Swallowtail butterflies take wing in spring

  • A swallowtail butterfly hovers over a flower at Kuala Lumpur's Butterfly Park, Malaysia, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009. The park is an imitation of the butterfly's natural habitat. It includes more than 15,000 plants from 100 species that has been landscaped to resemble a Malaysian rainforest atmosphere. (AP Photo/Mark Baker) Mark Baker—ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Tiger Swallowtails land on a butterfly feeder at the “Butterfly Zone” at the Bronx Zoo in 1999. AP file

  • Two palamedes swallowtail butterflies show their colors as they fly around a wildflower, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008, in Hosford, Fla.(AP Photo/Phil Coale) Phil Coale—ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • A Swallowtail butterfly visits a Cornflower in a herb garden in Pittsburgh Sunday, July 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) Gene J. Puskar—AP

  • A tiger swallowtail butterfly flies between two wildflowers looking for nectar in Telogia, Fla., in 2009. AP file

  • Jaret Daniels, a biologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History, holds an endangered Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly before releasing it into the wild on Elliott Key, Monday, June 9, 2014, in Biscayne National Park, Fla. A collection and captive breeding operation, begun in 2012 in an effort to save the butterfly from extinction, has shown initial success. Over a thousand butterfly larvae have been produced at the University of Florida and adult butterflies and larvae have been released into the wild in an effort to increase the population. Each adult released are numbered with a permanent marker for identification. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) Wilfredo Lee—AP

Saturday, June 03, 2017

This is the time of year when I expect to see one of my favorite insects – the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. These large yellow and black butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in late May or early June and begin to flit about in search of flowers.

The adult butterflies feed from a wide variety of garden flowers and wild blooms, especially lilac, phlox and honeysuckle. Later in the summer, milkweed and Joe-Pye weed are favored sources of food.

Sweet nectar is not the only thing that butterflies need for nourishment. They also require certain salts and minerals to balance their diet and assist in reproduction.

Swallowtails will seek out a puddle or damp soil, insert their proboscis into to ground and suck up mineral-containing moisture. This practice is known as “puddling.” If it happens to be a particularly rich site, dozens of butterflies may congregate together. Observing a swarm of these 2.5- to 4.5-inch fluttering yellow wings is a spectacle to behold.

As the adults go about in search of nourishment, they also seek mates. In the northern part of their range, the male and female usually look similar. Their behavior can help to distinguish the two. A butterfly bouncing from leaf to leaf is probably a female in search of a place to lay an egg. If the butterfly appears to be patrolling an area or chasing after another butterfly, it is likely a male in pursuit of a female or chasing away a rival male. In more southern parts of their range however, the female tiger swallowtail may display a black morph and look like an entirely different species of butterfly.

When the male succeeds in his quest for a female, the pair will fly together in aerial courtship before landing to mate. The female then locates a host plant on which she will deposit her small round eggs, one at a time. In this region, wild cherries, birches, ashes and willows are the preferred food for the swallowtail larva. In 4 to 10 days, a newly-hatched caterpillar will emerge and begin feeding on the host plant.

The caterpillar starts out brown and white but turns to a soft green as it grows. A thin white collar and two large orange and black eye spots decorate its back. The eye spots are a deceptive coloration that confuses predators, giving the impression that the caterpillar is much bigger than it really is.

When not feeding, the caterpillar will rest on a silk pad on a leaf with the edges of the leaf curled around it and held together with more silk. Thus, it has can either hide from or scare off predators.

Once it has reached about 2 inches in length, the caterpillar will fasten itself to a twig with silk, create a sling of silk to suspend itself, shed its skin and transform into a pupa or chrysalis. This shroud is brown and textured, easily blending in with the stick to which it is attached.

If the pupa was formed during mid-summer, metamorphosis will take place within the chrysalis in about 9 to 11 days at which point an adult butterfly will emerge. These adults will brighten our gardens toward the end of the summer and repeat the whole process for another generation. The pupa from the second brood however will overwinter in that stage and hatch out as an adult in the following spring.

Another common species of swallowtail in our area is the Black Swallowtail, which is dark brown to black with yellow spots on the edge of the wings and slightly smaller (2.8 to 3.5 inches). They are more frequent in our vegetable gardens because the caterpillars feed on members of the carrot family, including carrots, parsley, parsnip, celery and dill. These caterpillars start out as tiny black specs but grow into a striking green caterpillar with bands of black and orange dots.

Since these caterpillars feed on some of our own produce, this is a good time of year to plant a few extra carrot seeds, leave the self-sowed dill plants in the pathways and don’t worry if the parsley seems to be taking over. Having extras of these plants will allow you to share with the Black Swallowtail caterpillars and enjoy their beautiful wings later in the summer too.