Butterfly Beauty: The Swallowtail

This past week I have noticed more Swallowtails in flight that we’ve seen since last Fall.  The Swallowtail is one of the largest, and some would say the most beautiful, of all the Florida butterflies. There are ten Swallowtails that are native to Florida. All but the Polydamas have tails!  They rely on their tails to draw the attention of predators, mostly birds, away from their vital parts, namely their head and abdomen.  

The four most common to this area are:
Eastern Black.  By Mid-June, this Swallowtail will be laying its eggs everywhere.  No Parsley, Dill, or Fennel is safe from the chompers of their caterpillars.  They will devour the plants in a matter of days.  Multiple eggs are laid on each plant at one time.  The adults are mostly black and yellow with spots of orange on the underside of their wings. Adults can be seen from March through November.

Giant.  The biggest butterfly in Florida, the Giant has a wingspan of nearly 4 inches and up to 6 inches. They have a very similar coloration to the Black, but with a more vivid yellow wing pattern.  Their caterpillars feed on citrus and wild lime and they camouflage as a look-alike to white and brown bird droppings on a branch or leaf.  Adults can be seen all year.

Polydamas.  These are the easiest to identify as the adults do not have tails.  They have a yellow band at the tip and a red wavy line on the underside of their wings. The caterpillar looks like a brown space bug and when they are disturbed they will emit a foul odor. Caterpillar’s food are the Pipevines (Aristolochia).  Adults can be seen from April through November.

Pipevine.  The Pipevine Swallowtail is very similar in shape to the Polydamas but with  whitish spots at the base and orange spots on the underside of their wings.  Their caterpillar will also feed on the Pipevines, especially the Dutchman’s Pipe.  These black and red spiny caterpillars eat so much Pipevine as caterpillars that they become poisonous to their predators as adults.  Their predators avoid them and any other butterflies that can use mimicry to look like them.  Adults can be seen from February through November.

It is always important to have nectar food in your garden for the adult butterflies. Though it is almost impossible to know who they are when they’re in flight, a fun way to identify which Swallowtail is which is by noting what nectar source they land on for lunch.   Pentas, Milkweed, Butterfly Bush, and Salvias are our favorite attractors.  Having caterpillar food will hold them in your garden longer as they lay their eggs to ensure the next generation of Swallowtails are happy and well-fed.