Lepidoptera — an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.
What a wonderful week for this budding lepidopterist. At the end of June, my new co-worker, Kaita, gave me a dozen recently hatched cecropia moth caterpillars (Hyalophora cecropia). The cecropia moth is North America’s largest native moth and is a member of the silk moth family. This week, the five survivors that I raised have started to cocoon. Two have actually finished as of this writing. But this post isn’t about those gorgeous alien creatures (stay tuned). This post is about the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus), which gave me a nice surprise yesterday.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Plant it and they will come
In June I attended a presentation by Kim Bailey of Milkweed Meadows Farm in Hendersonville. She described monarch butterflies as the “gateway pollinator,” and I had to laugh because that definitely applies to me. My success with attracting monarchs by planting native milkweed has made me keener than ever to plant new native lepidoptera host plants in my yard.
Just to review, many butterflies are “specialists,” and their caterpillars will only eat a certain type of plant. The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar specializes in two native plants in our area: spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub, and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree. Both belong to the Laurel family.
A friend of mine gave me two small spicebush plants from his property last fall, and I transplanted them to a partly shady spot in the back yard. I didn’t get my hopes up for spicebush swallowtail caterpillars this spring. The plants seemed too small to catch a butterfly’s attention:
But I kept checking anyway and, on June 22, 2017, I noticed the telltale sign of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar:
See the rolled-up leaf in the picture above and the chewed up leaves? Once the spicebush swallowtail hatches, it folds over the leaf and spins some silk to keep itself covered. Then, it will come out at night when the birds can’t see it and eat on the leaves. After reading up on this butterfly, I learned that the adult female actually prefers to lay her eggs on young plants.
I gently unrolled the leaf. Sure enough, I found my baby:
I also found several other rolled up leaves on both plants with nothing but silk in them. Then I found this carcass:
Caterpillars face so many challenges. Besides the birds, they have to dodge spiders and insects. So, one healthy caterpillar for me would have to do. I brought it in out of harm’s way and made sure to give it plenty of fresh spicebush leaves.
The spicebush swallowtail looks like a bird dropping during its first stages with its brown and white coloring. Talk about a clever defense! In later stages, it turns green and has fake eye spots on the back of its head to mimic a snake. Not only that, if it feels threatened it will stick an organ out of its head that looks like a snake’s tongue and contains a stinky chemistry. What a strange and mesmerizing creature:
On July 13 — 22 days after I found it — my caterpillar, which had turned a yellowish color and stopped eating, pupated and became a chrysalis at the top of its enclosure:
Unfortunately, I missed seeing it pupate. The chrysalis measured only about an inch and seemed too tiny to have a butterfly developing within. I consulted the internet and learned that spicebush swallowtails have 3-4 generations a year, and the last caterpillars to pupate will go into “diapause,” over-wintering in their chrysalis until spring. Greenish-yellow spicebush swallowtail chrysalides eclose and reproduce; it’s the brown ones that over-winter. I mis-read that factoid and thought I had the color chrysalis that would over-winter. After the chrysalis above hardened, it looked like this:
Due to my color mix-up, I went about my business thinking I wouldn’t see this baby reach adulthood until next spring. That did seem odd to me, but this is the first time I’ve reared a swallowtail. I should have double-checked my information, but I seem to always be in a hurry. Not much of an excuse, I know.
So yesterday morning I went out to tend to my cecropia moth caterpillars. I wanted to transfer the three that have yet to cocoon into clean, frass-free containers. I started to work, when this caught my eye:
What?! How did my clean paper towel get stained in the spicebush swallowtail chrysalis container? Could I have … I looked though the door at the top:
Well, hello! A fresh, healthy baby boy. How could I tell?
See that comet-like swoosh shape on the wing? That indicates a male:
After gawking at this very welcome and unexpected visitor for a while, I put him outside near the spicebush. He will live two to 14 days, nectaring on flowers, and mating. The female that he mates with will find a spicebush or sassafras, land on a leaf, drum at it with her legs and use her chemical receptors to make sure she’s got the correct plant before laying her eggs.
On a side note:
Earlier this spring, I asked my neighbor if she would mind me planting a sassafras on her side of the fence near her chickees. More opportunity to lure in spicebush swallowtails. I didn’t find any rolled-up leaves or signs of spicebush swallowtail caterpillars on that plant:
A reader wanted to know what kind of camera I use. It’s a point-and-shoot Olympus digital Stylus XZ-10 camera that cost me about $120 a couple of years ago on B&H Photo. It has a manual setting for extreme close-ups.
“Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont,” by Timothy P. Spira. We sell it this must-have book at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville.
List of native plant vendors near Buncombe County as well as a couple of trusted online vendors. (Always ask for the Latin name of the plant you’re looking for to ensure that you’re getting what you want.)
Spicebush swallowtail page on the University of Florida’s Entomology and Nematology Department
Papilio troilus page on the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Website
Todd Stout’s video on an easy “hotel” butterfly breeders can make for swallowtails to pupate in and how to care for them until they eclose out of the chrysalis.
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