Swallowtail butterflies are quite beautiful. You may have noticed them in your garden this summer and fall as they flitted from plant to plant, or even before that as a caterpillar. They’re more interested in your herbs and citrus than any other part of your garden. Their diet mainly consists of members of the Umbelliferae family, which will include parsley, fennel, dill, carrot and celery. Many members of the swallowtail family feed as larvae on plants of the citrus family, Rutaceae. Some of these attractive butterflies therefore are considered pests in citrus orchards.
Swallowtail butterflies are large, colorful butterflies that form the family Papilionidae. There are more than 550 species, and though the majority is tropical, members of the family are found on all continents except Antarctica. The family includes the largest butterflies in the world: the birdwing butterflies of Australia.
Swallowtails differ from all other butterflies in a number of anatomical traits. Most notably, as caterpillars, they possess a unique defense organ behind their heads called the osmeterium. Normally hidden, this forked structure can be everted when the caterpillar is threatened, or forced out with a gentle squeeze, and emits strong, smelly secretions containing terpenes. Normally hidden, it’s orange v-shaped structure will appear if the caterpillar feels threatened. The adults often are tailed like the forked tail of some swallows, giving the insect its name.
The stages of all the butterflies are the egg, pupa (caterpillar), chrysalis and butterfly. The egg is dome-shaped, smooth or obscurely facetted, not as high as wide, somewhat leathery and opaque.
The larva appears stout, smooth or with a series of fleshy tubercles on the dorsum and sometimes has a raised fleshy protuberance, the so-called hood or crest, on the fourth segment, which also is generally thickened above.
The pupa is variable in form but generally curved backward and attached by the tail in a perpendicular position and further secured by a silken girth around the middle. The various butterflies’ wings are extraordinarily variable in shape. The hind wing frequently has a tail, which may be slender or broad and spatulate, but always is an extension of the termen at vein 4.
Swallowtail butterflies, being large, colorful and attractive, often have been the target of butterfly collectors in earlier times. The largest of these, the Birdwing butterflies, are particularly sought after and are cultured in butterfly farms for collectors.
The Oregon Swallowtail is the state insect of Oregon. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is the state insect of Virginia and the state butterfly of Georgia, Delaware and South Carolina. The Black Swallowtail is the state butterfly of Oklahoma.
Many religions believe butterflies send messages and travel between souls and the living world; the same butterflies also guide souls during soul burials. Seeing a butterfly shortly after the death of a loved one means the soul is sending a message to you.
Butterflies have been depicted in both music and art for centuries. People do not seem to get tired of the beautiful images they evoke, so watch your garden for them and plan to plant both nectar and food plants to attract them.