands-on butterfly life cycle activities in a complete science unit for grades 1-3. The unit includes detailed, 2-week lesson plan with 9 engaging mini-lessons, butterfly science experiments, foldable butterfly booklet and so much more!
Click here to see the Butterfly Life Cycle Science Unit.
Get FREE posters for your classroom
Add your personal email below (because most schools block outside emails with attachments) and I’ll send you this free Butterfly Life Cycle Poster Pack!
Raising butterflies at school is always such a highlight! I hope you’ve found some butterfly science activities you can use in your classroom! Be sure to pin this post so you’ll have it when you plan!
You might also enjoy these science activities for your students!
Butterfly Garden Hallway Display
Hands-On Plant Life Cycle Activities & Experiments
Exploding Seed Pod Seed Dispersal STEM Activity
Properties of Matter Activities for 2nd Grade Science
4 Things to Teach in Science at the Beginning of the Year
Think you have found spotted lanternfly in Maryland?
Report it online here!
A photograph is required when submitting a sighting report.
Be advised, residents are no longer required to report lanternfly sightings
in Cecil or Harford counties.
Only sighting reports should be entered into the online survey.
Questions and complaints should be directed to [email protected].
The spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) (SLF) is a planthopper which is native to eastern Asia. It was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has since been confirmed in Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. It was discovered in Maryland in 2018, in Cecil County. It has spread to Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Caroline, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Wicomico, and Washington counties and Baltimore city.
(Photograph by Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture, Bugwood. org.)
Early instar nymphs hatch in the first week of May. The early instar nymphs are very small. They will grow larger through July when they molt into the 4th instar. (Photograph by Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture, Bugwood.org.)
4th instar nymphs can be found starting in June. They molt from the early instars and are distinctive because of their red coloration. (Photograph taken by Alejandro Calixto, NYSIPM.)
Adults are about 2.5 cm (1 inch) in length. The forewings are light brown with black spots. The hind wings are mainly red with black spots. The red color is especially noticeable when the insect flies. Adults can be found as early as July, and they will remain active until the first hard frost of the year, usually in November. The females begin laying eggs in October and conclude their egg laying by the first frost in November. (Photograph by Lawrence Barringer, PA Dept of Agriculture, Bugwood. org.)
SLF females prefer to lay their eggs masses on a host tree, however; they have also been seen depositing eggs on a variety of flat surfaces such as buildings, trailers, fence posts and vehicles. The eggs are laid in groups of approximately 30-50 and then coated with gray wax. When the wax has dried it can look similarly to a splash of mud which can make them difficult to notice. The eggs typically hatch in the spring, usually in the first week of May. (Photograph by Massachusets Department of Agriculture.)
Here is a list of some of the host plants on which SLF has commonly been found to feed. Please keep in mind that this is not a complete list because they feed on over 70 plant species. Some plants that are at risk:
grape, black walnut, red maple, silver maple, eastern white pine, weeping willow, black willow, black cherry, sycamore.
Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is the primary host for SLF. They can be found feeding on tree of heaven at all life stages. More information on tree of heaven can be found here.
Nymphs and adults feed on plants, using their piercing mouthparts to suck sap from trunks and stems. This has been shown to cause stunted growth, localized damage, and reduced yields.
Additionally, as SLF feeds, it excretes a sugary substance called honeydew. Honeydew is attractive to ants, wasps, and bees. Honeydew can develop an intense, rotten odor as it ferments. It is also readily colonized by black, sooty mold which can cover leaves and inhibit photosynthesis. Sooty mold can also cover manmade structures and can be difficult to remove.
It should be noted that although SLF have been found on crops such as corn, soybeans, and alfalfa, they haven’t been observed feeding on these plants.
Although SLF can be present in large numbers on host plants, SLF are not typically associated with host mortality. SLF is considered a stressor that may contribute to the decline of its host. The exception to this is grapes, which can suffer greatly reduced winter hardiness as a result of SLF feeding. It remains to be seen what effect lanternfly feeding will have on Maryland’s vinyards.
The MD Dept. of Agriculture does not operate a residential spray program. We cannot offer to treat private residences for SLF, except within a narrow range of circumstances. If you qualify for treatment, you may be contacted by an MDA employee.
- Mechanical controls are non-chemical. They rely on killing SLF by hand or trapping. These options are the least environmentally impactful available. Please consider them first before choosing to use insecticides.
- Trapping — Traps are passive systems that can provide continuous control. They will need to be maintained. They can be erected as soon as early instar nymphs hatch, through until the end of the adult stage. Traps are ineffective once the adults have died off. Commercial traps are available. Do-it-yourself options are available on the internet. For example, a circle trap from Penn State University Extension.
- Chemical controls are insecticides.
- Be extremely cautious when choosing to apply insecticides! There is no insecticide that is specific to spotted lanternfly. Any application of insecticide has the potential to kill non-target insects.
- Insecticides are classed into two groups: contact and systemic.
- Contact — are mixed and applied directly to the pest insect.
- It is strongly recommended that you limit the use of contact insecticides to concentrations of SLF in order to reduce your environmental impact.
- Systemic — are mixed and applied to a host plant. The plant absorbs the insecticide and becomes toxic to the insects that feed on it.
- It is strongly advised that you limit the use of systemics to tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Applying systemic insecticides to native plant species may result in substantial non-target losses.
- Do not apply insecticide to lawns! SLF does not reside in lawns.
- Specific information on chemical insecticides that are effective against SLF can be found by submitting a request to University of Maryland Extension at Ask Extension.
- A list of state-licensed applicators can be found here. You will need to know the type of applicator and the location within which you are seeking service.
- Cultural controls involve altering the way in which a property owner cultivates their property. The only cultural control available is host plant removal. This method is not recommended due to SLF’s wide host range. Removing host plants will not eliminate spotted lanternfly.
Marylanders need to realize that SLF is going to remain present in the landscape despite most management efforts. The extent of each property owner’s response will need to be measured against how much of a problem the SLF are. The Department of Agriculture cautions all Marylanders to please be judicious in your application of insecticides and to always adhere to the product label.
Additional information on lanternfly management for residents can be found at:
- University of Maryland Extension.
- Penn State Extension.
- Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture, current research.
Permitting and Quarantine
The Secretary of Agriculture has issued a quarantine order for 18 Maryland counties. Businesses and institutions are required to be permitted if they move regulated articles from or within the quarantined area. Permitting is free and only needs to be undertaken by a single representative. That person can then train others on the identification and proper management of spotted lanternfly. Permits from other states are entirely reciprocal within Maryland. Be prepared to present your permit if questioned by an MDA inspector.
Persons found to be in violation of the Secretary’s quarantine order are liable for a civil penalty per each violation.
The list of regulated articles, the definition of persons required to obtain permits, as well as the parameters of the civil penalty can be found in the text of the Secretary of Agriculture’s quarantine order, here.
Residents should utilize the checklist for homeowners. Thoroughly inspect all items presented on this list for any type of spotted lanternfly life stage. Destroy all lanternfly that you discover. This will help slow the spread of the insects to new areas.
The life cycle of butterflies consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Butterflies are insects with a so-called full cycle of transformations, since the larva is completely different from the adult. The transition from one stage to another, or transformation, is called metamorphosis.
Testicles are the first phase of insect development. The testicles must be preserved intact, so the butterflies take care of this, some lay them in the soil, others fill the testicles with secretions of glands that harden in the air — a capsule is obtained, the capsules are usually masked to match the color of the surface.
Another way is that the insects cover the testicles with hairs or scales that are scraped from the abdomen. The female lays her eggs in batches, which can contain a few eggs, and can reach hundreds of eggs. Depending on the species, they are arranged in layers, in a line or in a ring around the shoot of the plant that the caterpillars will feed on.
In some species, the female disperses the eggs in flight. The development of the embryo depends on climatic conditions and can last from several days to several months, especially when the insect hibernates at the egg stage.
larvae emerge from the eggs — caterpillars . They actively feed, grow and accumulate substances for the next transformations.
The caterpillar has three pairs of jointed legs, armed with claws, and several (up to 5 pairs) false legs, equipped with bundles of claws, which allows it to keep well on the support. Caterpillars of diurnal butterflies are very diverse in color and external structure. They have gnawing mouthparts and, for the most part, feed on the leaves of various plants.
Caterpillars grow fast. Gradually, the outer covers (cuticles) of the larva become too tight for it, and they need to be changed. There is a molt, which is preceded by a period of growth. Most larvae have 5 or even more if the larva hibernates. Therefore, the life span of the larvae can reach from several weeks to several months, and for carpenters up to 2-3 years.
At the last molt, the caterpillar turns into chrysalis .
The color and shape of the body of butterfly pupae is no less diverse than that of caterpillars. Butterfly pupae do not feed or move, they are usually attached to branches, leaves, various objects (the so-called «belted» and «hanging» pupae), or lie freely on the soil — among fallen leaves and in soil litter.
The duration of the pupal stage can vary from a few weeks (in some tropical species) to nine months or more (in temperate climates where winters are long). During this period, organs and tissues change and acquire features characteristic of adults, wings and muscles are formed.
A butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.
Adult butterfly (adult) quickly reaches sexual maturity and is ready to breed in a few days. Depending on how quickly the butterfly fulfills this main purpose, it lives from several days to several weeks. The exception is wintering butterflies, which can live for more than 10 months.
Life cycle of butterflies: how does a butterfly develop?
- What is metamorphosis and why is it needed?
- Butterfly development: four stages of the life cycle groups. In representatives of the first group, the larvae emerging from the egg are similar to adults and differ from them only in the absence of wings. These include cockroaches, grasshoppers, locusts, bugs, praying mantises, stick insects, etc. These are insects with incomplete transformation. In the second group, eggs hatch into worm-like larvae, completely different from their parents, which then turn into pupae, and only after that adult winged insects emerge from the pupae. Such is the cycle of development of insects with complete transformation. These include mosquitoes, bees, wasps, flies, fleas, beetles, caddis flies, and butterflies.
What is metamorphosis and what is it for?
Metamorphosis, i.e. a life cycle with a series of successive transformations is a very successful acquisition in the struggle for existence. Therefore, it is widely distributed in nature and is found not only in insects, but also in other living organisms. Metamorphosis allows different stages of the same species to avoid competition among themselves for food and for habitats. After all, the larva eats other food and lives in a different place, there is no competition between larvae and adults. Caterpillars gnaw on leaves, adult butterflies quietly feed on flowers — and no one interferes with anyone. With the help of metamorphosis, the same species simultaneously occupies several ecological niches (feeding both on leaves and flowers in the case of butterflies), which also increases the chances of a species to survive in a constantly changing environment. After the next change, at least one of the stages will survive, which means it will survive, the whole species will continue to exist.
Butterfly development: four stages of the life cycle
So, butterflies are insects with complete transformation — they have all four stages of the corresponding life cycle: egg, caterpillar-larvae, pupa and imago — an adult insect. Let us consider successively the stages of transformations in butterflies.
First, an adult butterfly lays an egg and thus gives rise to a new life. Eggs, depending on the species, can be round, oval, cylindrical, conical, flattened, and even bottle-like. Eggs differ not only in shape, but also in color (usually they are white with a green tint, but other colors are not so rare — brown, red, blue, etc.).
Eggs are covered with a dense hard shell — chorion. The embryo under the chorion is supplied with a supply of nutrients, very similar to the well-known egg yolk. It is according to it that the two main life forms of Lepidoptera eggs are distinguished. The eggs of the first group are poor in yolk. In those species of butterflies that lay such eggs, inactive and weak caterpillars develop. Outwardly, they look like tadpoles — a huge head and a thin thin body. Caterpillars of these species should begin to feed immediately after hatching, only after that they acquire quite well-fed proportions. That is why butterflies of these species lay their eggs on a host plant — on leaves, stems or branches. Eggs placed on plants are characteristic of diurnal butterflies, hawks, and many scoops (especially arrowheads).
Cabbage Butterfly Eggs
In other butterflies, the eggs are rich in yolk and ensure the development of strong and active caterpillars. After leaving the egg shell, these caterpillars immediately begin to spread and are able to cover sometimes very considerable distances for them before they find suitable food. Therefore, butterflies that lay such eggs do not need to take special care of their placement — they lay them where they have to. Thinworms, for example, scatter eggs on the ground in bulk right on the fly. In addition to fine-weavers, this method is typical for bagworms, glass-cases, many volnyanka, cocoon-worms and she-bears.
There are also Lepidoptera that try to sink their eggs into the ground (some scoops).
The number of eggs in a clutch also depends on the species and sometimes reaches 1000 or more, but not all of them survive to the adult stage — this depends on factors such as temperature and air humidity. In addition, butterfly eggs have no enemies from the world of insects.
The average duration of the egg stage is 8-15 days, but in some species the eggs hibernate and this stage lasts for months.
Caterpillar is the larva of a butterfly. It is usually worm-like and has a gnawing mouthpart. As soon as the caterpillar is born, it begins to feed intensively. Most larvae feed on leaves, flowers and fruits of plants. Some species feed on wax and horny substances. There are also larvae — predators, their diet includes sedentary aphids, mealybugs, etc.
In the process of growth, the caterpillar molts several times — changes its outer shell. On average, there are 4-5 molts, but there are also species that molt up to 40 times. After the last molt, the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis. Butterfly caterpillars living in colder climates often do not have time to complete their life cycle in one summer and fall into winter diapause.
Many people think that the more beautiful and brighter the caterpillar, the more beautiful the butterfly that has developed from it will be. However, it is often just the opposite. For example, from the bright caterpillar of a large harpy (Cerura vinula), a very modestly colored moth is obtained.
The pupae do not move or feed, they just lie (hang) and wait, consuming the reserves accumulated by the caterpillar. Outwardly, it seems that nothing is happening, but this last stage of an amazing transformation can be called a “stormy calm”. Inside the pupa at this time, very important vital processes of restructuring the body are boiling, new organs appear and form.
The chrysalis is completely defenseless, the only thing that allows it to survive is its relative invisibility to enemies — birds and predatory insects.
Peacock butterfly pupa
Usually the development of a butterfly in a pupa lasts 2-3 weeks, but in some species the pupa is a stage that falls into winter diapause.
Pupae are silent creatures, but there are exceptions: the pupa of the hawk moth dead head and the pupa of the blueberry artaxerxes can … squeak.
An adult insect emerges from the pupa — imago. The shell of the pupa bursts, and the imago, clinging to the edge of the shell with its feet, while applying a lot of effort, crawls out.
A newborn butterfly cannot fly yet — its wings are small, as if rolled up, and wet. The insect necessarily climbs to a vertical elevation, where it remains until it fully spreads its wings.