A Butterfly’s Life

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly on fennel

This butterfly species, the anise swallowtail, graces our yard every summer. They start life on the wild fennel that grows in a corner.


Over the years, I have had the pleasure of watching all the stages of this butterfly’s life.

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar

It begins when the female deposits eggs on the host plant, the fennel. The eggs hatch and tiny caterpillars–each one about the width of your pinkie–feed on the plant.


The caterpillars, also called larvae, have jaws.Β  (Butterflies don’t have jaws, they have proboscis for drinking nectar.) They chew and chew and chew until their body grows so much the skin literally splits open.


Underneath this now-split skin is a new, more flexible skin that has been forming. The caterpillar continues chewing, and growing, until the skin splits again.Β This process, called molting, repeats four or five times.


Each skin is differently colored. At first they are black and white; the next caterpillar stage (aka instar) is orange and black. For the grand finale, the caterpillar is magnificent in green, orange, black, and blue.


More info here: Wikipedia Anise Swallowtail Butterfly.Β 


Finally, in its last and fifth instar, the caterpillar once again splits the skin, but this time it spins one or two threads of silk, and attaches to a plant; forms the pupa or chrysalis. (See Life Cycle diagram below.)


Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa


Eventually the chrysalis ruptures and the winged insect crawls out. The flow of blood stops, the wings take some time to firm up, and the new butterfly flies away.


Anise Swallowtail: Butterfly on right, empty chrysalis on left


When we first moved to our rural property, I cut back the fennel, because it is an invasive plant and not native to our forest. Here in California and along the west coast, fennel is everywhere–abandoned lots, roadside ditches. I saw it yesterday on the freeway; four lanes of traffic speeding in each direction, and growing out of the median was fennel.


Fortunately for me, our fennel grew back the next spring, and that summer I found stunning caterpillars on it.


Since then I have pampered the fennel, and in late June, like clockwork, we find the caterpillars. They inhabit the plant stalks and eat the fronds, one little feathery piece at a time, voraciously devouring the plant.


In Native American and other cultures, the butterfly symbolizes transformation and change. Change is a key component to life on earth.


I don’t think there’s a creature more graceful and elegant for reminding us that change can be beautiful.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander

There are over 550 species of swallowtail butterflies; here are two other species that drink nectar on our property:

Pipevine Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtail


Courtesy Wikipedia



105 thoughts on “A Butterfly’s Life

  1. Fascinating and you’re so lucky to watch the whole process. I do the same with the monarch butterfly, which feeds on the swan plant. “Anise on Fennel” love it. I once read this and find it wise and comforting: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly”.

    • It has taken many years to watch the whole process, because the stages come and go so quickly and apparently there are several broods in a season. I love that quote, Bertie, thanks so much for your contribution…much appreciated.

  2. Travel and photography have given me a true appreciation for nature … nature of all kind. The relationship between the fennel and caterpillar/butterfly – the transformation of the caterpillar … all fascinating and intriguing. Wonderful post and photos.

    • It is so nice that we have travel and photography and blogs to learn and share the information these days, rather than killing the butterfly and sticking pins in its carcass like they had to do in the old days. It really is a fascinating and intriguing transformation, thanks very much, Ingrid.

  3. what a lovely post on butterflies, Jet. there’s a butterfly exhibition at the chicago botanic garden and i’m looking forward to our visit. butterflies are such gorgeous creatures and yes, they are a great reminder that change can be beautiful! thank you as always πŸ™‚

    • Oh have a wonderful time at the butterfly exhibition, Lola. I went to a butterfly museum in Houston once, and it was so glorious to see all the different and exotic butterflies floating around us. Many thanks~~

    • Yes, we get many kinds that look like the tiger, too, Craig. But when a pipevine swallowtail comes along, I stop in my tracks. When you don’t have opticals enhancing your view, the pipevine looks like a sleek, black butterfly.

    • The photographer, my partner Athena, got the pupa and caterpillar photos in 2005, but didn’t get an acceptable butterfly photo until now. So it is as you say, Michael, not easy to get them to pose. Many thanks for your comment and visit.

    • The key is to have host foods in your garden. To do this, you just have to find out what butterflies inhabit your area, then learn what their host plants are and plant them. Happy butterflies to you, Joanna — and many thanks, as always.

  4. I had no idea about the various ‘skins’ of the caterpillar. I cant help but think of the wee caterpillar in a clothing store trying on various colors. “No I think the black and white just isn’t me.” Chew, chew chew. ” Oh this one is a bit better, more color but still not sure. ” Chew, chew, chew. ” Oh yes this one is perfect> I’ll take it but all this shopping has left me exhausted. Time for a nap.”

    • Oh how you got me laughing and smiling, Sue. I was thinking about how we learn the caterpillar and butterfly phenomenon in grade school, but often, as it goes in life, we don’t get more info for whatever reason. It is really such a remarkable event, for one creature to take so many shapes and forms, and “outfits,” — what a joy to share this with you, Sue. Thanks so much for your visit, I always enjoy them. And thanks for the big smiles. Have a happy weekend! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you, WK. I decided there are pieces of the butterfly puzzle that we remember from school, but the whole picture is something many of us don’t completely know–especially those who haven’t been in seventh grade for a very long time. I appreciate your feedback and visit, as always.

    • Always appreciate your attentiveness, pc, thank you. Oh how changes can be difficult sometimes (read: aging), and what a wonderful comfort the butterfly has been for me, and many others, so many times. Have a wonderful weekend too, pc — I’m so enjoying your summer adventures.

  5. Thanks for the intro, Jet, to a really cool butterfly, which I am pretty sure we don’t have on the East coast. I love chasing butterflies–it makes me feel like a child again. As several readers have noted, it’s tough to capture images of these moving pieces of art, but that is the fun part of the challenge.

    • And so many butterflies and dragonflies and damselflies you have chased. I am sure you do like chasing them, for you have photographed many, with such skill and reverence. Many thanks for your visit and comment, Mike–

  6. Interesting post my friend. We are in a way synonymous of the butterfly because we both transform…We are born with a body that eventually will leave and metamorph into our eternal soul. Thank you for reminding me. πŸ™‚

  7. It is the most remarkable story, Jet, isn’t it? That’s a real beauty you have there. Funnily enough I shared a post on Twitter yesterday about the butterfly count that’s taking place this weekend in Belgium. (and I think in the UK too- I should find out! πŸ™‚ )

    • Oh how tricky a butterfly count must be! Great to hear about it, Jo, and many thanks for your kind words about the post. The life of a butterfly is indeed a remarkable story.

  8. Oh how I like butterflies!! It is a bit of a challenge being colorblind as I miss the logic behind some of the oohs and aahs from Peta. But nonetheless, the whole cycle as you describe it aptly above, is fascinating. Re the fennel, I am a big fennel fan myself, so I get where these larvae are coming from!

    Perhaps the most amazing butterfly experience we have ever had during travels was in Cambodia outside of Siem Reap where there is a small butterfly farm which we south out to visit. There is a room full of all the stages of caterpillar and butterfly life, in addition to the gardens, and we got to “release” brand new baby butterflies, for their first flight once their wings were dry. Glory. But the “craziest” butterfly farm we have visited was undoubtedly in Bali where the size of the butterflies were huge, and others which were a luminescent turquoise and black.



    • I am so glad you enjoyed the butterfly post, Susan. They are such a lovely creature, in all their many forms, to have in our presence. Appreciate your visit and comment.

  9. Wonderful post to not only celebrate the life cycle of the Anise Swallowtail, but also the appreciation of the delicate nature of change. Your words conveyed the care and pampering you offer on your property to aid in this life cycle and I loved the photos of the butterflies on the fennel.

    • I appreciate your kind and eloquent words, ACI. The nature of change is indeed a delicate one. I learned a great thing while researching this. One day about 2 weeks ago I found 7 of the big caterpillars on the fennel at once, I was very excited. They were the really fat ones, as if they would make pupae soon. So I went down the next day to check on things, and not one was there. For a moment I thought some animal ate them all, then I chose not to think about that; and reasoned surely they wouldn’t all be gone just like that. Then I read, in my research, that when they are ready to create the chrysalis, they will go to another plant to do this. So I think that’s what happened. I don’t know for sure, but then again, that’s how nature is, we don’t really always know the story. But we must have faith that all is well. Many thanks for your interest.

      • I have a new visitor spending his days in an nook on my deck and it is a result of reading about your appreciation and celebration of nature that I am still able to walk on my deck as the bat spends its days sleeping.πŸ™‚

      • OMG, ACI, I am SO SO happy to hear this. What a joy it is to hear you’re sharing your deck with a bat. Don’t tell Gabby, she’ll be jealous. πŸ˜‰

  10. Happy to read of your interest in butterflies and willingness to share your wisdom and excellent images. A favorite subject of mine and I enjoy updates on what’s going on elsewhere. Thanks Jet!

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the butterfly post. Too often we leave the fascinating and beautiful processes for children, and I don’t know why that is, but I don’t let it stop me…this kind of miracle is for everyone to enjoy, no matter what age.

  11. Thank you for this fascinating post. Your writing is so clear, understandable, and exciting. My wife and I were reading your post together, and she was surpised that I had not learned about the life cycle of the caterpiller/butterfly in grade school. I think maybe I was absent from school for that lesson, and now you’ve educated me. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much, David, for your kind words about my writing and butterfly post. I know my caterpillar lesson in grade school was more basic, and I never learned that there was more than one caterpillar stage, for instance. So what a joy it is for me to share this exciting phenomenon with you. Many thanks–

  12. WOW! This post is a Science GOLD! It’s not only about the encyclopedic information. Nature, it’s an amazing passion of yours. And this is like reading a person’s fascination and you brought us with you. So thanks for engaging us.

    • Thanks so much, Rommel, for your kind and encouraging words. It was a pleasure to engage you, and a joy to “see” you here. My humble thanks and smiles– πŸ™‚

  13. I love reading your posts!! I always learn so much….I knew conceptually about the life cycle of caterpillars to butterflies, but had no idea how many times they split their skin, etc…also didn’t know the attraction to fennel…great pics..great post…thank you!

    • Thanks very much, Kirt. Like it is in nature, and all of life, there’s always more to most phenomenon. I like going a little deeper, and what a pleasure to have you join me. Many thanks.

  14. Fascinated by every part of nature, the butterfly is one insect that adds beauty and grace to all of it.
    Thank you for your perfectly detailed story of this elegant creature and his life.
    It adds more enjoyment to our understanding of his nature and ours.
    Have a great day Jet, Eddie

    • I agree, Eddie, the butterfly adds a new level of enjoyment and understanding to our nature and his too. Many thanks, my friend, for your lovely comment and visit.

  15. Fascinating timelapse photography,dear Jet!You’re so lucky you’ve the chance to observe this magical moment when the beautiful butterfies emerge from the chrysalis after the slow,wondrous process.We’ve plenty of wild fennel in the nearby forest and rue,I usually see lots of caterpillars on rue and never on the wild fannel.There must be a reason behind their preferance,in our area,I suppose.Enjoy happy summer days,my friend πŸ™‚ xxx

    • Thanks for your visit and great comment, Doda. It looks like rue, according to my google search, is a host plant in your country for the anise swallowtail (the butterfly in my post), as well as the black swallowtail and the giant swallowtail. What a bonanza that must be! I am not familiar with rue, but it looks like it is a problem plant for sensitive-skinned people. Thanks for introducing me to plants and butterflies where you live. A true joy to be in touch with you again, thank you Doda.

  16. Dear Jet…this is such a perfect post for me at this time. Transformation and Change….and only the butterfly can really demonstrate this. Your post is fantastic….as always I have learned a lot….thank you so much my friend. Janet πŸ™‚

  17. Oh Jet!
    This is a wonderful post!
    I can hardly wait to find Monarch caterpillars on our Milkweed bush… now bush and baby bushes!
    We planted it for them last year. I so hope they come. I used to see clouds of Monarchs, as we live in a migration path. There are no more clouds of Monarchs, now. There is only 1 here, and 1 there. I so hope they come to our Milkweed.
    This is an awesome post! TY!!!

    • Delightful to receive your comment, Resa. The best way to get butterflies is to plant their host food, and you did it in flying colors. I, too, SO hope they come next year. Congratulations on helping the monarch populations to thrive.

  18. Very nice article Jet. I’m originally from the UK. As a young butterfly enthusiast, back in the day, the swallowtail was a bit of a holy grail species, as it is extremely rare, only living in tiny numbers in a couple of places. This is interesting because the area I lived is swamped with aniseed scented fennel. Now I have to do a little research to find out is the UK guys feed on it and if so, why are they not more widespread. Thanks for the new information!

    • I, too, am always on the pursuit of answers in nature. I’m glad to pique your interest in the UK butterflies, David. Thanks so much for your visits today — and happy researching!

    • Every time a butterfly flutters past, we have a gentle reminder of this life lesson…how very fortunate for us. Thank you for your visit and comments today, David — much appreciated.

    • Thank you Wayne. Yes, I am surrounded by beautiful creatures in the forest. And the butterfly metamorphosis is one I have had the honor to witness for over a decade, it’s a real treat. And fun to share. Many thanks.

  19. Pingback: A Butterfly’s Life – SEO

  20. I wasn’t aware how similar the anise and black SwTail caterpillars were! Gorgeous portraits and informative narrative..

    We had fun early this year with our own insect ‘investation.’ We watched intimately as several species became adults, but none was so fun as the Incredible Hulk (my kids called him). That black SwTail literally busted out of his last molt before our very eyes! Cheers, Jet. I am not quite back to blogging yet, but always love occasionally checking in to my favorite blogs-away-from-home.

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