Butterfly Life Cycle

In the last unit, students investigated whether plants need light and water to grow, and then explored how flowers have specific structures that help them attract pollinators to make seeds. In this unit, students focus on one kind of pollinator—the butterfly. They observe butterflies moving through their life cycle and then create a model butterfly to observe its different parts. This page showcases all of the essential parts of the first lesson in this unit.

Science Background for Teachers:

Science background gives teachers in-depth information on the phenomena being studied in this unit. It helps teachers facilitate Socratic dialogues with students surrounding the topic being explored which in this case, is the butterfly life cycle.

Weiss was curious about the memory of butterflies and moths because they undergo a complete metamorphosis. Metamorphosis happens when a living thing completely changes its form from one stage to the next in its life cycle. A life cycle is the stages a living thing goes through on its way from birth to death.

The life cycle of a butterfly includes four stages. In the first stage, an adult female lays tiny, round eggs scattered or clustered together on a host plant that will later become food for her offspring. Every type of butterfly or moth egg takes a different amount of time to hatch.

When the eggs hatch, larvae emerge. The larva is an insect’s young, worm-like form. The larvae of butterflies and moths are caterpillars. The caterpillar exists to eat, only taking breaks to defecate or shed its skin (molt) and grow larger.

When the caterpillar finishes growing, it encloses itself in a protective skin (called a chrysalis for butterflies) and becomes a pupa. The pupa is the inactive stage of an insect when it doesn’t eat, but inside, the entire structure of the caterpillar is changing. Its organs are breaking down, and it is re-forming into a butterfly or moth.

Supports Grade 2

Science Lesson: Investigating the Butterfly Life Cycle

Students begin this unit by focusing on how butterflies undergo metamorphosis as they move through their life cycle. Students observe the different stages of painted lady butterflies as they develop and grow. 

Science Big Ideas

  • One of the reasons we know that butterflies are living things is that they grow as they move through their life cycle.  
  • Unlike people or plants, butterflies go through metamorphosis, which happens whenever a living thing completely changes its form from one stage to the next in its life cycle.

Sample Unit CTA-2
Discover Complete Hands-on Screens-off Core Science Curriculum for K-8 Classrooms

Prepared hands-on materials, full year grade-specific curriculum, and personalized live professional development designed to support mastery of current state science standards.

Science Essential Questions

  • What happens to people as we grow?
  • How is the way that people grow different from how butterflies grow?
  • How did the plants in the last unit grow?
  • How is a caterpillar connected to a butterfly?
  • What has to happen before a caterpillar can turn into an adult?
  • How does the caterpillar change during the pupa stage?  
  • How does a butterfly look different from a caterpillar?

Common Science Misconceptions

Misconception: Animals don’t need plants to survive.
Fact: Animals cannot live without plants. Plants give animals food and shelter.
Misconception: Plants don’t need animals to survive.
Fact: Plants and animals depend on each other. One reason that many plants need animals is for pollination.

Science Vocabulary

Abdomen: the back segment of an insect where the stomach is

Antennae:  body parts of insects that are used to smell, touch, and taste things

Larva: an insect’s young, worm-like form; a caterpillar for butterflies and moths

Pupa:  the inactive stage of an insect when it changes; does not eat

Head: the front segment of an insect where the antennae, mouthparts, and eyes are found

Life cycle: the stages an organism passes through on its way from birth to death

Metamorphosis: when a living thing completely changes its form from one stage to the next in its life cycle

Thorax: the middle segment of an insect where the legs and wings are found

Lexile(R) Certified Non-Fiction Science Reading (Excerpt)

Studying Butterflies 

Martha is a scientist. She studies butterflies and moths. One day, Martha had a question. Can adult butterflies remember things that happened to them when they were young?

How Butterflies Change

Butterflies and moths don’t grow like people do. As you grow, you get bigger. But your body keeps the same parts. Your head looks similar. So do your arms and legs.

Butterflies and moths go through a complete change as they grow. A young butterfly doesn’t look like an adult butterfly. This is why Martha was curious. She wanted to know if butterflies and moths remember things after they change.

As living things grow, they move through a life cycle. A life cycle is the stages all living things go through on their way from birth to death.

Butterflies and moths start as eggs. This is stage one. Time passes.

The eggs hatch. A caterpillar comes out of the egg. This caterpillar is the larva of moths and butterflies. A larva is an insect’s young, worm-like form. This is stage two.

Caterpillars eat a lot. They need to grow big. When a caterpillar grows big enough, it covers itself with a skin to protect it. It hangs from a branch. It is now in stage three. It is a pupa. The pupa is inactive. It doesn’t eat. It survives on the food it stored as a caterpillar. This is a pupa.

From the outside, it doesn’t look like much is happening. But inside, all of the parts of the caterpillar are changing. It is becoming a butterfly.


Hands-on Science Activity

In this lesson, students observe the butterfly life cycle and create a diagram of the painted lady butterfly at each state in its life cycle to gather data on how it changes as it moves from birth to death. Students use their magnifying glasses to observe the painted lady caterpillars as they progress through each stage of their life cycle. Students use information from the student reader and their own observations to evaluate what butterflies need to survive—such as air, water, and food—and how butterflies are different from plants.

Science Assessments

KnowAtom incorporates formative and summative assessments designed to make students thinking visible for deeper student-centered learning.

  • Vocabulary Check
  • Lab Checkpoints
  • Concept Check Assessment 
  • Concept Map Assessment 
  • And More...


Science Standards

See How KnowAtom Aligns to NGSS Science Standards

Discover hands-on screens-off core science curriculum for student centered K-8 classrooms. KnowAtom supports classrooms with all hands-on materials, curriculum, and professional development to support mastery of the standards.

Download the Alignment to NGSS

Standards citation: NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.