Swallowtail Butterflies

Butterflies are the brightness and lightness of spring that we often long for in the dark and heavy days of winter. And then one day it IS spring and we see our first butterfly.

They are a gentle reminder that life on earth is all about change.

Butterflies start out as microscopic eggs, then become tiny worm-like larvae, then grow bigger into caterpillars, molting numerous times. Next they create their own cocoons, and, as we all know, then metamorphize from their pupae state into a butterfly. What an earthly marvel this is.

Below are five photos of the Anise Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio zelicaon, in its various stages.

One summer day two years ago as Athena was photographing, this butterfly’s wriggling and arched thorax posture (below) caught her eye. She realized she was witnessing the adult female depositing her eggs. The eggs are microscopic, cannot be seen here.

This is a caterpillar’s early “instar” or stage (below). It is about the size of a staple and is so small and inconspicuous it can easily be mistaken as a bird dropping.

Several times the anise swallowtail caterpillar molts into a bigger skin. You can see how different the caterpillar above is from the caterpillar below — yet they are the same species, just different stages.

After the various instar caterpillar stages, they create their pupa (below) and stay in there, immovable, until the caterpillar tissues break down and rebuild into butterfly tissues.

While each stage is beautiful, the butterfly stage is spectacular.

There are about 17,500 species of butterflies in the world.

Pictured throughout this post are all swallowtail butterfly species. Members of the Papilionidae family, there are about 550 species.

Swallowtail Wikipedia link.

We noticed a butterfly phenomenon one day on the edge of the Belizean rainforest. These Dark Kite-swallowtails were “puddling,” a technique for extracting minerals, primarily salt. Protographium philolaus.

You can see the pronounced forked hindwings, aka as tails, for which the swallowtails are named. This “tail” is reminiscent of the forked tails of swallows.

Swallowtails are some of the largest butterflies on earth. Some species are so large that on first take you think it might be a bird. Both species below have whopping wingspans at around five inches (13 cm).

The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) is the largest butterfly in North America.

I am often buoyed by these dancing kaleidoscopic creatures who start out so immobile and teensy and dark, and as each day turns to the next, they somehow know what to do. Soon they have mysteriously blossomed into delicate splendor.

The earth changes; we change. Thank heaven for butterflies who show us the way.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.


95 thoughts on “Swallowtail Butterflies

  1. I too love butterflies and am dazzled by the array of swallowtails that you have shared with us–kudos to Athena for the photos. I have already seen Eastern Tiger Swallowtails this spring and earlier this week was chasing after an elusive Zebra Swallowtail. I love too, Jet, how you shared photos and information about the different stages of development of the butterflies. I remember as a child being wowed by the amazing metamorphosis of butterflies and a lot of that excitement has remained. I really like the way that your prose turned briefly philosophical and poetic in the final paragraphs as you spoke so beautifully of the “dancing kaleidoscopic creatures” that “mysteriously blossomed into delicate splendor.” Wow!

    • Oh how I soaked up your thoughtful observations and kind words, Mike. I’m with you, Mike, the excitement of the miracle of butterflies that we learn about as children still remains with me as an adult. I think it always will. There is always something to learn from a butterfly. My warmest thanks, Mike. You made my day.

    • I enjoyed your comment, Eliza…”legendary morphing” and “happiness is a flitting butterfly.” Cheers to the new season of flitting butterflies. Thanks so much, my garden friend.

  2. This is the best collection of Swallowtail Butterfly photos, including those at their various stages of growth. Thank you for such an informative and beautiful post!

    • Urban sprawl is probably the reason, yes, for the reduction of swallowtails where you live, Craig. Loss of habitat effects butterflies immensely. I did a quick search and saw that the Anise Swallowtail and Western Tiger swallowtail are the most widely distributed in your state. I know that the anise like fennel which grows easily here in Calif., but I don’t know about fennel in your state. Maybe you can plant their host plant somewhere? Thanks for stopping by, Craig.

  3. Butterflies, their beautiful appearance captures my attention almost immediately!
    So light and lively, they flutter about from one tasty treat to another, helping
    themselves to nature’s liquid gold. Such beauty so nicely presented here Jet.
    Thank you for making my morning! Eddie

    • What a fantastic opportunity to go on a butterfly hunt with the author of the East Coast butterfly book, Sherry. Athena’s mother grew up in the Pine Barrens, a very special place. I always have a high reverence for butterfly experts because I find butterflies so difficult to identify with the dorsal and ventral wings so different, and their flitting nature makes it nearly impossible to get a good look or photo. He provides 950 photos! Have fun this weekend, you adventurous one.

  4. What a gorgeous collection of images! You’ve seen so many different types. They are amazing and a marvel. So far I’ve only seen the White Cabbage this season hopefully we’ll begin to see the Swallowtails here soon.

    • Since it’s early in the season, I am sure the swallowtails will come your way, Deborah, and how lovely is that? My warmest thanks for your comment and visit today, much appreciated.

  5. Thanks for this, Jet – a great prompt to stop and think about this earthly little miracle. As others noted above, it’s a thrill as a child to learn about the metamorphosis, and maybe we forget how astonishing it is as distractions move our attention elsewhere…
    Fabulous photographs from Athena to illustrate the change.
    It’s remained persistently below seasonal here, temperature wise, so regular butterfly sightings are still to come – something to look forward to! Spring will arrive…!

    • I enjoyed your visit, as always, pc. There are many folks experiencing a re-surge of winter right now, which was one of the reasons I posted the butterfly post. So I am absolutely delighted that the butterflies here inspired you in your still-winter temperatures to remember the butterflies and know that they will be there soon. My warmest smiles to you, pc.

    • Oh so wonderful to hear you enjoyed the swallowtails today, Nan. It occurred to me when I was composing this that I had been with you on two of the swallowtail adventures posted here. Always a pleasure, dear Nan….thank you.

  6. I have to say although I am always thrilled to see the Swallowtails when out in the field, but those dark kite-swallowtails are a step beyond… wow! Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, I agree, Brian, those dark kite-swallowtails are indeed “a step beyond.” We were so lucky that day to see several dozen of them. There was a small maintenance building on a rural airfield called Gallon Jug, and water was dripping out an outdoor pipe. The water had collected in a few puddles, and the butterflies were congregating all around it. Glad you enjoyed these special butterflies. Thanks for stopping by.

    • How pleasant to hear from you, Tom, I so enjoyed your comment. I always appreciate your visits and your kind words were a delight. Even though you haven’t posted for a while, I really appreciate your presence here at my site. My warmest thanks and cheers to you.

    • I’m happy you got to see the photos today, Jan, because if you have fennel and there aren’t cats roaming around them, it is possible you will see swallowtail activity…and now you know what to look for. Thanks so much for your visit today. Pretty happy about all the rain recently, yes?

  7. Fantastic photos and commentary, such as this “…dancing kaleidoscopic creatures…” For many years, I had a pathological fear of caterpillars. One summer night, when parked underneath a tunnel of overhanging branches, I commented to my friend that we should close the car windows because of the rain. Their reply “it’s not raining.” The pitter patter sound wasn’t raindrops on the roof, it was caterpillars streaming down. Now I can imagine that spot in the woods resplendent with beauties such as you’ve included in this post!

    • Wonderful to receive your kind message and story, babsje. I had a similar experience with cicadas, as you did with caterpillars, where it was raining cicadas. Sometimes the larval forms of creatures come out of their shells and they are still unable to unfurl their wings; so they plop to the ground until their wings have dried out a bit and become flyable. I am glad you have moved beyond your fear and were able to imagine the woods filled with butterflies. Really enjoyed your visit today, thank you.

  8. On the weekend of the 9th and 10th, there were swallowtails everywhere during a little flower-seeking excursion. I’m not sure exactly which species I was seeing, because they were exceedingly fluttery, and I was fighting wind as it was. But I did see what I thought were Pipevines among the phlox, and what I thought wereTiger Swallowtails sipping nectar from Larkspur and Penstemon. There’s no more worry about what our butterflies can find to eat — the buffet is wide open!

    • Isn’t it a great thing when we can rest assured that the butterflies have plenty of nectar, Linda? Lovely to hear about your flower-seeking excursion, and the numerous flowers and butterflies that surrounded you. Thanks so much for your contribution.

      • And not only nectar, Jet. I just was looking through some photos and discovered one of a swallowtail enjoying a bit of feces left on the ground. There’s more than mud puddles for minerals and such!

  9. A great post for Earth Day, Jet and Athena. A reminder of our precious heritage. Both informative and well illustrated. That’s quite a collection. Puddling is a new word for me although I’ve often watched butterflies gather in large numbers on the wet ground. I appreciate having both the name and the explanation. Thanks. –Curt

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Mike, and I agree with you, butterflies are truly amazing. I am reminded me of the numerous gorgeous alpine butterflies you have shared over the years. Cheers to you.

  10. I had no idea there were so many kinds of swallowtail butterflies. These are gorgeous images. I do love butterflies, and moths, too. I’ve learned that this is not universal. So far I’ve known three people who have varying degrees of phobia of butterflies and moths, lepidopterophobia. The first one who told me found me incredulous. Now I understand it is real.

    Our first hummingbirds arrived yesterday. Love them, too.

  11. I’m familiar with butterflies but at the moment my butterfly bush in the font porch of my house is just green and almost ready to start blooming, then I will get lots of a variety butterflies. and bumble bees. I have flowers all around my house. Your photos are quite evident of their beauty. Thank you, my friend. πŸ™‚

    • How wonderful that you have a butterfly bush, H.J., and between that and the flowers in your yard, lots of nectar to go around. Thanks for your visit, H.J., and warm comments. I’m smiling as I type, sending you a smile.

  12. Pingback: Swallowtail Butterflies β€” Jet Eliot – Echoes in the Mist

  13. This was such a wonderful post about swallowtail butterflies, Jet. I really enjoyed Athena’s photos and your descriptions about their early days in their life cycle. It was like reading a very good, entertaining science book. Agree that each stage us beautiful and the butterfly stage is definitely magnificent. Interesting to know this is one of the largest butterflies on earth, almost as big as a bird. They must be hard to miss if there’s one in front of you. Hope you are doing well πŸ™‚

    • I am oh so happy you enjoyed the butterfly post, Mabel. It was really fun to compose and the swallowtails are a complete joy to share. My warmest thanks for your lovely visit today, and sending warm wishes your way.

  14. Stunning butterflies. Just one species of swallowtail here in the UK, but very localised – have only seen once or twice in 66 years! – so your post is very welcome. And that caterpillar is a handsome beast!

    • I am honored to share some of the swallowtail butterflies with you, Platypus Man, and widen your UK repertoire. I smiled at your caterpillar comment: that caterpillar is indeed “a handsome beast.” Thanks very much.

  15. Thank you for explaining its growing stages with beautiful photos. The change is fascinating unlike any other insects. I’m educated!

    • I was just thinking of you! I took a little WP break and am getting caught up, so it’s wonderful to have you stop by, Jane. I am happy you enjoyed the butterflies and Athena’s photos. Thank you.

  16. Of course I’ve always been thrilled to catch sight of these delightful flutter-bys…. they are simply beautiful and exotic and so ethereal… it’s a wonder these fragile appearing creatures manage to exist. Thanks for the excellent dive into this study of their development and habits. There is so very much to learn in this world that there’s simply no end to it. Thanks for providing me with valuable lessons I might otherwise overlook!
    Always a pleasure to visit here, no matter how long it may take me sometimes. πŸ™πŸ€—

    • It really is incredible that butterflies, as you say Gunta, manage to exist in this world with their fragility. We humans are lucky to share the planet with them. I liked your words–beautiful, exotic, ethereal–for them, too. I so enjoyed your comment and visit, thanks so much Gunta.

  17. I learned a lot from this post, Jet! I love swallowtails, and did not know there were so many different kinds. (My idea of a swallowtail is the yellow one, which is most prominent around Massachusetts.) πŸ˜‰ I spent many lovely years raising Monarch butterflies in my first grade classroom each fall. Such magic when we witnessed their life cycle, especially when they emerged! And a bit bittersweet when we set them free in the school organic garden, and waved and wished them well on their journey to Mexico. Thanks for reminding of those great “nature moments” !

    • Oh so wonderful to hear about your classroom monarch adventures, Julie. It is such a miraculous event, I am thrilled to hear you shared it with a room full of first graders every fall. Thanks so much for your visit and lovely comment.

  18. Pingback: Black Swallowtail in April | Mike Powell

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