Newport This Week

The Magic of the Butterfly Metamorphosis

When caterpillars emerge from the egg after a few days, they are just millimeters in length. They spend the next two weeks eating milkweed leaves and shedding their skin as they grow. By the time they are ready to form a chrysalis, they are 2,000 times larger than when they hatched.

When the caterpillar is ready, it will find a stick or stalk to hang from, spinning a silk tether to keep itself in place. Then it enters the pupa stage, forming a light green chrysalis ringed with small gold dots. It seems to outside observers that nothing much is happening during the pupa stage, but it is actually a time of incredible transformation. The winged adult that emerges looks nothing like the larva that entered the pupa stage. It’s the magic of metamorphosis.

We have often raised butterflies during our summer camp, so the children can observe this amazing natural process. There is almost nothing more joyful than watching a child hold a fresh adult butterfly on their hand before it takes off for the sky.

The monarch is the most common species we raise. We do it by locating the eggs on leaves and placing them in a mesh enclo­sure surrounded by more young, tender milkweed leaves. We add leaves as needed and provide sticks for the pupa to hang from.

Just before the adult emerges, the chrysalis darkens and be­comes less opaque, so you can see the orange and black package inside. Once it emerges, the but­terfly must rest, as its wings un­fold and dry before it takes flight.

In most species, the lifecycle takes place in a relatively small area over a period of a few months. They may have multiple generations over the course of the summer, but then they overwinter as adults, caterpillars or pupa in the same area, waiting for spring to come.

Lauren Parmelee

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