The life cycle of a butterfly is one of the most magical transformations, and it is amazing for kids to witness and learn about.
But somethings just aren’t learned as well on paper- they need to be seen in real life. The life cycle of a butterfly is one of these things.
Don’t forget to talk to your kids during their time observing caterpillars and butterflies. Use butterfly vocabulary like metamorphosis, chrysalis, and name the parts of the butterfly!
The Life Cycle of a Butterfly (Using Real Butterflies!)
The first thing you need to do if to find some caterpillars! This may sound hard to do, but not if you know where to look. (This is also a perfect time to plant a butterfly garden for your kids!)
Where to Find Caterpillars:
Every caterpillar has a specific diet, some eat more than one type of plant, but others eat only one specific plant, so it is important to make sure you bring your caterpillars inside with the correct food.
Look along the plant for signs of caterpillars. Signs include nibbled leaves and droppings on the leaves or ground. You can also look on the undersides of the leaves for eggs.
Common Caterpillars and Their Host Plants:
Tiger Swallow Tail: White Ash, Black Cherry, Choke Cherry, Sassafras
Black Swallow Tail: Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace
Cabbage Moth Butterfly: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Turnip, Kale, Cabbage- and others of this family
Buckeye: Plantain, Gerardia, Snapdragon, Verbena
Gulf Fritillary: Passion Flower
Painted Lady: Thistle, Hollyhock, Nettle- this particular butterfly has a very wide range of host plants
Learning About the Butterfly’s Life Cycle Inside
Once you have found your caterpillars, it’s time to bring them inside.
Your first step is to identify your caterpillar. If you don’t already know which kind you have, have the kids help you identify it using a book (we love these little guides!) or using the internet.
You want to place your caterpillars in a safe place- with plenty of food to sustain them while they grow. A butterfly tent is one of the most common places to keep your live caterpillars.
Going from Caterpillar to Butterfly
Caterpillars eat a lot and grow fast. Be sure to keep your host plant fresh and have plenty of it available for them to eat.
Once they reach full size they will crawl to the top of their enclosure and anchor themselves there. Some butterflies, like the Cabbage Moth Butterfly will make its chrysalis on the back of the leaves.
If you see one upside down and hanging that means it is getting close to forming its chrysalis. It is an amazing process to watch, so if you are around, keep an eye on them and you just might see the change happen.
Once they form a chrysalis, they will stay that way for 1-2 weeks depending on the type of butterfly.
You will see the chrysalis change color and darken as it gets closer to emerging. Sometimes you can see the wings inside too.
Often you will miss the actual emergence and find your new butterfly hanging from their chrysalis drying. Leave them alone for a few hours to allow their wings ample time to dry.
Once they start to move around in their enclosure, it is time to release them back into nature.
Releasing Butterflies into Nature
This is one of the best moments of raising butterflies inside. Out in your yard it can be really tough to catch one, but now you have a brand new butterfly, who is very content just to sit on your finger.
Be gentle when handling butterflies, as they are fragile. Use only one finger to pick them up and allow them to walk on to you as opposed to grabbing them with your whole hand.
If you are working with toddlers or young children, instruct them on how to hold butterflies and position their hands with only one finger out.
When you are ready to release them, take them out in the yard and place them on a tree or bush, preferably one that has flowers.
If you watch closely you might see them have their first meal using their long proboscis.
Make sure they are off the ground so that cats, birds or other predators won’t be as likely to see them. Depending on how rested they are, they may not fly yet, some will sit on the tree for awhile before taking flight.
And that’s it! You have successfully raised caterpillars and learned about the life cycle of a butterfly first hand.
Encourage More Butterfly Life Cycle Learning
While you and your children are watching your caterpillars go through metamorphosis, encourage them to learn more using books, crafts, and discussions.
Books on the Life Cycle of a Butterfly:
Butterfly Life Cycle Crafts and Activities:
Check out 21 Butterfly Crafts for Toddlers and Preschoolers for more ideas!