Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly

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.

Spicy food

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.

native spicebush

native spicebush

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.

look for a single white egg glued under a leaf

look for a single white egg glued under 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).

notice how the leaf tip is folded over

notice how the leaf tip is folded over

peek inside to check for the caterpillar

peek inside to check for the caterpillar

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.

here's a larger one

here’s a larger one

and the surprise inside

and the surprise inside

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.

check the leaves in the autumn

check the leaves in the autumn

you may find a caterpillar that will winter-over in its chrysalis

you may find a caterpillar that will winter-over in its chrysalis

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.

this shows a baby caterpillar next to one that is half grown

This shows a half-grown caterpillar next to a baby one. Notice the exposed head on the larger one.

here's a side view of the young caterpillar

here’s a side view of the young caterpillar

here is the top view

here is the top view

as it matures the caterpillar goes from brown to green

as it matures the caterpillar goes from brown to green

Caterpillar Kung-Fu

When a spicebush caterpillar feels threatened it may rear up on its hind legs and sway back and forth.

sometimes they rear up if they feel threatened

sometimes they rear up if they feel threatened

It may also tuck its head under and display its eye-spots to make itself look larger or scarier than it really is.

looks like a snake face

looks like a snake face

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.

yellow osmeterium protruding

yellow osmeterium protruding

 

Mellow Yellow

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.

they turn yellow when they are mature

they turn yellow when they are mature

 

the caterpillar spins a silk harness to secure itself to a stick

the caterpillar spins a silk harness to secure itself to a stick

the caterpillar sheds its skin to reveal the chrysalis underneath

the caterpillar sheds its skin to reveal the chrysalis underneath

the chrysalis may be brown or green

the chrysalis may be brown or green

 

Beautiful Butterfly

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.

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly on native swamp milkweed

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly on native swamp milkweed

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Judy, raising 1000 butterflies and keeping 75 over the winter is an amazing accomplishment. I’m inspired, though won’t begin to keep up with you. I was glad to recently collect five black swallowtail butterfly eggs to raise, party because I enjoy watching them grow and I like sharing them. I find caterpillars and butterflies are a great way to lead children and adults to greater awareness of the importance of native plants. Thanks for the great photos and best wishes with your summer nursery.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Rose-breasted grosbeaks

    • says

      Hi Betty
      It is quite a job to raise so many by hand, but we love to bring them to our presentations so everyone can “get their hands on nature” as we like to say ! Once people get up close and personal with the butterflies, it seems like their whole world opens up to nature. I hope we run into you again this summer :)

  2. says

    We bought a spicebush for our yard 2 years ago and last summer I took in a small spicebush cat to raise as I had monarchs. I didn’t know at the time that they over winter. It was a difficult fall and winter in our family and the cat was in the garage. My husband put the tank on the porch and I was shocked to look over and see it just after eclosing. I was so excited and just wrote a blog post on it.. Michelle
    RamblingWoods recently posted..Nature Notes (#212) ~Beautiful and graceful, varied and enchanting, small but approachable, butterflies lead you to the sunny side of life. And everyone deserves a little sunshine. ~Jeffrey Glassberg

  3. jean sudnik says

    hi judy, i am enjoying raising spicebush cats now, although today i discovered those nasty spiders had eaten half of them. i now have them enclosed in a container. my little tree is sure helping to draw the spicebush in my yard. its been fun so far, i also have 2 black swallowtail cats. nice blog lots of good info.

  4. Christine says

    HELP! I have protected about 14 black swallowtail s over the winter. they are starting to come out, though out weather is still cool ( eastern PA). Out of 5 so far 2 were fine and took off but the others have not been able to form their wings properly. They have plenty of room below them to hang and drip. but i find them on the floor of the box struggling and by the time I get them up on the branches there is no hope. Is it possible the branches they are on too big for them to grip? Does this just happen to some?? Is there anything I can do? I am heartbroken watching them struggling! Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    • says

      Hi Christine, what you are describing is what I call “winter weakness”. I’ve been hand-raising butterflies for more than 10 years and this still happens to some of mine. The only explanation I can offer is that some butterflies just don’t have enough energy left after a long winter’s nap to emerge from their chrysalis healthy and strong. They may fail to fully expand their wings or the wings may be deformed in some way preventing them from being able to fly. Some may even look perfect but are too weak to hold onto anything or even stand up, and die within a day or two. It’s just something that happens to some of them. It is heart-breaking, but sadly there is nothing that I know of that can prevent it from happening.

  5. MarshaLynn Walsh says

    Hi !! love your site. I have a chrysalis of Spicebush Swtail Bfly. In August I left the plastic container with a net top on the picnic table in the 90 deg hot Florida sun :( The chrysalis has not eclosed as of yet, I hope it is overwintering. Do you think that the Butterfly survived that hot sun? Or, do you think it is dead? Thank you , Lynn Walsh. ps I have and love your book The Life Cycles of Butterflies!!

    • says

      Hi Marsha, we share the same middle name :)
      I hope your chrysalis is okay despite the heat. One way to test the chrysalis is to put your finger on the bottom end and try to gently wiggle the tip. It should have a bit of movement of its abdomen segments if it has not dried out. Also, if you hold it gently between two fingers it should feel colder than your skin temperature if it is alive. Either way, I would keep it until next year just to be sure.
      I’m so glad you love my book! Thank you!

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