Classroom Animals and Pets - Insects and company - Butterflies


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Butterflies – Definition

The World Book Encyclopedia definition for butterfly is:

1. an insect with a slender body and two pairs of large, usually brightly colored, overlapping wings. Butterflies fly mostly in the daytime. They pass through a larva, or caterpillar, stage, and emerge full-grown from the pupa.

2. Figurative. A person who suggests a butterfly by such characteristics as delicate beauty, bright clothes and flightiness: Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers (Mary Russell Mitford).

3. The butterfly stroke.

The World Book Encyclopedia definition for moth is:

1. a winged insect very much like a butterfly, but lacking knobs at the ends of the antennae, having less brightly colored wings, and flying mostly at night. There are various kinds, of the same order of insects as the butterfly. Moths are destructive only in the larval stage. The clothes moth lays eggs in cloth and fur, and its larvae eat holes in the material. Some larvae, such as the silkworm, are useful to man.

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My comments will be directed strictly to the Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui), as this is the species that we obtained for the class.

My first experience with Painted Lady Butterflies was an absolute delight – so much so that it is now a “tradition” for the Grade 2 classes at my school! It is a very speedy unit, however, so there are a few suggestions that I will pass along. First of all… you have to order your caterpillars about a month earlier than you plan to receive them.


1. Start your studies one or two weeks before the caterpillars are due to arrive. The whole process can be as short as two to three weeks from arrival to “freedom day”. That’s short for so many changes!

2. If you hope to raise second generation butterflies, start scouting out the neighbourhood for thistle plants right away! These caterpillars eat a lot too!

3. May should be your last month for the start of the unit. One year we booked a set of caterpillars for the beginning of June because we knew the life cycle was so short. The caterpillars arrived on the Thursday (every other time they came right on the Monday!) Additionally, these little creatures were a little on the “slow” side. Finally, due to rainy weather, teachers “almost” had freedom day by themselves after school was out!

4. Make your plans on how you want the children to journal or log their caterpillar growth information before the caterpillars arrive. The time goes so quickly, the caterpillars change so rapidly, and there always seems to be some other school “plans” that get in the way once the caterpillars arrive!

5. Have some kind of a butterfly net ready for “escapees”.

6. Think about making your own “flight cage”. The purchased cardboard and acetate one seems just a bit small if you run into poor weather and end up keeping your butterflies a little longer than planned.


Once the caterpillars arrive, you have to do some quick transferring too. You suddenly hear on the PA at 2:00pm that a package of “living specimens” is waiting at the office for you. When you open the package it tells you to transfer the caterpillars RIGHT AWAY! The “caterpillar goo – food” is all in one jar and you have to transfer it into 30 tiny cups, then put in the caterpillars one to a cup, then poke holes in the lids, then get your students’ names on the cups! All in one hour when you may be in the middle of something else! Wow! Be prepared to drop everything!

1. One of our teachers, Mrs. Raabe, discovered an excellent way of “packing down” the rubbery jello-like food into the cups. If you distribute about one rounded teaspoon into 29 of the cups, you can use the last cup to “squish down” the food so that it’s securely packed into the bottom. Hygiene is important, so that bacteria doesn’t enter the food. (The first year I used the spoon and my finger wrapped in cellophane… yuck, what a mess and time consuming too!) If the caterpillars arrive early in the day, you can let the children do the squishing. If they come at 2:00pm, though, you may want to quickly squish by yourself!

2. The caterpillars are then gently swished up with an artist’s brush (provided), put in the cup, and the lid goes on. My accolades go to Northwestern Biological Supply for providing lovely clear containers. One year they switched to cups made of a filmy plastic that we couldn’t see through properly. I phoned in a complaint and they explained that the supplier had changed, but they would get to work on my problem. They sent out new cups and the following year all cups were back to the original high standard. I only mention this in case your supplier doesn’t send totally clear plastic cups. Primary grades are not permitted to open the lids, so it is imperative that they can see their caterpillars properly through the plastic!

3. A note re taking the lids off. We purchased the books “Butterfly Curriculum Gr. K-2 and Gr. 3-6”. The K-2 version states to keep the lid on, the Gr. 3-6 version lets the children take the caterpillars out, with a caution to keep things very clean. In our Gr. 2 class we did not take the lids off at all, but I did raise a (much smaller) second generation which we had to handle when we put in new food. You can guess which they preferred! Lids on is definitely safest, but you will have to judge “how gentle” and “how hygenic” your class is. There is also a problem of bacteria entering the “food- goo” which is not really present when using leaves.

4. A note re names. I used a fine point indelible marker to print the student names on the lids.

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Amazingly these little guys all spin their little trapeze like webs and then pupate into little golden chrysalides just as promised in the instructions! This is a tricky time… so warn your students about not shaking or bumping the containers. Taping the lids is a bit tricky, and the instructions are a little vague. I made tape “doughnuts” to attach the lids to the roof of the butterfly flight cage that we purchased. They “just fit”, so have each lid touching the next. If you make your own container, be sure the top has some kind of clear plastic top that tape sticks to and that you can see through. A mesh top just won’t do!


Wow and wow again! Make sure you read about the merconium liquid that drips or you and the children will be worried that it’s blood. It’s not. I would suggest, however, that you line the bottom of your flight cage with wax paper so that it isn’t so messy when you reuse it next year.

The butterflies emerge with damp crumpled wings which they pump to push air into the veins. They use their front legs to join the halves of the proboscis together (I read about this and haven’t seen it myself yet!)

I wanted to collect eggs so I put several layers of wax paper with paper towel on top. It is quite difficult to “sneak out” the paper without some butterflies escaping, so it’s best to leave it until you release the butterflies. When I tried it, I planned on having several sheets so that I could put them in different containers. Next time I will use just one sheet and cut it into sections (being careful not to cut the eggs of course!). If you drip the sugar solution on the paper towel, the butterflies think of it as a food source and will lay eggs on it. At any rate, it worked!

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Again my dear cohort, Mrs. Raabe, put me to shame! “A butterfly’s an insect isn’t it ?” she asked me as we admired my premiere hatching. “Of course” I answered all too quickly. “Then how come your butterflies have only 4 legs?” Panic struck that one of my darling butterflies had been injured so I scooted over to the flight box. Oh dear, she was right! Four legs on this one… and this one… and… hey! But our teacher’s aide came to the rescue, having read about it in one of the butterfly books we had on display in our classroom. Butterflies only stand on 4 legs! The front two legs are totally tucked up into two little crevices on their chests. If you look closely, you will see two little lines there. If you keep watching, you will also get to see the male butterflies do a little drumming song with those front legs too! Again… how amazing! We all “know” about insects having 6 legs, but there are still some tricks up Mother Nature’s sleeve that you need to see first hand!


What excitement! Each child licked his/her finger, put it in the flight box, and sooner or late a butterfly landed to check out this interesting taste! Some butterflies stayed on "their child” for several minutes before leaving. A few of our butterflies had crumpled wings. Our choice was to keep these little guys in the safety of our classroom in a large mess flight cage that I had made. We gave them fresh air, a bit of sun, and food, and they rewarded us by living for over a month (whereas we understand that the adults often only live a couple of weeks). Their exuberance showed in their hard work at mating, despite their malformed wings.


I placed the sheets of “egg laid” paper in plastic clingwrap covered containers, as suggested in a butterfly site I found. It was hard finding information on raising the second generation, which, I might add, is one of the main ingredients in my beginning this website for teachers! Once again I was caught by just not looking closely enough… one Monday a child told me excitedly that the caterpillars had hatched! I went to look, “Oh that’s just a speck of dust” I said disappointedly. “But it’s moving!” came the reply! Sure enough, when I looked very closely, a tiny black line, not much bigger than the dot of an “i” proved it was alive. This was far smaller than I would have imagined!

Now I can tell you lots of what NOT to do! I read on the Internet that Painted Lady Butterflies eat daisy, thistle and holly hock, so I bought 2 of each plant at our local plant store. The thistles that were growing locally were now covered by a new college (of all things!) so this seemed to be an expedient idea. I planned to have 2 containers each of the three plants so that we could see which was preferred. Hmmm….. “death by flood” was the first disaster! I used little plastic rose containers to keep water for the single leaves I added to each container. Some of them leaked, resulting in AAGH! soggy paper towel that those poor wee things had no chance of escaping. Next came “death by famine”. I really didn’t realize how much tiny little caterpillars eat. I had spent $20 twice and we were down to our last leaves again. The daisy wasn’t “scrumptious” at all to them, so by now we had 3 hollyhock containers and 3 thistle containers. It seems that the “caterpillar goo – food” sent with the originals must be really concentrated. One of our teachers is an avid gardener and offered to bring in some thistles he had pulled out recently. He also mentioned some thistles he had seen on our own school property (oops!). Now here’s another interesting part… only 1 bucket of the hollyhock-eaters and 2 of the commercial-thistle eaters transferred over to eating the wild thistle! In the end, we did get to release about a dozen 2nd generation butterflies to the world. There were a lot more problems in pupating in this 2nd generation. I made wire mesh overhangs for the caterpillars to attach to, but next time I might use a piece of stiff plastic (more like the cup lids) instead. Perhaps silk plants might work too!

A big bonus of the 2nd generation was letting the children handle the caterpillars each time I changed the leaves. We had a much better look at them that’s for sure!

All in all, this unit was definitely the highlight of our Science program. Both the children and I agreed on that!

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The small cups that the caterpillars grow up in are supplied by the biological supply company.

A flight cage is necessary. It can be purchased for under $20, but you certainly could make one yourself. It needs clear plastic viewing areas as well as a top which will allow the lids to be taped to it. You need a little door to be able to easily change the sugar solution that the butterflies feed on.

You also can make a large mesh flight cage for the butterflies after they have hatched. I made one out of two wire tomato cages (cut and connected together). Then I sewed mesh netting around the outside, with a velcro “door” so that I could renew the sugar solution. This was sunk into a pot with a “butterfly bush” plant. The next year I applied for a “Bucks for Bugs” entomology grant from our BC Entomological Society and we purchased a commercial butterfly “tent”. It was fantastic, although pricey! We made it into a display in the library, so the whole school was able to view our butterflies. There was room enough for two children at a time to go inside the tent and sit with the butterflies too! I will still keep my homemade contraption, however, because I will probably get a few butterflies with malformed wings which we will keep, and the tent is just too large to keep in the classroom.

Another school I heard of made their own large “butterfly house” out of a wood frame with netting stapled around it. This was also large enough for children to go inside. Be warned, however, that the mesh is fairly expensive, so it still isn’t a really “cheap” project.

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The caterpillar food is supplied by the biological supply company. I also tried feeding leaves to my “extra caterpillars” . They were in a 2 gallon container with many different leaves around the sides and the “goo” in the middle. They all chose to eat the “goo”.

As mentioned in the comments, if you are raising 2nd generation caterpillars, have a plentiful food source ready ahead of time. Once they start eating, many will die rather than switch to a new food source. My suggestion is to find wild thistle. They love it and its cheap. You also have a better chance of having sufficient quantities.

The butterfly flight cage comes with “cotton wicks” to soak up a sugar solution for the butterflies. The butterflies do not “eat” any solid substances, but will also drink the juice from some fruits. A commercial butterfly feeder (somewhat like a hummingbird feeder) is also available from bird supply stores.

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There isn’t really any maintenance apart from preparing for each stage - just follow the directions provided with the caterpillars. If you raise 2nd generation caterpillars, though, you will have to check and probably replace the leaves daily. The whole project is complete within about 3-4 weeks!

General Information

Butterflies live almost everywhere in the world except for the two poles. There are about 20,000 species. There are six main families. The largest is the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing of Papua New Guinea, which has a wingspread of about 28 cm (11 inches). The smallest is the western pygmy blue of North America which has a wingspread of about 1 cm (3/8 inch). Butterflies and moths belong to the insect group called Lepidoptera. The Greek word lepis means scale and pteron means wing. Both moths and butterflies have powdery scales on their wings.

Butterflies differ from moths in several ways: 1) most butterflies rest with their wings upstanding whereas moths rest with them spread out flat, 2) most butterflies have knobs at the ends of their antennae whereas moths do not 3) most butterflies have slender, hairless bodies whereas moths have fatter, furry bodies, 4) most butterflies fly in the day whereas most moths fly at night.

Butterflies grow by full metamorphosis, with the stages egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). The chrysalis is smooth whereas a moth cocoon is hairy.

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• Spend most of its time eating
• Have chewing mouthparts to eat leaves
• Have 6 true legs on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th body segments and many also have several pairs of prolegs on the 7th to 10th body segments
• Grow by molting (shedding its skin) 4 or 5 before pupating
• Eat many times its weight in food in one day
• The body is made up of 14 segments.
• They have 6 small eyes on each side, but can only see light and dark, not images
• Have a spinneret under the bottom lip which releases a sticky liquid that hardens into a thread
• Breathe through spiracles at the side of the body
• Have an exoskeleton
• Most butterfly caterpillars do not spin a cocoon, but have a chrysalis which often has a golden shimmer to it (Greek chrysos means gold)


• Have 3 main body parts (head, thorax, abdomen)
• Breathe through spiracles at the side of the body
• Have an exoskeleton
• Have compound eyes
• Use their antennae to smell and perhaps also to hear and touch
• Most have sucking mouthparts. One pair of the caterpillar jaws roll up to become a long sucking tube called a proboscis that coils up when not in use.
• Feed mainly on nectar and are beneficial to pollination
• Have two pairs of wings attached to the thorax.
• The wings are covered in overlapping scales and have veins which are mostly filled with air.
• Their body temperature must be above 30 degrees C (86 F.) in order to fly
• They sun their bodies or shiver their wings to increase their body temperature
• They have three pairs of legs
• Many have “short brush feet” as the first legs. This are only used for tasting, not for walking, and they generally are tucked up in chest cavities.
• In some species the males “drum” on the ground with the front legs.
• They use sight and smell when seeking a mate
• The female lays the eggs on a foodsource plant for the caterpillar.

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Teaching Ideas

• Keep a daily log of the changes in your caterpillar as it grows to be an adult butterfly
• Try to measure the growth in your caterpillar
• Use a magnifying glass to observe the anatomy
• Look for the differences between the true legs and the prolegs
• Observe the caterpillar’s behaviours (eating, spinning, moving etc.)
• Observe the anatomy of the adult butterfly
• Observe the legs, can you see where the front legs “disappear” to?
• Observe the butterfly’s behaviours (drinking, fanning its wings, mating etc.)
• Watch for the proboscis as it drinks

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Butterfly & Moth Eyewitness book

Butterfly Moth Eyewitness video

The Butterfly Curriculum (K-2 and Gr. 3-6, Jr. High School, High School)

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies and Moths Golden Guide

Peterson, Roger Tory, A Field guide to Butterflies coloring Book

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Related Web Sites


Butterfly Flower Gardening - a great website for finding out what plants to grow to attract different butterflies
A special thanks to Kristy Griffin and the Kids at the Youth Center! They found this super resource and passed it on to me!

Butterflies by Stephanie Bailey – activities for observing butterflies

Butterflies of Washington County (including the Painted lady)

Children’s Butterfly Website WOW! This one is fantastic! There are FAQ’s suited to children, great illustrations of the lifecycle, and a good list of teacher resource books and Internet links

Evergreen Foundation – list of butterfly books

Hyland Elementary School(Surrey, BC) tells its story about creating a school butterfly garden

International Lepidopterists Society - Both amateur and professional entomologists are invited

Red Admiral and Painted Lady Web Site
The Red Admiral and Painted Lady Web Site - Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Stinging Caterpillars (University of Kentucky information sheet)

Vanessa cardui Painted Lady
A simple information page on the Painted Lady Butterfly

Wyoming Wildlife sponsors this paragraph on Painted Ladies by a 7th grader.

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Related Commercial Websites

Blue Spruce Biological Supply

The Butterfly Website – offers lots of different butterfly related information, crafts to buy, “pen pals” and so on. They kindly let me use their “animated butterfly” on my Welcome Page! Take a look at the fancy new butterflies on their own new welcome page!
the Butterfly Website – has information on raising the Painted Lady Butterfly
The Butterfly Website – has information on raising butterflies
The Butterfly Website offers a selection of butterfly suppliers
The Butterfly Website has a “School Time” where you can email them about your butterfly project and they will post it for others to see

Insectlore website – has neat products like the Butterfly Pavilion and the Ladybug house

Let’s Get Growing – has lots of butterfly paraphernalia for sale

The Nature Store – evidently this store is the host for a group of Nature websites including the “Butterfly Website” mentioned above, and also a Dragonfly Website, a Hummingbird Website, and an Ornithology Website!

Y.E.S. – Young Entomologist’s Society has lots of insect models and games etc.
Y.E.S. – also has a good selection of butterfly books

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This page updated August 1999.