In nearly all insects growth involves a metamorphosis, that is, a transformation in form and in way of life. Complete, or indirect, metamorphosis is characteristic of over 80% of all insect species and has four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The wingless, wormlike larva (in many species called a grub or a caterpillar) is completely unlike the adult, and its chief activities are eating and growing. Only the simple eyes are present, and the mouth is the chewing type, even in species whose adults have other kinds of mouthparts. After several molts the larva enters a quiescent stage called the pupa; the pupa does not eat and usually does not move, but within the exoskeleton a major transformation occurs that involves the reorganization of organ systems as well as the development of such adult external structures as wings and compound eyes. In some insects the pupa is enclosed in a protective case, called the cocoon, built by the larva just before pupation. When the transformation is complete the final molt occurs: the adult emerges, its wings fill with blood and expand, and the new exoskeleton hardens. The chief function of the adult is propagation; in some species it does not eat.
Incomplete, or gradual, metamorphosis is seen in members of less advanced orders (such as locusts and their relatives and the true bugs). The larva, often called a nymph (or, if aquatic, a naiad) is usually similar in form to the adult, but lacks wings. The wings begin as external bumps on the larva, and the adult emerges from the last molt without having undergone a pupal stage.
In a few very primitive, wingless insects (such as the silverfish) there is no metamorphosis. The insect emerges from the egg as a miniature adult and the only futher changes are in size and in maturation of the reproductive organs.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.