Witnessing the monarch butterfly life cycle stages from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly over the course of a few weeks in our own backyard has been one of the most uplifting and amazing experiences.
Since late February, I’ve captured photos and videos of the different monarch butterfly life cycle stages and transformation right here in my own and my neighbor’s backyard in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood of St. Petersburg, Florida.
What started with my neighbor Joanne showing me caterpillars in her yard and a chrysalis hanging on the wall of her garage, has turned into a beautiful and delightful creative and zoological project.
Also: now Scott and I are hooked on buying milkweed plants like all the other “suckers” – as we freak out when the caterpillars are chewing down on the last leaves and we wonder: if we don’t find more plants, will the caterpillars starve? … where will the butterflies lay their eggs? … do monarch caterpillars eat up the leaves that already have monarch eggs on them? … does that make them sick? … would that be considered cannibalism?
Anyway. I’m pleased to finally share with you photos and videos covering all the stages of monarch butterfly transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly to laying eggs again. Okay, I didn’t capture the “making eggs” phase – but I’ll add that if I ever do.
Monarch Life Cycle Stage: Caterpillar
The caterpillar (aka larva) emerges from the egg that the monarch butterfly has stuck to the bottom of a milkweed leaf. Here the caterpillar will eat its way through the leaves and buds of the milkweed and go through 5 growing stages (aka instar) – shedding its skin five times. It goes from tiny and almost translucent to impressively large (about 2 inches long) and black-white-yellow striped. The entire caterpillar stage lasts around 10 – 14 days.
Turning Into A Chrysalis (Pupa)
Next, the caterpillar will find a place to just hang on and turn into a chrysalis. This does not have to be a milkweed plant – but preferably somewhere safe, where one doesn’t get knocked about.
Monarch Life Cycle Stage: Chrysalis
For about 8 – 12 days, the chrysalis will appear to be doing nothing – but inside, the monarch butterfly metamorphosis is happening from larva via goo to butterfly!
The Butterfly Finally Emerges!
The moment has finally arrived. And I felt so lucky that I got to witness what truly felt like a miracle: the monarch butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, unfurling its wings and pulling out its surprisingly long body. Thank you, Joanne, for watching and letting me know when this was happening. Hope I get to see one in my own yard soon – and from the very beginning of the first “opening pop”.
Here is a video I made of the monarch butterfly emerging from its thin chrysalis walls. This process usually only takes about 15 minutes. In this case it took about 45 minutes. To make this video only 2:15 minutes long, I chose just a few moments.
EDIT 5/14/21: Since I shot that first “butterfly emerges from chrysalis” video that inspired me to write this blog post, I watched and filmed a few more monarch butterflies pop out of their chrysalis. It turns out that the first one was having a very hard time. And I don’t think it’s representative anymore – and actually hard to watch. I’ve taken that video out of this blog post.
EDIT 8/14: Since that first time witnessing a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, I’ve got to watch and record a few more – and those all went smoothly. Now I got to notice and capture several other important aspects of the monarch turning from pupa into fully-developed butterfly.
- You know that a monarch butterfly is ready to emerge when the chrysalis has turned from green to what appears to be black – but really is translucent and revealing the black butterfly body and some of its furled wings. It will emerge within 24 hours.
- Then the monarch cocoon expands a bit near the top, just above the line of gold dots (between two “rings”). This is your heads-up that the butterfly will emerge in a few minutes. Get ready…
- Especially when you speed up the video (see the monarch butterfly emerges time-lapse video below), you can see how the pumping of the (at first short, round and eventually elongated) body is in sync with the “pumping up” of the veins in the butterfly wings which leads them to unfurl and straighten into the butterfly wings as we know them.
- If you keep watching, you’ll see the butterfly curl and uncurl its TWO “tongues” until they fuse and turn into one long proboscis / tongue / trunk that it needs to absorb nectar from flowers.
AND HERE FINALLY is the new video of a monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis (without complications). This video is sped up 600%. I plan on uploading another one in real time soon…
Or if you have the time to just watch the whole process in real time, here is the real-time 12-minute version of the same butterfly coming out of its pupa:
A few photos from that time-lapse video:
Here are a few photos I took in-between shooting the first video:
Monarch Life Cycle Stage: Butterfly Life
The regular female and male butterflies get to flutter around, consume nectar, and induce smiles for 2 – 6 weeks. The so-called super generation, the last generation of the season, usually born in late summer in the Northern US is the one that lives around 8 months and will migrate down to Mexico.
In Florida, we supposedly have some monarch butterflies that simply stay here and don’t migrate. Kind of like those Sandhill Cranes that live in Paynes Prairie year-round and can’t be bothered to fly back north again.
Monarch Life Cycle Stage: Eggs…
Throughout the few weeks of its life, the female monarch will lay eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. That’s why we now have plants in different stages, too – just about matching the monarch butterfly life cycle stages. Some have grown new leaves since that plant’s larvae have moved on to their chrysalis phase – while other plants are being eaten by the next batch of larvae.
Behind The Butterfly Scenes
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