Thrips lifecycle – from egg to pupa to reproducing adult in just 9 days!

Life cycle of thrips in the palm of a hand

Thrips are often considered pests for gardens, houseplants, and vegetable patches. Knowing the lifecycle of thrips helps deal with them adequately!

Key thrips lifecycle facts

Thrips lifespan – 45 days as an adult, not including hibernation
Type of reproduction – sexual (male & female) oviparity (egg-laying)
In exceptional cases, asexual parthenogenesis and live birth

Generations per year – up to 40
Offspring per cycle – 20 to 50
Active during – daytime

Thrips are extremely small insects that are often nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. They start out in life as rice-like eggs laid in small cuts or wounds in leaves, fruits, or stems of plants.

Lifecycle of thrips

Spring is when thrips start hatching or emerging from hibernation. They reach maturity after two weeks and start reproducing until fall. Thrips damage plants through feeding both in the nymph stage and as adults. Although they usually only live for one or two months, many generations can appear within a single year.

Different stages in the life of a thrips

Adult thrips lay eggs in live plants for them to hatch and give rise to the next generation.

From the moment the egg hatches, up to growing into a full adult that is capable of reproduction, a thrips will go through several stages. Here they are listed in chronological order:

  • Egg
  • Nymph or larva (synonyms, with nymph being the more accurate term)
  • Prepupa (optional stage depending on the species)
  • Pupa
  • Adult

Stages in the life of thrips

Lifespan of thrips insects

Total lifespan – from egg to death, a single thrips may live up to two months (60 days) if continuously active. This of course depends on the species of thrips, but the average temperature is a big inflence, too.

  • Warm temperatures shorten their lifespan, whereas cool, mild temperatures help them live longer.
  • Sometimes winter will interrupt their development. Whatever the stage, the insect can hibernate until spring.

Male and female thrips lifespan

Additionally, adult female thrips live for quite a long time, too: usually around a month and a half, or 45 days. During this time, it lays batches of new eggs every few days if the feeding is good.

  • Males live for a much shorter period. Mating reduces their lifespan by half, down to about 30 days!
  • A female stores enough sperm from the mating encounter to fertilize eggs for its entire life!

Generations of thrips per year

From egg to adult, only 9 days to 1 month separate one generation from the next.

  • For most thrips species, the duration is two weeks.

Eggs, once lain, incubate for 2 to 16 days. They hatch into the first nymph.

Together, all stages from nymph to adult require at least 7 days and at most 15.

  • From spring to fall, which usually numbers 8 months, over a dozen generations might appear every year!
  • In tropical countries the weather is mild all year round. There may be over 40 generations of thrips!

For farmers and crops, the devastation can be significant.

Thrips eggs

Thrips egg nests look like white dots on soft tissueThrips eggs are lain in soft tissue using an ovipositor. This is a special organ that places the eggs in or on a leaf, stem or flower bud. Unlike other insects like the gall wasp, thrips only very rarely create galls. In the picture, you can see white dots on the stem of this Stephanotis vine. These are the laying spots for thrips.

  • In some species, like the Cuban laurel thrips that sometimes infects Ficus microcarpa, another strategy is used: leaves are folded together due to the excessive feeding. The thrips can then safely lay its eggs in the hollow formed by the folded leaf!

Some thrips lay eggs on the surface of the plant, mostly in the Tubulifera sub-order.

Nymph stage for thrips

Instars of thrips are called nymphsWhat is a thrips instar?

Like many insects and even snakes, the skin of a thrips won’t grow. Thrips molt as they grow to shed old, tight skins. Each time a thrips molts, it enters a new stage. Each stage is called an “instar”.

For thrips, these stages include both nymph stages and pupa stages.

  • Nymph stages occur at the beginning. The shape and characteristics of the thrips remain the same, only the size is different. Most types of thrips have one or two nymph stages.
  • Prepupa and pupa stages are when the thrips transforms. For example, wings may appear compared to the previous wingless stage.

Nymph stage is for feeding

Thrips feed and grow during the nymph stages. They travel from one feeding site to another, usually on the same plant.

  • Like a mosquito, the nymph bits into a leaf and ingests the contents beneath the skin.

As they go around, nymphs also excrete waste. These tiny black pebbles look like dots strewn across the leaf. Sometimes these contain compounds that try to repel predator insects.

Nymph and adult thrips food

Both nymphs and adults feed on the same type of food.

Typical food for plant-feeding thrips includes:

  • sap and plant material from leaves, fruits, flowers, stems
  • minerals and plant nutrients exuded during guttation
  • pollen on flowers
  • Thrips often feed from many different types of plants.

Beneficial thrips feed on other insects such as:

Prepupa and pupa thrips

Thrips just having molted on a leafMost thrips species have both a prepupa and a pupa stage.

During these stages, the insect usually stops feeding.

Just like a caterpillar pupates in a cocoon to turn into a butterfly, the thrips nymph evolves into a full adult during the pupa phase.

Where to find thrips prepupa and pupa

Thrips will often travel to the ground to pupate. They hide in leaf debris, soil, and mulch. In fall, this is how most thrips prepare for winter.

  • In some cases, such as the ficus thrips, the pupa and thrips offspring hide in curled-up leaves.

Adult thrips

Adult eating pollen on a flowerAs adults, thrips continue to feed, but they have an additional goal in life: reproduction.

Through pheromones, females attract males. They mate and then the female starts laying eggs.

  • Females usually only mate once or twice. This provides enough sperm to fertilize all the eggs she might lay.
  • Males try to mate several times, and even fight other males for the right to mate with a nearby female.

Often, tiny wings help the thrips get airborn. Thrips aren’t good flyers, but they’re so small that wind easily carries them away to other plants.

Smart tip about the thrips lifecycle

Temperature plays a large part in how fast a thrips will develop. A change from 55°F to 75°F (13 to 23°C) will speed development by 30%! In warm weather, monitor your plants often to catch and control thrips early on!

Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Different stages of thrips on leaf by Kim & Forest Starr under © CC BY 4.0
Leaf with thrips by Ian Jacobs under © CC BY-NC 2.0
Thrips egg nests by Jane Dickson,
Nature & Garden contributor
Thrips pupa by Philippe Garcelon under © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Thrips molting by Dr. Guido Bohne under © CC BY-SA 4.0
Pollen-eating adult by Dave Kirkeby under © CC BY-SA 4.0