Abstract Early life stages of aquatic organisms tend to be more sensitive to various chemical contaminants than later life stages. This research attempted to identify the key biological factors that determined sensitivity differences among life stages of the aquatic insect Chironomous riparius. Specifically, second to fourth instar larvae were exposed in vivo to both low and high waterborne concentrations of chlorpyrifos to examine differences in accumulation rates, chlorpyrifos biotransformation, and overall sensitivity among instars. In vitro acetylcholinesterase (AChE) assays were performed with chlorpyrifos and the metabolite, chlorpyrifos-oxon, to investigate potential target site sensitivity differences among instars. Earlier instars accumulated chlorpyrifos more rapidly than later instars. There were no major differences among instars in the biotransformation rates of chlorpyrifos to the more polar metabolites, chlorpyrifos-oxon, and chlorpyridinol (TCP). Homogenate AChE activities from second to fourth instar larvae were refractory to chlorpyrifos, even at high concentrations. In contrast, homogenate AChE activities were responsive in a dose-dependent manner to chlorpyrifos-oxon. In general, it appeared that chlorpyrifos sensitivity differences among second to fourth instar C. riparius were largely determined by differences in uptake rates. In terms of AChE depression, fourth instar homogenates were more sensitive to chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-oxon than earlier instars. However, basal AChE activity in fourth instar larvae was significantly higher than basal AChE activity in second to third instar larvae, which could potentially offset the apparent increased sensitivity to the oxon.