Out walking this morning, I spotted an unusual leaf right in my path: I bent down to investigate, and sadly discovered when I turned it over, that it was a dead Monarch Butterfly. I felt sad for it – yes, I know they have a short life and there must be millions dying every day, but one had died right at my feet, and it was beautiful and colourful and lay in all its glory, in my hand, motionless, where it should have been fluttering and busy doing what butterflies do. It was a good opportunity to take a closer look, as butterflies on the move are very hard to see clearly, and despite its apparent size, the body itself is tiny.

I know their life is short, generally only living 2 to 6 weeks. They have four stages in their lives - egg, larva (or caterpillar), pupa (or chrysalis), and adult, and the whole event takes a mere 30 days from being an egg to emerging as a magnificent butterfly.

The Monarch Butterfly is fussy and lays her eggs on the milkweed plants. They are generally bad parents in that they don’t care for their young, but at least lay them where they can feed after hatching! The eggs become caterpillars, and take about four days to hatch. The caterpillar doesn’t do much more than eat the milkweed in order to grow, and after around two weeks will be fully grown and will then attach itself to a leaf or stem with a fine silky thread so that it can start the process of metamorphosis into the third stage, the pupa (or chrysalis).

Credits: Unsplash; Author: sahil-muhammed;

At this point, it may look like nothing is going on but big changes are happening inside the chrysalis - within 10 days the old body parts of the caterpillar will undergo a remarkable transformation. Special cells are now growing rapidly and will become the legs, wings, eyes and other parts of the adult butterfly. Many of the original larvae cells will provide energy for these growing adult cells. The chrysalis will finally undergo its metamorphic change into the colourful butterfly we know and admire.

Credits: Unsplash; Author: sahil-muhammed;

So, what do they do, exactly?

You might not like caterpillars eating plants in your garden, but without them, we wouldn’t have butterflies at all. The caterpillar's job is to eat. The adult butterfly’s job is to mate and lay eggs. Some species of adult butterflies get energy by feeding on nectar from flowers and some species don't feed at all, but the Monarch feeds on nectar, which contains sugars and other nutrients.

Credits: Unsplash; Author: gayatri-malhotra;

The ability to fly is handy - the adult female can easily fly from place to place to find the right plant, milkweed, for her eggs, and this is essential because caterpillars can't travel far.

Butterflies are important, and there’s more to them than just being pretty, as they help pollinate plants and fruits that are valued by the environment by carrying pollen on their bodies from one plant to another. This helps fruits, vegetables and flowers to produce new seeds, and the majority of plants need pollinators to reproduce. They’re an indicator of a healthy environment, as somewhere that attracts butterflies will also bring native bees and birds, unfortunately for butterflies and caterpillars, they are also on the menu as a food source for birds, spiders, lizards, mice and other animals. If butterfly populations diminish or disappear altogether, the impact will be felt higher up and could affect the entire ecosystem.

Credits: Unsplash; Author: david-clode;

They see things we can’t!

Butterflies can see colours that we cannot because they can perceive ultraviolet light, which is outside the scope of our visual capabilities. Additionally, many butterflies' wings include these ‘unknown’ ultraviolet colours to attract mates.

How a caterpillar undergoes such a massive change to be reborn as a beautiful, colourful butterfly is nothing short of inspiring. It is a reminder to us all that change is a slow and sometimes tricky process, but going through that transformation can lead to a beautiful new beginning.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan