Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly: What Pizzazz

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on September 22, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com.

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) beauty in motion
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) beauty in motion

Over on Facebook one day, a fellow wildlife gardening blogger remarked about the value of Bidens alba, a wildflower native to Florida. One of my favorite pollinator magnets, I have it growing in various sections of my yard. Every day I find several species of butterflies side by side on the flowers.

Butterflies just love Spanish Needles aka Bidens Alba
Butterflies just love Spanish Needles aka Bidens alba

That same day, I heard a noise next door and peeked out the window to check on my neighbor’s place. The hubby was home and just starting up the lawnmower. A flash of a butterfly caught my attention. There on the B. alba was a large, beautiful Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (Eurytides marcellus), fluttering madly while sipping nectar.

No matter what the angle, the Zebra Swallowtail shows its beauty
No matter what the angle, the Zebra Swallowtail shows its beauty

I find the Zebra Swallowtail to be one of the more elusive butterflies to photograph so when any opportunity presents itself, I grab my camera and give it a go. Out of character, this guy (or gal) was landing long enough to get a picture. I guess that B. alba nectar was worth lingering over. They generally are so erratic in their flight and landing that you don’t stand much of a chance of a non-blurry photo unless you have a high-end camera…which I don’t. They seem to constantly beat their wings, even while feeding on flowers.

They use Netted Pawpaw as a larval host in my garden
They use Netted Pawpaw as a larval host in my garden

The Zebra Swallowtail is the only native kite swallowtail in Florida. They use a variety of flowers as nectar sources and are fond of mud to obtain moisture. The larval host is Pawpaw (Asimina spp.) with A. triloba as the only host in most of the range, which is the eastern half of the United States. In my garden, they use Netted Pawpaw (A. reticulata). It is sometimes hard to locate the caterpillars since they are usually on the underside of the leaves. New growth is favored over older leaves.

larval host is Pawpaw
larval host is Pawpaw

The zebra swallowtail has different variations. In spring it is a smaller butterfly with pale greenish-white wings. As can be seen in my photos, the summer version is large and really earns its zebra name with the bold black and white stripes. Caterpillars also have different coloring variations. I’ve found greenish yellow with black dots and a yellow and black stripe in April. March produced a tannish green with black, yellow and white stripes. The most interesting I found was late May one year where the caterpillar was black with yellow stripes just starting to show themselves. This caterpillar was the smallest I’ve found, so likely an early instar since the others were much larger.

This is one color version of the caterpillar from April
This is one color version of the caterpillar from April

Of all the butterflies that visit my garden, I’d have to choose the Zebra Swallowtail as the most beautiful. The underside is a site to behold with the vivid red stripe and blue dots against those unmistakable black and white stripes.

Darker version of a caterpillar from March
Darker version of a caterpillar from March

So, if it is within your range, get out to your local native plant nursery and add some pawpaw to your garden. Not only will it attract this butterfly, but the plant also produces edible fruits for other wildlife, including mammals such as you.

A completely different color late one May
A completely different color late one May
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9 thoughts on “Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly: What Pizzazz”

  1. Great column!!! I’ve been trying to grow pawpaw for years and got nine started from seeds this spring. I kept them in the greenhouse for the summer but can’t wait to plant them in the spring! And thank you for standing up for bidens — I love the look on code enforcement’s face when I tell them how important they are to native pollinators 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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