Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November. The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.
We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue–the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs. Below are some tips for raising them at home.
First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted. When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs. Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.
I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed. Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg. They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.
Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant. Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days. You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.
After a few days you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long. If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body. That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar. They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage. They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become. Just wait.
Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting. But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.
Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume. The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not. Well, maybe for some people. Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)
The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days. What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage. As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.
Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant. In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel. At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding. Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host. The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they ate it in the later stages.
One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles. When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger. Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor. Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.
The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times. Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.
Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge. Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing. Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.
Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis. I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.
The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating. He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding. He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time. Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.
When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.
Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.
- How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home (First of Two Parts)
- Should You Bring in a Late Season Caterpillar into Your Home?
- Crazy Chrysalises in the Most Interesting Places
- How to tell Monarchs from Eastern Swallowtails
- How to get Texas Native Milkweed Seeds to Germinate
- How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly in Six Easy Steps