Black swallowtail spotlight

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September 1, 2021

Black swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) are an extraordinarily beautiful and common butterfly that, with the right plants, many people can observe in their own backyards. We receive tons of questions about them this time of year as the weather starts to cool so we sat down with Allen, our associate curator of entomology, to answer some of them.

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How can I find black swallowtail butterflies / attract them to my yard?

One of the best ways to get these butterflies to visit is to plant the appropriate host plants they need. Butterflies will seek out host plants to lay their eggs on and the caterpillars depend on them to eat. Luckily, black swallowtails feed on a variety of common garden herbs and vegetables! With the exception of rue the caterpillars feed exclusively on plants in the family Apiaceae, but not all of them. I recommend planting dill, fennel, parsley, carrot, parsnip, or rue. You don’t need a ton of space, an herb planter will do. The butterflies may not show up every year generally but for this species if you plant them they will come. Sometimes I check for their round yellow eggs laid individually on the underside of their host plant leaves at outdoor nurseries—you’d be surprised how often they come free with purchase of a host plant!

What is their life cycle?

Black swallowtail butterflies, like all butterflies, go through complete metamorphosis. They start as an egg laid directly on their host plant. The egg will hatch into a tiny caterpillar that resembles bird droppings. The caterpillars have five stages, called instars, and they advance to the next instar as they feed and grow each time they shed their skin. At the third instar the caterpillar’s appearance will change to bright green or white with black stripes and yellow spots. After the caterpillars have finished growing they will find a secure place to shed their skin again, forming into a chrysalis. After a couple weeks an adult butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis, mate, find host plants to lay eggs, and the cycle will start again. They go through three to four generations per year and overwinter as a chrysalis.

I came across or am raising my own caterpillars and it’s now late summer/fall. The weather is getting cooler and I am worried they will not survive this weather. What can I do?

If the weather is getting cooler and your caterpillars are in a late instar or recently became a chrysalis don’t fret! They naturally overwinter as a chrysalis and they are very hardy in this life stage. As long as the caterpillars complete development before the first hard frost they will likely survive outdoors. It is important to keep any chrysalises you find in the fall outdoors or in an unheated shed/garage/porch. If you bring them inside the warm temperatures will speed up their development and they may emerge as butterflies in the middle of winter. If you find a butterfly late in the year they are likely at the end of their lifespan but sometimes they do get the timing wrong. If a butterfly emerges in the fall it won’t have enough time to lay eggs and have their young complete their life cycles but that is OK. There are plenty of chrysalises in wild populations that will survive, and winter provides a strong selection pressure to keep wild populations in sync.

I’ve been watching caterpillars grow in my garden and they got pretty big but then disappeared overnight. Were they eaten by something?

That is quite possible, caterpillars are a popular snack for any number of birds, spiders, and other insectivores. There is another possible explanation, though. Right before pupation caterpillars go through what’s called a wandering phase where they will leave the host plant in search of a safe place to pupate. Many parasitoids that use caterpillars for hosts find them by first locating the caterpillar host plant. A chrysalis doesn’t have many ways to defend itself so it is advantageous to find a place to pupate far away from the host plant. So, your caterpillars may have been eaten, but if they were almost ready to pupate they likely simply took off.

When I picked up a caterpillar it stuck out an orange smelly thing! What!?

All swallowtail caterpillars have an organ located behind their heads called an osmeterium. Normally they are tucked away out of sight, but when disturbed they can evert the forked osmeterium which resembles a snake tongue and releases a foul taste and odor. The taste and smell comes from chemicals in the host plant that the caterpillars are able to sequester, meaning store in their bodies. Each swallowtail caterpillar species eats different plants and sequesters different compounds so they each have their own unique taste and smell and can range in color from red to yellow.

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