The Life Cycle of a Butterfly (and What Makes it Choose YOUR Garden)


We've talked before about butterfly gardening.

Now it's butterfly season once again. Perhaps you're incubating your own cocoons (something my family has done before - such fun!). Or maybe you're simply keeping a lookout for those first fluttering wings of spring.

Have you ever been curious to know a bit more about just how a slightly funny, not-quite-lovely caterpillar evolves into a butterfly...and why it chose your garden to do it in? Read on for some interesting butterfly facts - and for tips on how to make your own garden a butterfly attractant.

It All Starts With an Egg


You may never have seen one (they're tiny), but all future butterflies and moths start, like most living creatures, as an egg. Different species have different habits of the total amount of eggs laid at a time and the total laid during the course of a reproductive lifetime, but nearly all butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on the underside of leaves that will later become food for the hatchling.

A very few produce on the go: for example, the ghost moth lays eggs while flying and drops the eggs into patches of greenery.

Some species of butterflies have a preferred plant; for example, monarch moms tend to seek out milkweed plants. However, if necessary, the ready-to-lay parent will seek out crevices, such as cracks in walls, or will lay on the underside of flower petals.

Butterfly eggs may be round or oval, pod-shaped and white, green or yellow. 

It's a...Hatchling


Gestation times for the egg vary by species, and some will only hatch when the weather is warm enough. But one way or another, eventually, the egg will release a small caterpillar.

Caterpillars come out hankering for a feast and stay that way. They first eat their way out of the egg (most species), then they eat the host plant they were attached to just moments before hatching. (Tip: See "What About Garden Damage?" below.)

The caterpillars continue to munch down in a desperate effort to beat the clock and be large and mature enough when the time comes to create a cocoon around themselves in preparation for metamorphosis. Caterpillars grow so quickly that most species shed their skin entirely at least four to five times during this stage.

Stop! It's Pupa Time


Now the caterpillar is ready to create its cocoon, also known as a chrysalis or pupa. The caterpillar selects what it feels is a safe, protected place - usually the underside of a leaf or in the midst of thick, bushy growth. 

The caterpillar spins the cocoon, which surrounds it, hardens, and becomes a protective shell. A number of these will get eaten each season, but if enough survive, the butterfly/moth population will continue on. 

During this stage the caterpillar is developing, and you know what comes next...

A Butterfly at Last


After weeks or months, depending upon the species, the pupa cracks and the butterfly struggles out. At this stage, the new butterfly's wings are wet and it is unable to fly. It's a vulnerable time in the butterfly's life cycle.

While the newly hatched butterfly waits this out, its body floods with a liquid called hemolymph to strengthen the wings.

Then the butterfly is ready to fly off and seek food as an adult (and mate, to continue the process all over again).

Why Your Garden?


So why should a butterfly (or a bunch of them) choose your garden to go through these tricky, often hazardous stages?

That's the key right there, actually. A butterfly will lay eggs in an area she feels is:

  • protected from predators: lots of leaves and ground cover
  • near a water source
  • plentiful in plants that are helpful to a caterpillar's growth
  • will have lots of places for the metamorphosis (pupa) stage

If you're looking to attract butterflies to your garden, plant flowers butterflies like to eat and hide in. Set out dishes of water for your little flying friends. Then wait for warm weather - most butterflies don't want to reproduce in colder weather.

Follow the guidelines in this article to plant a garden that will appeal to butterflies. If you're maturing your own little caterpillars in a butterfly "house," make sure you have plenty of butterfly-friendly plants outdoors for the butterflies' eventual release so they'll have the resources they need. They'll want to stay local, they'll want to reproduce, and you'll have more beautiful butterflies in your garden, year after year.

What About Garden Damage?

You knew it would come to this, didn't you? After all, you've spent weeks (or months...or years) cultivating an absolutely gorgeous garden. As we've demonstrated above, caterpillars are very, very hungry little creatures, and so, to a lesser but still notable extent, are their evolved butterfly selves. What to do?

The truth is that no matter what you do, if you're encouraging butterflies to your property, you won't be able to avoid some damage. But here are a few ways to manage the problem.

  • Plant a garden specifically for your butterflies. The butterflies WILL spread out (so prepare for that eventuality), but if you place butterfly-friendly plants, they'll prefer those and may fill up much more so in those areas.
  • Plant your "butterfly plants" some distance from the rest of your garden(s). Butterflies can travel a distance in seconds, but these are less voracious than their caterpillar stage selves, which travel much more slowly. Putting some distance between your butterfly and other garden(s) means the caterpillars will munch through the utilitarian butterfly garden to a greater extent and because food is plentiful, may stay there until they're ready for the chrysalis stage.
  • Put distance between your veggie garden plants, but bunch your butterfly garden plants. Caterpillars instinctively know they're at risk from hungry predators and are more comfortable amid a lot of dense ground cover. Similarly, caterpillars who are ready to lay eggs look for dense foliage to protect their "babies." If you space your decoratives or veggies from one another, but plant your butterfly garden very densely, both butterflies and caterpillars will prefer the latter.
  • Add water. Put a bee-and-butterfly water dish down in the areas you want butterflies and babies to congregate. 
  • Let your caterpillar garden get a little wild. As with the bullet directly above, more "stuff" and crowding is very, very appealing to vulnerable caterpillars. Let weeds (if they're not quick spreaders) grow in your butterfly garden (plant plenty of wildflower varieties so the garden will have a natural look). Don't cut back. You can always pull and re-plant your wildflowers later if you need to control things a bit.



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