Originally Posted on January 26, 2013 by butterflylady
This large, brightly colored swallowtail is well named, since its yellow wings are boldly striped in black like its big cat namesake. Having said that, I’ll have to admit that many of the females are not yellow and black, but black with faint darker black stripes. The striping is particularly noticeable on the under-surfaces of the fore-wings These dark females are more common in the southern part of their range, which extends all across the eastern U.S.
The tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is the state butterfly of Virginia, not surprisingly, since it is large, showy, and a common sight in our gardens as it gathers nectar from flowers or sips from puddles on the ground. It is the species which I am most often asked to identify, and which is often observed in large numbers in mid-summer covering our butterfly bushes.
To be honest, I should mention that part of my attraction to this species lies in the fact that the females are more colorful than the males, having large areas of blue on the hind wings. This is true of both the yellow, and the black, forms. So often in nature the male has the more vivid color, that I assumed for years that the same was true of these swallowtails and mistook the females for males.
For a long time I had wanted to have the opportunity to witness the entire life cycle of a tiger swallowtail. My chance arrived last summer as I was photographing a particularly cooperative female nectaring in my garden. After posing nicely for me on several flowers, she headed toward a small choke cherry tree at the end of the garden. Knowing that wild cherry leaves are one of the preferred caterpillar foods for these butterflies, I followed and took careful note of the leaf she seemed to be laying an egg on. Sure enough, after she flew off, I checked the leaf and found a shiny little egg firmly attached to its surface! Although I searched, no more eggs were found, so I prepared to try raising a lone caterpillar.
Tiger swallowtail egg on choke cherry leaf
The caterpillar that hatched nine days later was incredibly tiny, so it was housed in the little plastic sandwich tub I had kept it in as an egg, and offered small pieces of cherry leaf to eat. Within 24 hours frass (caterpillar poop) was present on the leaf fragment, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the baby was eating! Over the following weeks its size gradually increased, and I could see that it would have been well protected in the wild by its coloration, which made it resemble nothing so much as a bird dropping!
In its final instar it did take on the green coloring shown here, and from this stage it eventually attached itself to the twig I provided and shed that last caterpillar skin to become the chrysalis now resting in my spare refrigerator where I keep the chrysalides and cocoons that are over wintering. When spring comes they will all be moved to a large cage on my porch where, if all goes well, they will emerge as winged adults be released and start the whole cycle of life again.