Return of the giant yellow swallowtail

May 9, 2016 by Mike Bibb

Summer is not far away when the majestic Monarch butterfly is seen fluttering around the neighborhood. Or, what I used to believe was a Monarch.

Within the past few weeks, a large brightly colored butterfly has been visiting my flower collection, including Red Bird of Paradise bushes, signaling the large arthropod has returned from his warmer winter Mexico retreat. Or, so I thought.

This particular guest, sporting yellow wings and body with black horizontal stripes, has been seen since late March. With a wingspan of about four inches, he is easily viewed from a distance and not overly shy when approached. Not hesitating to pose for my camera, this gentle giant actually seemed to enjoy the photo-op, also a typical Monarch characteristic.

However, what I always considered a Monarch wasn’t a Monarch at all, instead an even larger butterfly commonly referred to as the Giant Yellow Swallowtail. Remember, I’ve never made any claims of being an insect scientist or bug expert, so why should my previous opinions about large butterflies be any more reliable?

As it turns out, the Giant Swallowtail is the largest species of butterfly in North America and can be found as far south as South America. Wingspans of certain mature swallowtails can reach seven inches, which would seem to indicate the one taking residence around my home is probably a juvenile, or of a variety that doesn’t grow as massive.

Several generations can be produced in year, but they are most active in the warmer months, especially in the southern regions of the U.S. Four stages of their development include the egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). Exceptional pollinators, they seem to favor flowery plants producing an abundance of nectar.

Interestingly, while in the caterpillar stage, their orange, black, white and brown camouflage coloring – sometimes called an “orange dog” – closely resembles bird droppings on a leaf. As a result of this mistaken identity, they are not as noticeable to predators, excepting citrus farmers who view them as a nuisance as they will only eat citrus tree leaves. Natural law and order often exhibits unusual ways to help promote the successful continuance of various lifeforms, including, obviously, butterflies.

If you’ve seen one of these extraordinary creatures, you were probably impressed with their size, agility and brilliant coloring. In the butterfly world, they are one of the more remarkable examples nature’s craftsmanship.

A Giant Yellow Swallowtail butterfly enjoys snacking on the blossom nectar of a Red Bird of Paradise bush.

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