Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies for Fun

One of my favorite butterflies to raise is the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). It’s an easy species to attract to your garden. You just need to provide their host plants on which the females lay their eggs, including Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Rue or Golden Alexander and they will find them.

Eastern Black Swallowtail and Host Plants

The beautiful Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly and five of its host plants, including common herbs: Dill, Fennel and Parsley.

Can’t find these host-plant seeds locally? Order them here:
• Dill (Anethum graveolens)
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
• Curly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
• Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail ovipositing

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ovipositing an egg on Fennel. Look closely at the end of her abdomen. Can you see the cream-colored egg?

Eastern Black Swallowtail Eggs

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eggs on Rue and Fennel leaves. Collecting eggs and larvae from your garden or field and getting them home safely is easier with small condiment cups and lids. Click here to order a package.

Once you find the eggs or tiny caterpillars, remove the leaves or pieces of the plant they are on and place them inside a closed container. I like to use the salad containers from fast-food restaurants, but you can use any container with a lid. I use a push pin to punch air holes in the lid. Line the bottom of the container with paper towel or coffee filter. Be sure to provide plenty of the host plant leaves on which you found the eggs and/or caterpillars.

Salad Container Repurposed as a Butterfly Habitat

This easy-to-assemble habitat is nothing more than a fast-food salad container lined with a coffee filter. A few holes punched in the top with a push pin complete the project. These Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars are dining on Curly Parsley.

Caterpillar Condo

I call this my caterpillar condo.

Check on your caterpillars each day to make sure they have enough food to feast on. Once they get bigger you will need to empty the fecal droppings (known as frass) each day and add a new coffee filter or paper towel plus fresh food.

Caterpillar Frass

Caterpillars make a mess! Be sure to clean your cage every day to keep your caterpillars healthy and happy.

All Five Caterpillar Instars

Caterpillars shed their skin five times as they grow. These stages are called instars. In this photo, you can see all five instars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar represented on my finger.

When they are ready to pupate, they will crawl to the top of the lid and make their chrysalis. Many people like to put sticks inside the container for them to use, but that is not necessary. However, it can be fun to see the different colors the chrysalis becomes.

Pupating Caterpillars

The caterpillar will crawl to the top and spin a silk girdle on the container lid before it sheds its skin for the final time.

Chameleon-like Pupae

Chameleon-like, the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar will pupate with colors that match its surroundings in order to camouflage itself.

It usually takes about two weeks for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis. You can then experience the joy of holding and releasing your new butterfly.

Eastern Black Swallowtail on finger

A newly-emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ready for its first flight.

Butterflies and Fruit

Adding a fruit feeder to your butterfly garden can help attract butterflies. Many butterflies do not live on flower nectar alone. Some species prefer, even require, overripe fruit to feed on. Butterflies are particularly fond of sliced, rotting oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, apples and bananas.

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A couple of Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies enjoy sips of sweet fruit juice on a summer afternoon. • Click here or on photo to view a variety of suet baskets.

By placing sliced oranges and watermelon inside a suet bird feeder you can make this simple butterfly feeder.

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A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) butterfly sipping juice from a cantaloupe.

This easily-assembled butterfly feeder is a clay saucer with sliced cantaloupe that was positioned on top of a hanging plant basket. It was hung in a Plum Tree (Prunus spp.), which happens to be a host plant for the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) seen feeding here.

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A mass of Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis) butterflies marauding a rotting banana still in its peel. • Copyright by Jill Streit-Murphy. Used with permission.

My friend, Jill Streit-Murphy, hangs out a rotten banana in her garden. There are so many butterflies you can’t even see the fruit!

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Half an orange on a deck railing attracted this Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) butterfly.

While in Costa Rica last summer, I set out some fruit in a bird bath and attracted amazingly beautiful butterflies.

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A Red-spotted Purple butterfly shares discarded peaches with some wasps.

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An ant guard is essential equipment when using a butterfly feeder. Click here or on photo to view a variety of ant guards.

Keep ants at bay by hanging your butterfly feeder with an ant guard. Whether you use the kind shown here with a small bit of pesticide tucked inside where it doesn’t come in contact with the butterflies or the type that you keep filled with water and a few drops of cooking oil, ant guards are essential equipment when using butterfly feeders.

Watch a Painted Lady Caterpillar Pupate

This time-lapse photography shows a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly caterpillar shedding its skin for the last time to pupate into a chrysalis. This is part of the metamorphosis that butterflies undergo during their development. In another 10 days or so, it will eclose (emerge) as a beautiful adult butterfly.

Butterfly Lady provides low-cost Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kits with FREE shipping and handling. Click here to check availability and price.

Video Copyright © 2016 by Wendy Kindred Holt. Used with permission. Thanks, Wendy!

“I have been transformed.”

El Salvador is still recuperating from a devastating civil war that wracked the country from 1980 to 1992, leaving at least 75,000 people dead and tens of thousands more displaced. My site, Segundo Montes, is a community made up of five towns in the eastern department of Morazán, formed in 1990 by repatriated refugees who fled the country’s civil war.

Teaching about Host Plants

Suzanne Tilton demonstrates the importance of butterfly host plants in the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán, a large butterfly enclosure in El Salvador.

After nearly a decade in refugee camps in Honduras, residents returned en masse 25 years ago to reclaim their livelihoods and dignity. I wanted to help this once-war-torn community’s iconography transform itself from memories of combat fatigues to fluttery symbols of peace and hope.

When I arrived at the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán, I was thrilled to see the abundance and variety of butterflies – from Blue Morphos (Morpho peleides) to Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) and everything in between – flying in the gardens outside. It was a delightful sight and I knew immediately that I had arrived where I belonged.

The butterfly exhibit was built in 2008 as an agricultural project to raise butterflies but, within two years, it was abandoned due to lack of knowledge and support on how to raise and manage the rearing of butterflies. My job as an Educational Butterfly Farm Management Specialist was to train butterfly wranglers how to cultivate butterflies and maintain a healthy habitat for them inside the exhibit.

Dressing up as a butterfly

A delightful child visiting the butterfly zoo has dressed up as a butterfly.

I also visited several primary and secondary schools to teach the life cycle of butterflies and why they’re important for the mountainous environment. Children had the chance to hold and observe up close live specimens in the forms of eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies. I used props to dress up the children as caterpillars, butterflies and moths. They cheered in delight when we released butterflies at the end of the presentation and watched them fly freely into the sky.

I knew I was having an impact when parents would stop me in the community and share that they had learned all about butterfly metamorphosis from their children.

One of the highlights of my experience in El Salvador was a weekend visit by 50 students from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, who came across the border to learn butterfly biology and butterfly zoo management with an emphasis on environmentally friendly sustainability.

There is a concerted effort to develop tourism along the Ruta de Paz (Peace Highway) from Morazán’s capital of San Francisco Gotera to El Salvador’s border with Honduras, along Highway 7. The butterfly zoo is strategically located along this route and is well positioned to attract the attention of vacationers headed to the cool air and brilliant sunshine of Perquín, eight miles farther north.

Teaching about butterflies

Teaching a class on butterfly biology in El Salvador.

At 4,000 feet in elevation, Perquín is a popular destination of Salvadorans fleeing the heat and humidity of the coast and tropical lowlands. As time goes by, it is hoped that the  will play its part in entertaining and educating tourists on the beauty of butterflies while it continues to contribute to the economic well-being of the community.

At 4,000 feet in elevation, Perquín is a popular destination of Salvadorans fleeing the heat and humidity of the coast and tropical lowlands. As time goes by, it is hoped that the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán will play its part in entertaining and educating tourists on the beauty of butterflies while it continues to contribute to the economic well-being of the community.

In conjunction with the nascent tourism industry, I was privileged to make presentations and conduct field trips for university students studying tourism and hospitality at the nearby Technical Institute of Father Segundo Montes.

I experienced such a feeling of joy and satisfaction as I watched mesmerized visitors hold a butterfly for the first time.

Just as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, I have been transformed into a different person by serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer.

Learning about the different parts of a butterfly.

Learning about the different parts of a butterfly; including compound eyes, hearing sensors, proboscis and wings.

Observing caterpillars

Butterfly excitement in a Salvadorean classroom.

Suzanne Tilton retired from teaching, mostly primary grades, after 28 years of service in 2010. She has raised butterflies for over 20 years and has shared the wonder of butterfly biology with thousands of children and adults. Suzanne and her recently retired husband, David, were so impressed with Peace Corps in El Salvador that they have applied for and been invited to teach English in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga for 27 months starting in August 2015.

Editor’s Note: This post was written and originally published in Peace Corps Passport, the U.S. Peace Corps’ official blog, on 22 April 2015 to commemorate Earth Day. Suzanne and her husband, David, eventually chose not to serve in Peace Corps, but did move to Tonga in October 2015, from where they continue to research, publish and teach worldwide about the wonder and joy of butterflies.

Flowers for Fall-Migrating Monarch Butterflies

One of the surest ways to see fall-migrating Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies is to plant flowers that attract them. Monarchs will drop from the sky for the nectar they need for energy during fall migrations.

(For your convenience, you can follow links on the various plants mentioned here to check for availability and price.)

Asters (Aster spp.) are a favorite of Monarchs in the fall, particularly the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Monarch on aster

Monarch nectaring on Aster.

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), including Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia speciosa) and Swamp Sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) are late bloomers and provide nectar for migrating Monarchs.

Monarch on Orange Mexican Sunflower

Monarch nectaring on Orange Mexican Sunflower.

Monarch on Swamp Sunflower

Monarch nectaring on Swamp Sunflower.

Many Lantanas (Lantana spp.) are still blooming. Last year I had several Monarchs stop in late October in my North Carolina, USA, garden to sip the nectar from ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana (Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’)

Monarch butterfly nectaring on ‘Miss Huff’ Lantana.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a wonderful fall blooming perennial that attracts Monarchs and comes in many different varieties.

Goldenrod

Goldenrod provides an enticing buffet for pollinators, including fall-migrating Monarchs and other butterflies.

Ironweed (Vernonia spp.) always attracts Monarchs.

Monarch sampling Ironweed nectar.

Other great nectar flowers to plant for fall-migrating Monarchs include these:
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Autumn Joy Stonecrop (Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’)
Dense Blazingstar (Liatris spicata)
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)
Rose Verbena (Verbena canadensis)