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Wildlife Wonders

Today is Swallowtail Butterflies Day!

Butterflies of any kind add beauty to the skies, woods, meadows and gardens.  As told in the Native American story How Butterflies Came to Be – “their wings were bright as sunlight and held all of the colors of the flowers and the leaves, the cornmeal, the pollen and the green pine needles.  They were red and gold and black and yellow, blue and green and white.  They looked like flowers dancing in the wind.” The swallowtail butterflies are often recognized due to their large size and distinct colors.  Many are black with striking yellow markings or yellow with black stripes.  They are classified in the Order Lepidoptera, Greek for “scale wing”.  Thousands of tiny scales cover the wing membranes and their varied colors form intricate patterns.  Their colors are created through both pigments and structure.  Structural colors are often only seen at different angles, intensified as they open and close their wings.  Often the colors on the top are different from the colors and pattern on the bottom. 

Swallowtails are named for the extensions off the hind wings which resemble the forked tails of the birds – swallows.  There are over 550 species of swallowtails, but only six are found in Connecticut and of those just three are common – the black swallowtail, eastern tiger swallowtail and spicebush swallowtail.  All of these swallowtails, the black, tiger and the dark-form of the female tiger swallowtails, mimic the rare pipevine swallowtail that feed on Dutchman’s pipe or pipevines, which contain noxious chemicals, making them distasteful to birds, who learn to recognize these butterflies and avoid them in the future.  The Canadian tiger swallowtail is rare as is the giant swallowtail. According to a Massachusetts publication although the giant swallowtail’s range is more centered in Florida it became a resident species once again in the years 2010 to 2013.  In the early 1900’s it had been reported regularly in Connecticut. 

Like all butterflies the swallowtails are active during daylight hours and have siphoning mouthparts that act like straws to suck up nectar.  Their “proboscis” is normally coiled under the head and can be unfurled into a long tube capable of probing deep into flowers for the nectar.  Tiger swallowtails are one of the species that are commonly seen “puddling”.  Mainly males gather at the puddling sites located along dirt roads or paths in fields, where water regularly accumulates then evaporates, thus concentrating minerals.  Butterflies visit these sites, even after the water has dried up to gather minerals.  They can exude saliva through their proboscis and then suck it back up along with the nutrients.  The males are especially attracted to these sites for the sodium that is lacking in their diets and is needed for mating. 

Each of the swallowtails depend on specific larval host plants so if you would like to attract them to your area you should plant these in your garden. The black swallowtails prefers parsley, carrot, dill, fennel and rue.  The spicebush swallowtail, as its name indicates, depends on spicebush, but also sassafras. 

Many birds eat caterpillar and to avoid being eaten they have evolved several different defenses.  Small, young caterpillars of black, tiger, spicebush and giant swallowtails all resemble bird droppings – dark with white markings across their backs.  As they grow larger they become green which camouflages them against the plants they are eating.  Tiger and spicebush caterpillars both have large fake eyespots near their head that make them look like small snakes.  In addition, all swallowtails have an “osmeterium”, a forked gland that looks like a snakes tongue and can be turned outward as they secrete a bad smell that repels predators.  Some say it smells like rancid butter.

The adult spicebush swallowtails have red eyespots.  The “tails” and eyespots mimic eyes and antennae to confuse birds.  You can see many swallowtails missing tails.  They are damaged, but still capable of flight…another great defense mechanism. 

The male tiger swallowtails are easily recognized since they are yellow with black tiger stripes.  The giant swallowtails dorsal or top wing surfaces are black with striking diagonal yellow bars across the forewings.  The ventral or bottom wing surfaces are primarily yellow with a blue middle band and small brick-red patches on the hind wing. 

 Butterflies have been called “nature’s jewelry”, they are that and so much more.  Although not efficient as bees as pollinators they do their fair share.  Butterfly populations are on the decline due to habitat destruction, pollution and misuse of pesticides.  How can you help?  Grow lots of nectar plants and select a variety that blooms throughout the season so they can always find food.  Plant larval food plants that will attract egg-laying females to your garden.  Butterflies can only fly well when their body temperature is between 85-100oF so choose sunny locations for your gardens. Plant your garden in a sheltered location so the butterflies are sheltered from the wind and don’t have to expend extra energy fighting wind currents.  Do not use pesticides, also known as “insect”icides.  Butterflies are insects so if you are getting rid of insects, you are getting rid of butterflies.  Look for alternatives and explore integrated pest management (IPM).


The Butterfly Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes

Life History of Connecticut Butterflies

Massachusetts Swallowtails (Photos)

How Butterflies Came to Be

About the Author

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