“Hello, I planted dill and it is dying. The bad news is that tons of Monarch caterpillars are on it. I’m not sure what to do, or how to keep the dill alive. Any suggestions?”–Jennifer L.
First of all, Jennifer, a Monarch caterpillar would not be found eating dill, since it only hosts on milkweed species. Host plants–the plant a caterpillar eats and lays eggs on–are often the best clue to what kind of caterpillar is visiting your garden.
These two very different butterflies–Monarchs and Swallowtails–grace our Central and South Texas skies regularly. The migrating Monarch appears in spring and fall during its annual migration. The Eastern Swallowtail seems to be present just about year-round, except in extreme cold.
As butterflies, you can’t mistake these beauties for each other. The Monarch, Denaus plexippus, exhibits orange-and-black markings that resemble a stained glass window.
The dark blue-and-black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, boasts elegant cream, gold and orange dots. Both are large, lovely and can be drawn to your gardens with the right plants.
Yet as caterpillars, the Monarch and Swallowtail are often confused with each other, as the email that opens this post suggests. Here’s a few tips that should help you pass the “caterpillar quiz” in distinguishing the Monarch and Swallowtail caterpillars from each other.
1. Note the plant the caterpillars are eating.
Checking out the plant a caterpillar is eating generally is the easiest way to tell what kind of caterpillar you’re watching.
Monarchs only lay their eggs on and eat milkweed, members of the Asclepias family. Swallowtails will host on members of the Apiaceae family, which includes parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot, celery, fennel and dill.
Swallowtails will also host on plants in the citrus (Rutaceae) family, including rue bushes and lemon, lime and orange trees. If you find a green-striped caterpillar noshing on fennel, it’s a Swallowtail; a stripe-suited chomper chowing down on your Antelope Horns is a Monarch.
2. Check the tentacles/antennae.
Monarch caterpillars have tentacles on either end of their bodies. The ones in front are technically antennae and have special sensory cells, while the ones on the back are “just for show”–to throw off predators.
Swallowtails, on the other hand, don’t always show their antennae. When bothered or poked, 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.
3. Note the body shape.
Monarch caterpillars’ body type is consistent in its breadth, while Swallowtail caterpillars are thicker in general, and mass into a “hooded” shape at the head.
In answer to Jennifer’s question about what to do about a lack of dill, I suggest planting plenty of it–some for yourself, and some for the caterpillars. Dill tends to die as summer heats up, so you can also try some of the other Swallowtail host plants. Rue and fennel have worked well for me, thriving even in our Texas heat.
An emergency run to a local nursery might also be in the cards to pick up some caterpillar food. Just make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with any systemic pesticides.
More posts like this: