Surprise in the garden: Black swallowtail caterpillars!

…just when you think you’ve seen it all…

In today’s edition of “Things I’ve Found in the Garden,” we have quite the intriguing specimen. Imagine this: it’s a hot summer weekend day. Your parents are over having drinks on the porch waiting for a barbecue, you’re watering the garden, leisurely taking some pictures of Indy…

Indy in the backyard.

And of course taking artsy pictures of your tomatoes that you will edit & filter to look like they’re right out of 1970 (because Photoshop)…

When all of a sudden, your husband calls you over, his voice sounding slightly surprised and a little skeptical, to see some “bugs” on the dill. So you walk over, completely expecting to see those crazy looking candy-striped leafhoppers that are irritating the hell out of you (and your eggplants) when you look at where he’s pointing and see this:

Black swallowtail caterpillar on Fernleaf dill.

Freakin’ caterpillars! Not that many, maybe about 5 or 6, spread out all over the Fernleaf dill. Now, one thing you should know about me is that I am a geek. A total nerd. A science and history-specific geeky nerd person. So this stuff, this nature & science stuff, it totally gets me going.

So immediately I do a Google, and come to find out some very interesting facts-

The (Eastern) Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), also called the American Swallowtail or Parsnip Swallowtail,[1] is a butterfly found throughout much of North America. It is the state butterfly of Oklahoma. An extremely similar-appearing species, Papilio joanae, occurs in the Ozark Mountains region, but it appears to be closely related to Papilio machaon, rather than P. polyxenes. The species is named after the figure in Greek mythology, Polyxena (pron.: /pəˈlɪksɨnə/; Greek: Πολυξένη), who was the youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy.

As if that’s not interesting enough, there’s more. Now, I don’t remember ever seeing a black butterfly around here, maybe once years ago. So I have no idea where they came from! Monarch butterflies I see every now and then, and I see some type of white ones a lot, but I haven’t seen many black ones. I kept reading and found out:

Black swallowtail caterpillar.

Papilio polyxenes utilize a variety of herbs in the carrot family (Apiaceae), but will choose the food plants for their larvae based on visual and chemical variations. Host plant odor is one of the cues involved in the selection of landing sites for oviposition. The responses to these cues are innate, and feeding on a host plant as a larva does not increase the preference for that plant as an adult.

Species of host plants include:

  • Mock bishopweed, Ptilimnium capillaceum
  • Roughfruit scaleseed, Spermolepis divaricata
  • Spotted water hemlock, Cicuta maculata
  • Water cowbane, Oxypolis filiformis
  • Wedgeleaf eryngo, Eryngium cuneifolium
  • Canby’s dropwort, Oxypolis canbyi
  • Queen Anne’s lace, Anthriscus sylvestris
  • Dill

Black swallowtail caterpillar on Fernleaf dill.

What a pleasant surprise. But so crazy! I never, in all my years of growing dill and parsley, have ever had one of these! They’re so cute. From what I’ve read, they’re only devastating to the plants if theres such a bad infestation you “are unable to remove them all by simply picking them off.” I will assume five of them isn’t a bad infestation, and they will not completely decimate my dill.

Needless to say, I grabbed my Canon Rebel t4i and made like I work for NatGeo. I got a few really cool shots! Apparently, we have First Instar stage (below) and Third Instar stage (above) caterpillars.

Black swallowtail caterpillar.

It was hard to get a very close picture because they were moving; albeit slowly, but enough to cause the camera to get blurry and unable to focus. This photo below is interesting, because I had to put the camera on auto focus to capture some shots, and it actually focused on a droplet of water on the 3/4 of an inch long caterpillar’s back. Crazy.

Black swallowtail caterpillar on Fernleaf dill.

This is very exciting to me, as I love butterflies and I consider them a “good omen”, so to speak. In more ways than one. And a black butterfly? Well, that’s even cooler.

So a week or two went by and there was no sign of our baby caterpillars. I started to worry- I know, stupid. But I kept looking for them and I found nothing. No chrysalis, no cocoon. And then one day I was on the porch and I saw a large black thing fly past… and there it was! Our Black Swallowtail… BUTTERFLY!

Black Swallowtail butterfly in my garden.

Obviously I grabbed my iPhone to try and get some shots, but it wasn’t cutting it. So I went inside to get my Canon, and this little guy was still there when I came back. Hanging out on the dill, flapping his (or her) wings. Actually based on the wing design/color, it seems to be a male. Correct me if I’m wrong!

Black Swallowtail butterfly in my garden.

He actually started “flirting” with me, flying towards me and then away from me, landing on various plants and then “hopping” from branch to branch. He allowed me to get a few shots, seemingly staring right at me, then flew away. When I came inside I did see that he came back and was in the garden for a while.

Black Swallowtail butterfly in my garden.

I’m so excited to see butterflies around, because they’re a rarity here. So many of my neighbors use insecticides on their lawns and bushes that I think they’re killing them off. We use exclusively all-natural and organic EVERYTHING, and I would never think to kill a caterpillar or butterfly. Why would you?! Nature is beautiful, and everything has a purpose. I understand that there are bugs and grubs and worms that can ruin crops, and grass, etc. But why do you want to destroy nature just to have a pretty lawn?

Not only all that, but because I saw this dude when he was just a baby caterpillar, I feel a little attached. I’m hoping I get the chance to see a few more of them around. There were about five caterpillars, and I’ve only seen one butterfly.

Oh, and yeah, Indy is definitely the other “surprise” I frequently find in the garden.

Indy in the backyard.

Much thanks to Canon, Wikipedia, and the Butterfly Blog for all the help in capturing & identifying these guys.
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