How Long Do Butterflies Live?

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: July 5, 2021


Butterflies are beautiful and remarkable creatures, but they tend to have relatively short lifespans. In fact, the longest-lived adult butterfly has a lifespan of only one year.

However, different species of butterflies can have different lifespans.

How Long Does the Average Butterfly Live?

Scientists usually study butterfly lifespans and habits by marking them in the wild and then either recapturing or sighting them later and recording the data. While they can also study them in captivity, it is always best to study creatures in their natural habitats in order to get the most complete picture of how they live their lives.

Butterflies in the wild are exposed to many more dangers and predators, so studying them this way gives scientists a more accurate view of how long they typically live.

On average, most adult butterflies only live for about two weeks. Some may live up to six weeks, and the ones that migrate to more tropical climates may live even longer before they return home to mate.

The Life Cycle of a Butterfly

Butterflies live their lives in four stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly

Egg

In the egg stage, a mother butterfly will lay her eggs on a plant that will provide proper nutrition for the larvae when they hatch. The eggs typically hatch after about a week, but the eggs of some species may take more or less time. Butterflies usually take a “quantity” approach to egg-laying, so they will lay many eggs in the hope that a small portion of them will survive.

How Long Do Butterflies Live
Monarch butterfly egg (Danaus plexippus), New Jersey (1x.6mm). Butterflies glue their eggs to leaves. The egg would be destroyed if anything tried to remove them from the plant.

Caterpillar

This is also known as the larval stage. A caterpillar’s entire existence revolves around eating as much as possible in order to grow and store up as many nutrients as it can. It uses this stored food later as an adult, so it’s essential for the caterpillar to eat well during this stage.

Did you know that caterpillars can grow up to 100 times their original size during this phase of their lives? They have tough exoskeletons, so they must molt and shed their skin many times as they continue to grow. For some species, such as the Black Swallowtail, molting can significantly change the caterpillar’s appearance.

On average, caterpillars live in this stage for up to five weeks, depending on the species.

How Long Do Butterflies Live
Monarch butterfly from caterpillar. Caterpillars only have 6 true legs and eat a lot.

Pupa

This is more commonly known as the chrysalis stage. When a caterpillar has become fully grown and no longer needs to eat, it begins this transitional phase of its life.

A few species of butterfly will spin themselves a silk cocoon, but the majority will simply anchor themselves to a safe place and harden into a chrysalis. How long this stage lasts can vary significantly among different butterfly species. Some may only remain in a chrysalis for a couple of weeks, but others can stay in this state for up to two years.

During this transitional stage, the larva inside of the chrysalis completely liquefies, and special cells that were dormant before now activate to transform the caterpillar into its final adult form.

How Long Do Butterflies Live
Chrysalis Butterfly hanging on a leaf. Inside the chrysalis, the pupa changes into an adult butterfly. This transformation can take a few days for some kinds of butterflies or up to a year for others!

Adult

Once the adult butterfly emerges from its protective shell, it’s now ready to reproduce and begin the life cycle all over again. Because the only job of an adult butterfly is to mate and lay eggs, most species do not feed at all. This is why it’s so essential for caterpillars to store up as much food as possible so that they can live as healthy adults.

How Long Do Butterflies Live
Blue butterfly sitting on a beautiful flower. Butterflies don’t have a mouth; instead they ‘suck’ food up with a kind of drinking-straw-like apparatus called a proboscis.

What Affects a Butterfly’s Lifespan?

There are many factors that influence how long a butterfly lives.

How Long Do Butterflies Live: Size

In general, smaller butterflies do not live as long as larger ones.

How Long Do Butterflies Live: Species

Certain species are able to live longer than others. For example, Monarch butterflies often live for several months because they will migrate to warmer climates.

How Long Do Butterflies Live: Temperature

Butterflies are cold-blooded, so the ambient temperature also affects how long they live. Tropical and migratory butterflies tend to live longer because they spend more time in favorable climates. In addition, if butterfly eggs are laid in cold weather, they will remain as eggs until warmer weather comes around.

How Long Do Butterflies Live: Captivity

As mentioned earlier, butterflies that live in the wild often have much shorter lifespans because they are exposed to nature. There are predators like birds and larger insects in the wild, and factors like sudden temperature changes or habitat shifts can drastically shorten a butterfly’s lifespan.

While butterflies that live in captivity still have relatively short lifespans, they will almost always far outlive their natural life expectancy. This is because they have access to ample nutrients as caterpillars, a safe environment as pupae, and a controlled, predator-free environment as adults.

Fun Facts About the Butterfly Lifespan

  • Did you know that many species of adult butterflies are born without mouths? Some are able to sip nectar from flowers, but most species rely on the nutrients they were able to store as caterpillars. This is why adults tend to have a short lifespan.
  • Only one or two out of every 100 butterfly eggs survives to the caterpillar stage. Because so many eggs are lost to predators and disease, female butterflies will lay hundreds of eggs at once.
  • Some butterflies live longer by hibernating in safe, warm places during the winter. Others, like the North American monarch butterfly, migrate across the country to spend the cold months in places like California.

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