Warmer months mean rebirth, a celebration of the survival of harsher climes, and nature’s beauty unfolding. Nothing exemplifies this quite like the butterfly. Their existence is very symbolic to humans, not only for their beauty, but for their life cycle. How long do butterflies live? It all depends on your perspective, for the butterfly undergoes drastic changes with each stage of life that ultimately leads to the kind, fluttery insect you know in your garden. The metamorphosis of a butterfly is one of nature’s best-loved events, and seems to hold promise for anyone looking for a little metamorphosis in their own lives.
How Long Do Butterflies Live
How long butterflies live is, like most questions about animal lifespan, entirely dependent on the species. There are currently tens of thousands of species of butterfly on the planet, and the length of their metamorphosis and time spent as a “full blown” butterfly varies. Some will live to fly just a few days, while other species will aim to survive an entire year.
A butterfly begins its life as an egg, and how long it will live depends on surviving each incarnation. A matured, female butterfly lays her eggs on the plants she visits. As with most cold-blooded egg layers, certain species of butterfly will lay as many eggs as she can in order to better ensure survival of her lineage. Inside of this egg is a larva, and when it hatches, it will eat the remainder of the egg.
After hatching, the next phase of life for the butterfly is as a caterpillar. The purpose of the caterpillar phase is to nourish- to eat and eat, and hopefully grow and survive to a healthy next stage before earning their wings. Every true caterpillar you see has the potential to become a moth or a butterfly, so keep that in mind the next time you observe a slow-moving squirmer in your yard who seems to have lost their host plant. You may even help it by carefully and gently placing in on a lush plant. Leaves are the food that sustains them, and in fact, the very first leaf they devour is the same one their mother laid their egg upon. The caterpillar will eat so much that it will grow a few inches in a few weeks, and will have to shed its skin to accommodate its size several times in the process. One reason it eats so much, so quickly is that often, the caterpillar stage does not last long. The other reason is that soon, the caterpillar will go into a special kind of hiding to work the most important magic of the metamorphosis.
When we asked how long do butterflies live, and it was said that that was dependent on what one considered a butterfly, what is meant is that we must recognize a butterfly before it can fly. Many children in elementary school classrooms will recognize a butterfly in its pupal stage, since many teachers traditionally bring a chrysalis into the class to explain a butterfly’s life. The chrysalis is a special sac created by the caterpillar of its own skin during the final shed. Some species spin it of silk. Regardless of how they make it and what it’s made of, sturdiness and camouflage are key. A chrysalis is often colored a fine blend of the foliage around it, the foliage that the caterpillar nourished itself on. Also, the chrysalis should be secured under a bough or in a thicket, to prevent predation. Birds, wasps, and spiders are known to eat the pupa inside of the chrysalis before emergence as a butterfly, so the caterpillar will try to choose a secret spot to change in private.
This final process can take a few weeks or a few years, depending on the species. The soon-to-be butterfly does not eat during this stage, and the entire body breaks down into a soup in order to reform and emerge under the new identity. When the time is drawing near, the chrysalis will start to become more transparent, and the color and pattern of the new wings may be visible through the papery sac.
Once the butterfly is born into adulthood, it needs a few hours to get their bearings, pump up the wings, sort out their jaws, and learn to fly. If you want to know how long butterflies live in this form, it can be rather depressing. Many species of adult butterfly live for a few days to a month. It seems like a brief period of glory for such a complicated journey, but butterflies make the most of it. Their time in this last phase revolves entirely around mating and eating. Depending on the species, they drink nectar from flowers, or live on tree sap and other ripe or sweet plant material. They find partners to mate with- a female butterfly will try to lay a hundred eggs before she dies.
In the end, it is the urgent and productive way a butterfly lives that benefits all of us. Butterflies pollinate fruits and flowers, strengthening plant life on the planet in myriad small ways. When a butterfly travels from flower to flower drinking nectar, they take and redistribute pollen with them, so it may be an inadvertent gift, but it’s a valuable one nonetheless, particularly as bee populations dwindle. The short life of a butterfly has also made great contributions in the area of research. Since butterflies have been so widely studied, they tell us a lot about the ecosystems they lived in and the factors that threaten it. But mostly, butterflies give us the most value just by being around them in nature. Many people regard butterflies as good omens, bringing love or luck with them when they land near you. Attract these beauties to your yard by planting lilacs, zinnias, daisies, and snapdragons. That way, no matter how long butterflies live, you will be providing an ideal environment that will foster generations and generations of them for years to come.