May 9, 2018

Swallowtail Butterflies and Caterpillars

I received a message from a fellow Texas Backyard RR4 partner last week who was horrified after witnessing a woman picking what she thought was a pesky caterpillar off a parsley plant and roughly throwing it on the ground. 
After she rescued what was identified as a black swallowtail caterpillar, she did her best to educate the woman about these creatures. I promised I'd do my part to help share this info, too.

Butterflies are considered beneficial insects because they are pollinators. Butterflies lay eggs on a "host plant" then the caterpillars hatch and eat the host plant. They grow, shed their skin, eat, grow, shed their skin, etc., changing appearance many times as they grow, until finally they're big, plump, and ready for a long nap. Each caterpillar builds a chrysalis and in a few weeks they hatch into beautiful butterflies. The butterflies visit flowers, drinking nectar and pollinating along the way. Then they start the cycle again by finding a suitable host plant (different species of butterflies have different preferred host plants) to lay their eggs. 

Here are some tips for attracting and keeping black swallowtail butterflies in your yard:

1) Provide food

Swallowtail caterpillars love parsley, dill, and fennel. Add a few to your flower beds, or plant extra in your herb garden.
Swallowtail butterflies love a variety of flowers, but "compositae" flowers (think daisy shaped) are always a butterfly favorite.
If you have food for both adult butterflies and their babies (caterpillars), they are more likely to stay and lay more eggs, continuing the life cycle in your garden.

Picture from

2) Provide water

Butterflies get thirsty. Provide a shallow source of water, like a birdbath or a saucer filled with pebbles, colorful marbles, or a plastic dish scrubber and water, so butterflies (and other pollinators, like my favorite, honey bees) can safely stop for a sip without drowning.

Picture from

3) Keep predatory wasps away

Most insects, like honeybees, can live in harmony with butterflies, but many wasps, like the mean red ones that are prevalent in central Texas, are predatory, and caterpillars are a favorite prey.
I recommend putting up a reusable wasp trap rather than spraying with pesticides that can also harm the butterflies, bees, and other beneficials in your yard. These reusable WHY traps (wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets) are inexpensive, safe, long-lasting, and easy to use, and best of all, the refillable attractant lures in the pests, but does not attract honey bees. Each attractant lure lasts about 2 weeks, and if you buy them in bulk, they'll just you just a couple dollars per week.
If you're in Texas you can probably get these traps or something similar at your neighborhood H-E-B, or you can order the traps and the lures online. 

Do you have a gardening question?  You can ask in the comments below, or by e-mail.  I'll pick my favorite questions to feature on this page.  Follow me on Facebook or Instagram for more helpful gardening tips, tricks, and how-to's.


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