Summer Moments with a Butterfly

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly on fennel, Calif.

Of the 18,500 butterfly species worldwide, every species relies on a host plant to provide food for its larvae. Fennel is one of the host larval plants for the anise swallowtail butterfly, a common butterfly found along the western coast of North America.


Here in northern California we have a lot of wild fennel–found along freeways, in parks and yards, city parking lots and pavement cracks. This is great news for the anise swallowtail butterfly who depends on fennel to begin life. It’s great news for us, too; our summers are consistently decorated with this large butterfly.


Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, final instar, California


The host larval plant provides the food vitally necessary for the young caterpillar stages, or instars, of the butterfly. When they form wings and fly off, they seek primarily nectar thereafter, because they no longer have mouthparts for chewing.


Observing a butterfly’s four-stage life cycle is fascinating. Most of us know the general story: eggs, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), butterfly. We often share this miracle with the children in our lives. Butterfly – Wikipedia.Β 


Athena and I have watched the many stages of this butterfly in the fennel patch in our yard, brought guests young and old to see, too. Then one day last month we were elsewhere, on a trail overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when Athena spotted an adult female butterfly behaving oddly.


The adult was on fennel, for one thing, and not drinking nectar from a flower.


Pacific Coast, California


She took a few photos and in examining them later, discovered that the butterfly had deposited an egg on the fennel. (This species lays eggs singly.)


Here you can see the swallowtail’s curved rear end touching down on the fennel. The egg is microscopic, so you won’t see it here.


Anise Swallowtail ovi-positing


They start out as a tiny dot on the underside of a plant leaf. All alone it grows from an egg into several successive caterpillars; then forms an exclusive protective shelter around itself as it changes life forms yet again. Eventually it emerges with wings, waits for them to dry, and then flies away. Quite a remarkable feat.


Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa


Last weekend we went down to our fennel patch to see if there was any Lepidoptera activity.


Our fennel patch


We found this one caterpillar, below. It is about the length of a staple. It is one of the first caterpillar instars. Two or three more times the ever-transforming being will eat voraciously until it splits its skin. A new skin will have formed underneath, and the caterpillar will crawl off in it.


Anise Swallowtail caterpillar, early instar


One day the adult will flutter by in all its majestic beauty.


Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos by Athena Alexander.

Image result for nabokov quote on butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov Scientific Illustration: Butterfly Ovi-positing. Color Plate 60 from his book Fine Lines. His note to his wife: From Vladimir to Vera. Courtesy


99 thoughts on “Summer Moments with a Butterfly

  1. It’s a remarkable transformation as you say. I saw a swallowtail during my walk yesterday, (first one for a few years), but it landed in a way that it was difficult to photograph. (I may post it anyway). But I see there is a Swiss connection there with the note being written from Montreux. πŸ™‚

    • Yes, you and Nabokov have both marveled at the butterflies in Switzerland, Mike. That’s as lovely a thought as the butterfly transformation. Warmest thanks for your visit today.

  2. It never fails. I read one of your articles and think ” I never knew that!” I have a lasagna recipe that calls for a touch of fennel. I shall never make it again without thinking of the butterflies who call fennel home.

    • I always find it interesting that what some of us creatures think of as perhaps a weed, others depend on their lives for it. I’m really happy to have you fly by, Teagan, thanks so much.

  3. Wonderful insight into the magical realm of Lepidoptera. I wasn’t familiar with the Anise Swallowtail but now I’m aware of yet another fascinating butterfly species. Thanks for letting us ‘fly’ with you!

  4. I will never look at my fennel plants without thinking about these butterflies. I’ll be out there with a magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes looking for tiny butterfly eggs. They really are beautiful butterflies.

    • When I first moved here I thought fennel was a weed worth taking out. Fortunately some grew back and I got to see what a world it was. I am smiling, Anneli, at the thought of you studying your fennel plants. My warmest thanks.

  5. Pingback: Summer Moments with a Butterfly β€” Jet Eliot |

  6. Hi Jet, I didn’t realize there were so many species of butterflies! πŸ¦‹ I enjoyed reading your post and seeing your photos of transformation. I also like how colorful the caterpillars are! πŸŽ¨πŸ‘

    • Yes, I agree, Jill, the colors on the caterpillars are also a beautiful kaleidoscope. Thanks so much for your visit. BTW, I didn’t know there were so many species of butterflies either, until I wrote this post. Astounding!

  7. Oh no – I’ve been pulling out fennel plants because a landscaper told me they were weeds but if the butterflies like them, I’m going to let them be. Thanks Jet!

    • Your wonderful words gave me a chuckle, Jan. I did the same thing with our fennel years ago, i.e. cut it down. Now I just keep it from proliferating too much, and then I get the enjoyment of butterfly activities. Really happy to help!

  8. GORGEOUS photography and wonderful description of the life cycle of this butterfly. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know my butterflies – just that I think they’re all beautiful. It used to be (not sure it still happens) that every time in early summer (I think it was early summer) when I walked around Belvedere Island there was a tiny lane in which a special tree sheltered dozens and dozens of butterflies. I assumed they were resting before they resumed a pilgrimage. I never knew about fennel being their breeding ground.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the butterflies here today, Pam. While I don’t know about the butterflies where you live now, I know there is a lot of fennel in the Tiburon area, and no doubt Belvedere too. Enjoyed your comment, thanks very much for the visit.

  9. Thank you so much, Jet for letting us know that butterflies love fennel plants. So glad to show us the progress in photos. Beautifully captured! πŸ™‚

    • Butterflies are so difficult to photograph and identify, too, for that matter. But what a lovely creature they are. I’m glad you enjoyed the butterflies here today, M.B., thank you.

  10. Flutter-byes are so elegant and beautiful. Great catches by Athena (knowing how difficult it can be from personal attempts!) Once again, you taught me much in such a fun and pleasant way! I’ve planted some native milkweed here in hopes of seeing the cycle of the Monarch. The deer have been a problem, but we’ve been putting the new plantings in wire cages… aaarghhh! 😦

    • Wonderful to hear from you, Gunta. I loved your word “flutter-bye,” so clever. Also enjoyed hearing that you planted milkweed for the monarchs. The most wonderful way to get a monarch is by planting milkweed, and you did it. The wire cages are not much fun to look at, as you expressed, but the flutter-byes will find it with no problem. My friend, thanks so much for your lovely visit.

  11. I love this, Jet. How delightful to see the progression and the beautiful outcome. I ‘d love to see a whole tree covered with monarchs, wouldn’t you? I’ve seen a few around here and I leave some milkweed growing around the house to help lure them. Our butterfly bush isn’t up and flowering yet, but when it does, I’ll be glued to the living room window to see what visits.


    • I’m happy you enjoyed the butterfly post, Janet, and I so enjoyed hearing about your butterfly activities. I have had the pleasure of seeing large clumps of monarchs, once in Santa Cruz CA — trees and trees loaded down with them. Once in Cape May, NJ too. It is quite a sight! I hope you have great fun with the butterfly bush in the near future. Many thanks, so great to hear from you.

  12. Butterflies are like delicate flying flowers. They have the ability to motivate our visual senses.
    I always remember when I was very young and made a comparison between humans and butterflies. We humans metamorph when we die and become just souls. Thank you for your post, my friend. πŸ™‚

    • I, too, really find a more meaningful understanding to morphing as a human, due to the morphing of butterflies, HJ. They are good teachers, yes? Enjoyed your visit and comment, as always, my friend. Thank you.

  13. Lovely photos and a fascinating post, Jet. You were quite fortuitous to see an egg being laid. The joys of observing nature.
    It’s great to hear that the anise swallowtail butterfly has the potential to flourish in your area. Bees and butterflies are so important to the natural cycle and sensitive markers for the health of nature.

    • Always a joy to hear from you Draco, and I’m happy you enjoyed the butterfly post this week. We are lucky to have the anise swallowtail so prevalent on the US west coast, and to have a good look over the years at all its stages. I sure enjoyed my vicarious visit to Porto with you, thank you.

  14. When I found black swallowtail caterpillars this year, I learned that they feed on carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace and rue. I didn’t know the anise swallowtail caterpillar, but I see it feeds on anise and citrus as well: hence the name, apparently. I tried to see any differences between your caterpillar and my black swallowtail caterpillar, but I don’t seem to have a sharp enough eye. There are lots of pages describing how to distinguish swallowtail butterflies from monarchs, but I couldn’t find a page comparing caterpillars. It would be interesting to know, for differences surely exist.

    Everyone seems to love butterflies, but caterpillars deserve a little respect, too! Without those caterpillars, we’d not have any butterflies, after all.

    • I see what you mean, Linda. I went to your link and also Wikipedia for the black swallowtail, and the two species seem the same to me. Of course they aren’t, as you surmised. I found it interesting that your black swallowtail engages in lekking. Even the first instar caterpillars of the two species look the same. I guess you’d have to consult a butterfly book. I agree with you, caterpillars are crucial to the proliferation of butterflies. As always, enjoyed your thoughts and contributions today. Thanks so much.

    • I agree, Eliza, metamorphosis is indeed a remarkable miracle. Butterflies always remind me that change can be easy and natural. I’m happy you enjoyed the butterflies and caterpillars, thank you, as always, for your visit.

  15. Magical and fascinating! I will never look at fennel in the same way again. Thank you for yet another beautiful eyeopener dear Jet!

    • Now you know why I was examining all the fennel on our walk the other day, slowed down the pace a bit. I’m happy you enjoyed it, and wish you lots of caterpillar findings on your fennel. Thank you.

  16. So great you have your own fennel path to watch all the stages of these amazing creatures. It’s such a mystery (to me) what happens when they are in the pupa stage to become a butterfly.

    • Yes, it is great to have our own fennel patch, and it’s always something different to find. Great fun. There sure is a lot of mystery to these various stages, aren’t there, Bertie? I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  17. Jet, what a delightful post on the life cycle of butterflies! i love butterflies. they exude elegance, almost magical. i always have this big smile when i see one fluttering gracefully in our little garden. Athena’s photographs are simply beautiful. thank you as always πŸ™‚

    • You’re right, Belinda, it is extraordinary to witness the life cycle of this butterfly. And I’m so glad I could share it with you. Thanks for your kind words and visit today.

    • Yes, you’re right, Andrea, it is lovely to have our own swallowtail patch. For a few years we cut the fennel down to the ground (it’s invasive), then we discovered the swallowtails used it, so we roped off a section that is exclusively for their use now, and it’s a joy. We check on it frequently. Thanks so much for your visit, nice to see you.

  18. Wonderful post, and the Anise Swallowtail is gorgeous to look at!
    We planted Milkweed 4 years ago. Finally we have seen Monarchs laying eggs, for the first time. It’s very exciting for us city folk! πŸ˜€

  19. I flagged your post email earlier in the week as I didn’t have time to read it. I’m glad I did as butterflies are such wonderful creatures. We have seen the swallowtail in our local botanic garden hothouse and love to see others in our garden or on walks. They are amazing and even in the wind blowing off the South Wales cliffs they do not get blown away! Thank you and happy observations 😊

    • Thanks so much for your visit and comment, Alastair. I liked hearing that your butterflies can withstand the South Wales cliff winds. I saw a bit of that fierce wind in your post today, and my hat is off to the butterflies who survive it. My warmest thanks.

  20. Lovely! Lovely post and lovely butterfly! What a thrill to capture the laying of the egg. Also enjoyed the drawing at the end. Thank you!

    • We were so excited to see the butterfly laying the egg, Nan. What a thrill! And I was so fortunate to have found that beautiful Nabokov drawing, a masterful lepidopterist (and novelist) he was. Thank you so much.

    • You got me chuckling, Frank, thanks. Yes, Athena and I make a good team. You should see us in the field, we stir up quite a storm with all that we have going on. lol. So glad you enjoyed the butterflies, my friend, thank you for your visit and lovely comment.

  21. We enjoy the occasional visit from a swallowtail, and wish we’d see them more often. I didn’t know about the fennel. Nice job getting one to sit still for a picture.

    • Yes, butterflies don’t sit still, you’re right, Dave. Now that you know about fennel, maybe you’ll have a chance of hosting more swallowtails. Thanks so much for your visit, I appreciated it.

    • How wonderful, your poetry here, David. Every creature has its tale, and what an honor to share the tale of the butterfly with you. Thank you for your treasured visit.

  22. Beautiful! Tossing a handful of dill seeds in your flower garden is a great way to attract these butterflies. Besides, the dills look very decorative, and can be used in salads. Three in One! πŸ™‚

  23. What a wonderfully informative and beautiful post, Jet! I think I missed it this summer – so lucky I just found it. Athenaβ€˜s photos are remarkable and I love that you have the whole cycle represented in images and in this very interesting narrative!

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