Butterfly season is finally here in my beautiful wildlife garden !
This week my brother and I finished releasing our winter batch of butterflies that have been hibernating inside their chrysalises since last fall. All of them were swallowtail species – Zebra, Eastern Black, Spicebush, Pipevine and Eastern Tiger. They have been emerging almost daily for the last three weeks. We usually raise at least one thousand butterflies per year, with around 75 of those spending the winter in hibernation.
Each species of butterfly requires specific plants on which to lay its eggs. A caterpillar will starve and die rather than to eat the wrong host plant leaves. The Spicebush Swallowtail lays eggs on our native sassafras trees and also on spicebush (Lindera sp.) shrubs.
Spicebush leaves have a strong spicy smell. Spicebushes have male and female flowers on separate plants that are pollinated by bees and other insects. Spicebushes are native to the Eastern U.S. in damp forests. They prefer shady areas but will grow in full sun if they get plenty of water. These shrubs reproduce by seeds (that are eaten by birds) and sometimes by runners. The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly lays each egg on the underside of a leaf.
Let’s play hide-and-seek !
In case you are unable to locate the eggs of these interesting butterflies, here are the tricks to discovering their elusive caterpillars. Look for folded leaves on the spicebush shrub (or sassafras tree).
The caterpillar has spinnerets located under its mouth that are used to produce silk. The caterpillar makes a mat of wet silk threads across the top surface of a leaf. As the silk dries it shrinks and causes the leaf to fold over.
The caterpillars like to stay hidden during the day and come out at night to eat. They return to their leaf tent to rest, until they outgrow it and move on to another leaf to make a new one.
What big eyes you have !
I just love those big false eye-spot designs on its back. The actual head is small and pink or green and is often kept tucked underneath the body.
When a spicebush caterpillar feels threatened it may rear up on its hind legs and sway back and forth.
It may also tuck its head under and display its eye-spots to make itself look larger or scarier than it really is.
If all else fails it will shoot out its defensive forked gland, called an osmeterium, covered in foul-smelling liquid and smear it on the threat to repel its enemy. All swallowtail butterfly caterpillars have this kind of gland. I like to surprise people at my presentations by tickling one of these caterpillars with a feather to get them to display their osmeterium.
The first time I raised one of these swallowtails and saw the caterpillar turn yellow, I thought it was sick and dying. After all, no other swallowtail caterpillar that I ever saw has a color change right before it pupates. But have no fear, this is natural for spicebush swallowtails.
Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies drink nectar from a variety of flowers in your garden. Milkweed is a favorite. I like the native swamp milkweed since it thrives in heavy wet soil – perfect for my Kentucky clay. They bloom from early to mid-summer, produce large amounts of nectar to attract a variety of pollinators, and will tolerate partial shade. Swamp milkweed lives in ditches and around ponds in the wild and comes in purple, pink or white flower colors.
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