Caterpillars and Butterflies

A few years ago when I was working in a year two class in a UK primary school, our class was given an Easter present by a fellow staff member. We were studying the life cycle of animals at the time and this colleague had the brilliant idea to give us a gift to help illustrate this. We had been looking at frogs to begin with. We had a wildlife garden and the frogs were rampant guaranteeing an abundance of frog spawn each spring, I netted a small clump of spawn and we watched them grow in a tank in the classroom. Great stuff for seven-year olds (and a few adults like myself). But the present we’d been given was from a company call Insect Lore and was for butterflies. They provide a small jar of caterpillars complete with food and habitat for study before releasing them into the wild and helping to repopulate the declining butterfly population. Great for study and to help the survival of endangered species (especially in towns and cities). It was a complete success and all five caterpillars transformed into beautiful Painted Lady  butterflies to the children’s amazement. Every day they would ask “How are the caterpillars?” “How are the chrysalides?” CHRYSALIDES!! Seven year olds! Knowing these words and nurturing these tiny insects. Amazing!

Anyway, I no longer work at that school but I decided to buy another set of caterpillars this year to help the species and they arrived today ready to begin their transformation. They start as these tiny caterpillars which barely move and eat the culture at the bottom of the pot giving them all the nutrients they need to grow and transform over the 14 to 28 days  before becoming butterflies.

I will try my best to photograph them each day to document their progress and this quite remarkable transformation that goes unseen in almost every day life. Insert metaphor here for how we can all change and improve ourselves a la The Ugly Duckling. First photo to arrive tomorrow…


Less than a centimetre long



Apologies for not getting days 3, 4 and 5 on here, but as you can see the caterpillars have grown tremendously in the past few days. Each caterpillar is now approximately 4cm long and getting hairier and hairier. They’ve been munching on their food at the bottom of the tub and producing a silky web which I assume is a pre-cursor to being able to form a chrysalis. It should only be a few more days before they crawl up to the top of the pot, hang upside down and form their chrysalis.

VIDEO – Day 6

Day 6 Video

VIDEO – Day 12

Day 12 Video - Cocooning

Incredible to watch these caterpillars transform into their chrysalides. It happens remarkably quickly too. This footage was made up of photograph taken every 10 seconds and speed up to 4x speed, but the visual cocooning took about a minute for each caterpillar. I was annoyed to have missed the first two changing but got three and four. Number five was stubborn and just didn’t want to perform for the camera. This quality is rather shonky and I hope to have a much better quality hatching.


I have totally lost track of the days. I think we are on about day 20. After a week or so so of very little activity from the chrysalides, I was surprised to see an empty chrysalis when I got up this morning. One healthy Painted Lady born to the world. It was still pumping up it’s wings and finding it’s footing so I let it be. Came back half an hour later and another had hatched – do they hatch? Emerge? And another was just about to emerge too. I grabbed my camera and started filming – just missing the first couple of seconds . Three down two to go.


The last two were stubborn little buggers. I had my camera ready for them but they didn’t hatch until during the night. I was a little worried about one of them (the one to the left of the play icon in the above picture) as it’s chrysalis was a little deformed. Sure enough he came out with a gammy set of wings but he could still use them. After they all emerged I decorated their habitat for them to feel at home. Grabbed a few branches from the garden, sprinkled them with sugary water and sliced open an orange for them to drink the juice. They remained in the habitat for a few days. They were quite content in there drinking away at the orange juice and building up their strength. Photo opportunities 🙂

Crazy to think that just a few weeks ago this was a completely different organism!

Showing off amazing colours and getting her vitamin C


After five days in their habitat, it was time to release the five butterflies into the wild. I needed to wait for a sunny day day when they wouldn’t get rained on or blown away by gusty winds. Felt a little mean keeping them in the basket that long, but I wanted to give them a better chance when released to survive. When it came to releasing them, they actually didn’t want to go. They seemed quite content and needed a nudge to leave the basket. I got three of them to climb on to my finger (individually of course – I’m not some kind of butterfly whisperer!) and once they were outside the basket, they took a look around and off they went. The last two were too busy drinking from the orange I had put in there. I lifted the orange wedge out and laid it down in one of the flowers beds. They sat drinking for ages before flapping their wings and one after the other fluttering away in the wilds of south-west London.


I’m not sure how long they live for but it was interesting to watch their development from less than a centimeter long caterpillars, to beautifully coloured and intricate butterflies. Fare thee well!

Next year: stick insects!!

Some links:

How Stuff Works: How Caterpillars Work.

Painted Lady Complete Timelapse by jcmegabyte

Monarch Butterfly emerging by OrtegaALOHAS

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Joan Jenrich
    Apr 21, 2011 @ 01:40:34

    That’s such a nice experience. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress through your great photography.


  2. Sharon
    Apr 21, 2011 @ 08:22:11

    Is the piccy above your one from your last experiment? It was pretty from what I recall… looking forward to the results of the new one 🙂


    • Paul
      Apr 21, 2011 @ 11:46:20

      The main picture above is not one of the ones we watched grow. That was one that just flew into the garden and landed on the clematis. Looked it up, it was a comma butterfly. My caterpillars will turn into Painted Lady butterflies. First picture to arrive later today.


  3. Sharon
    May 06, 2011 @ 14:41:18

    That Day 12 video is really cool… I like the way the one on the far left is like “Yeah whatever, I’m not wearing one of THOSE!”

    E: Does my bum look big in this?
    P: Zeppelin in a condom sweedie…

    How do you know when they are going to ‘coccoon’? Do you have to watch them constantly? Do they tend to emerge when its warm and sunny??

    Its fascinating 🙂


    • Paul
      May 07, 2011 @ 13:38:25

      It’s crazy how fast they transform isn’t it! I’d love to know what is happening inside the chrysalis at the moment.

      It was just by chance that I caught them ‘cocooning’. They all crawled up to the top of the jar and hung out for a while, indicating they were about to do their thing. I’m definitely going to try to catch their emergence though. If you put ‘Painted lady time-lapse’ into YouTube you can see a really good version of what I was trying to do.


  4. smc
    Jul 19, 2011 @ 13:12:48

    I thought you had done time lapse of them hatching or maybe I am mixing it up with something else I’ve seen. What software did you use to make the videos and export them to WP and You Tube?

    Sis x


    • paulmcd
      Jul 19, 2011 @ 14:16:16

      No I didn’t do a time lapse of the hatching. There was no need to as it doesn’t take them long to hatch. Plus I only just managed to grab my camera to record this one in time. Seems like ages ago now.
      I just used Windows Movie Maker to add the sound to the videos and you can upload directly from there onto YouTube. Very easy!!


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