Tag Archives: Stages of life from caterpillar to butterfly.

Florida Butterflies~Giant Swallowtail

9 Jan

A Time to Live

Melody Hendrix


The giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes Cramer, is a striking, wonderfully “exotic”-looking butterfly that is abundant in Florida.

It is the largest butterfly species in the United States and Canada with a wingspan within the ranges of 4 to 6 inches. The wings are colored black or blackish brown and feature yellow banding on both the fore and hind wing dorsally. Each hind wing tail features a yellow-orange colored eye, the eye can also appear reddish yellow. Another single blue band can be distinguished above the eye. Distinction between males and females is very difficult as both sexes are similar, however, females feature longer wing spans than males as adults. The larval or caterpillar stage is very large and can be considered a pest due to its habit of feeding on the foliage of most Citrus species. They are refered to as “orangedogs” A few can quickly defoliate small or young plants. However, larvae can be tolerated on large dooryard citrus trees in order to enjoy the soon-to-develop magnificent adult butterfly stage
 The giant swallowtail is widely distributed throughout the American continent. Its range extends from southern New England across the northern Great Lakes states, into Ontario, through the southern portions of the Central Plains to the Rocky Mountains. The species ranges southward to Florida and the Caribbean, into the southwestern United States, and on through Mexico to Central and South America.

The giant swallowtail is very common throughout the entire state of Florida. It is active throughout the year in southern Florida, and is common in northern Florida, except in January and February. The giant swallowtail is very distinct from all other swallowtails found in Florida.

Adult butterflies sip nectar from many flowers and are common, but spectacular, visitors to butterfly gardens. Identified nectar sources include azalea, bougainvillea, Japanese honeysuckle, goldenrod, dame’s rocket, bouncing Bet, and swamp milkweed. They may also sip liquid from manure. A collective name for a group of butterflies is called a ‘Kaleidoscope.

Adult males patrol flyways through pine woods or citrus groves searching for females. Flight is very strong and leisurely, and the butterflies may glide long distances between wing beats.

Courtship and copulation occur in the afternoon.

The five larval instars stages differ in appearance but they all share a resemblance to bird droppings. Younger instars are more realistic bird-dropping mimics due to their smaller size. Mature larvae usually rest on stems or leaf petioles, but younger larvae often rest in plain view on the upper surfaces of leaves where bird droppings would be expected.
Below is a newly hatched larva of the giant swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes Cramer.
They are refured to as  “CATS”in this fuzzy instar stage.

 Larvae defend themselves against predators (both insects and vertebrates) and parasitic insects by being less visible through cryptic coloration and pattern like resembling bird droppings.

The larvae possess an osmeterium, an orange or reddish Y-shaped eversible gland that is located mid-dorsally behind the head. When attacked by small predators, the larva extrudes the gland and attempts to wipe it against the attacker. The osmeterium of fourth and fifth instars contains a highly noxious, pungent mixture of chemicals.

The top photo, the caterpillar just shed it’s last skin and attached itself to a stick with silk and sling.

 Below it has become a hardened chrysalis and will go through metamorphasis for about 10 days before emerging into a beautiful butterfly.

Below is a newly emerged Giant Swallowtail. Wings inflated but not dry. Before the wings totally dry, this is a perfect opportunity to effortlessly take beautiful butterfly photos.

Take your photos when there is plenty of light. Shoot many different angles. Use a flash when the sun is behind the butterfly. Otherwise, best with natural light. I will talk more about photographing butterflies later.
Next week we will explore the Gulf Frittilary butterfly.



I am retired and enjoying life. My hobbies are my 5 grandchildren, son and daughter, and my loving husband. I am a photographer and extreme nature lover. I love spending time in my garden or in the wilderness connected to God my Creator.

Florida Butterflies~Zebra Longwing

26 Dec

A Time to Live

Melody Hendrix


Florida designated the zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charitonius) as the official state butterfly in 1996. The zebra longwing butterfly is found throughout Florida in hardwood hammocks, thickets, gardens, and particularly in the Everglades National Park. The zebra longwing butterfly is characterized by long black wings with distinctive thin stripes and a slow, graceful flight.


 It makes a creaking sound when alarmed. Zebra longwings feed on nectar and pollen. They are the only butterflies known to eat pollen, it collects on it’s proboscis.

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their specialized mouth parts, but the Zebra Longwing takes some pollen as well as nectar. Their saliva enables them to dissolve the pollen and to take their nutrients. Pollen is very nutritious, rich in proteins, unlike nectar which contains almost no proteins, just sugars. This diet allows the butterflies to prolong their lives and also enables them to continue producing eggs for several months. As a consequence they are more dependent on flowers than other types of butterflies and this makes them good pollinators. They feed on a wide range of flowers; some of their favorites are lantana, shepherd’s needle (Bidens). It is also possible that they develop a sort of symbiosis with those plants that provide their preferred pollen.


 This  is probably why they have a long lifespan (about six months, as compared to a more usual one month for other butterfly species).
The zebra longwing butterfly lays its eggs on passion vine leaves. Passion vines contain toxins that are consumed by the caterpillars, which make the adult butterflies poisonous to predators.


The longwing is not so common in northern part of the state. The zebra longwing roosts in a flock with its kin. The longwing sleeps so soundly that you can literally pick it off its roost and return it later, without waking any of the rest of its family.


 The longwing is so comfortable with its perch, it also faithfully returns to the same perch every night. During the day her flight is slow, feeble, and wafting, but she can quickly dart to shelter if threatened or approached. Zebra longwing and other heliconians have a reputation for being very intelligent insects.


They have a social order when roosting; the oldest ones choose the best places. They also gently nudge the others early in the morning to get going. Another interesting characteristic of heliconian butterflies is that they can remember their food sources and return daily to the plants where they fed previously, a behavior known as trap lining. The memory is so strong that if one shrub in their route is cut down they return to the location again and again only to search in vain.

The zebra longwing butterfly begins mating right after it emerges from its chrysalis. The caterpillar has a white body with long black spines and a yellow head.


If weather conditions are right, the zebra longwing butterfly can go from egg to butterfly in a little over three weeks.

Next week we will explore the majestic Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.




I am retired and enjoying life. My hobbies are my 5 grandchildren, son and daughter, and my loving husband. I am a photographer and extreme nature lover. I love spending time in my garden or in the wilderness connected to God my Creator.

Yellow Sulphur Butterflies

19 Dec

A Life to Live

Melody Hendrix


The yellow butterflies you see around fall are the Sulphur butterflies. There are many variations, but all look similar.


Cloudless sulphur, a common year-round resident in much of peninsular Florida, the cloudless sulphur rapidly extends it range northward each spring and eventually establishes breeding colonies as far north as Canada and the Midwest by the end of summer. As cool autumn weather approaches, adults from the final generation begin a return migration, coming back to the Deep South to overwinter.


You may see them in most open, sunny areas such as roadsides, old fields, gardens, pastures, and fallow agricultural fields.

Larval Host Plants: Cloudless sulphur caterpillars use a various plants in the pea family including, Cassia tree, Partridge pea, sickle-pod senna, sensitive pea, wild senna, coffee senna  and Christmas senna or golden shower. Cloudless sulphurs may be found in all habitats when migrating, but breed in disturbed open areas where their caterpillar host plants and nectar plants are found. They have relatively long tongues and can reach the nectar of some tubular flowers that some other butterflies cannot. They have such a sweet fuzzy face and big eyes.


Males patrol for females throughout the day and especially around nectar. The male initiate courtship by making contact with the female’s wings either with his wings or legs. A receptive female usually flicks her wings and then closes them. Unless the female assumed a “mate refusal” posture (open wings and raised abdomen)


Eggs are laid singly on the host plant. Larvae live exposed (no shelter) and feed on foliage, buds and flowers.


At night, on dark, cloudy days, and during storms, adult cloudless sulphurs roost singly on leaves. Although the adults are brightly colored when flying, they seem to disappear against similarly colored leaves in the shade. The roost site may be low to the ground in shrubs with lots of foliage or high up in the leaves of trees.

The fall migration of cloudless sulphurs is the easiest to observe butterfly migration in the southeastern United States. (Monarchs are migrating at the same time, but they generally fly too high to see and are heading for Mexico. During fall, the numbers of cloudless sulphurs crossing an east-west line bisecting the Florida peninsula at the latitude of Gainesville may approach the numbers of monarchs overwintering in clusters at highly localized sites in Mexico.

 The seasonal migrations of cloudless sulphurs and monarchs are similar in that each species is abandoning large and favorable summer breeding areas that have lethally low winter temperatures for more favorable climates to the south. In the spring, surviving adults head northward and soon repopulate the summer breeding areas. In both species, the northward migration is evidenced by the reappearance each summer in the breeding areas they abandoned the previous fall.

It’s always so interesting to me how plants defend themselves against herbivores. Caterpillars can be quite destructive to it’s host plants. So many host plants grow extrafloral nectaries on the leaf petioles to attract predacious ants for protection.


Different plants grow different shaped cups, but they are all filled with nectar for the ants. The ants in return protect the plants from the herbivores. I find this fascinating how nature works.

Raising these yellow beauties is easy if you have the host plants, which for me is the Cassia tree. A beautiful tree that blooms in the fall in a fantastic display of yellow unusual looking blooms.


It’s chrysalis is much different than the monarch. You can see the butterfly colors through it the day before it emerges.


Next week we will explore our own Florida state butterfly, the Zebra Longwing.

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