What's that Bug? Eastern Black Swallowtail; Papilio polyxenes
Photo by Melody

What's that Bug? Eastern Black Swallowtail; Papilio polyxenes

By Melody Rose (melody)February 1, 2014
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Gardeners often encounter unique and colorful insects in their gardens. The trick is to know which ones are friends and which ones are foes. This series of articles will help identify some of the most unusual ones and give you a peek into their lives.

Gardening picture

"Butterflies are not insects,' Captain John Sterling said soberly. ‘They are self-propelled flowers."
~ Robert A. Heinlein, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
 

 It would be difficult to find a gardener who doesn't like butterflies. We dedicate whole gardens to plants and conditions to attract them. Our garden art is embellished with them and we spend hundreds of dollars on books and research devoted to habitat and host plants. Butterflies bring smiles to everyone, young and old; they are simply joyful insects.

ImagePapilio polyxenes is the Eastern Black Swallowtail and it is a common visitor to many gardens. It is a large, black butterfly with conspicuous markings. Yellow dots trace across the wings and there's some blue displayed on the hindwings. Males have less blue and females more. These butterflies are sometimes confused with the Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor, however, that butterfly has much more blue and very few cream, or pale yellow spots.


The Black Swallowtail is found from southern Canada, down to South America and is the State Butterfly of Oklahoma. It loves open meadows and sunny areas and is often seen flitting through landscaping at parks, or sunny open fields in the countryside. Adults love to nectar on flat, disc-shaped flowers such as zinnias and coneflowers, but are attracted to blossoms of other types as well.

ImageWhen it comes time to reproduce, females seek out members of the Apiaceae family to lay their eggs. These plants, such as carrots, parsley, dill and fennel are known host plants and are vital food for the caterpillars. Chemical compounds in these plants make the caterpillars unpalatable to birds and other predators. The caterpillars hatch and grow quickly, reaching the size needed to pupate in 10 to 30 days. The caterpillar pupates 18 days unless it is autumn, then it stays dormant until spring.

Gardeners wishing to attract these butterflies to their gardens should make sure that they have plenty of host plants available. These large caterpillars have huge appetites. Adults will be attracted by colorful zinnias, asters, lantanas, pentas, coneflowers and other flowering plants. They like sunny conditions and are often attracted to muddy areas where they sip minerals from the damp ground. This practice is called ‘puddling'. Even a pan of damp sand is an excellent ‘puddling' device, just make sure you keep it damp. Flat stones situated in sunny areas give butterflies a great place to ‘recharge', as the sun is very important to good butterfly health. Don't use pesticides on your flowers, if it kills pest insects, it will kill butterflies and their caterpillars.

ImageMany gardeners like to keep a natural area with native plants and grasses. Often the native plants or wild species produce more nectar. Some hybrids produce no nectar at all, leaving your butterflies with an empty ‘plate' and no food. If you notice butterflies avoiding a group of blossoms in your garden, chances are, there's little nectar available. They also need shelter from the elements as they can live a couple of weeks. Green, leafy shrubs provide protection, as do fallen logs and tree stumps. Butterflies should be able to shelter from summer storms and predators in the ideal habitat.

With spring just around the corner, it's time to start planning to attract butterflies. Even a group of containers on a sunny balcony makes an excellent butterfly garden if planted with their faforites. Butterfly gardens are one of the easiest types to plant and you'll be rewarded with bouquets of flying flowers.



  About Melody Rose  
Melody RoseI come from a long line of Kentuckians who love the Good Earth. I love to learn about every living thing, and love to share what I've learned. Photography is one of my passions, and all of the images in my articles are my own, except where credited.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
love swallowtails wind 6 19 Feb 3, 2014 2:13 PM
My first experience... Gardeningman 1 5 Feb 3, 2014 2:09 PM
Bronze Fennel... try it to attract! dlsamuels 1 2 Feb 3, 2014 2:06 PM
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