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  • Jessica Morgan McAtee

Polyconfusion Swallowtails

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

When I first began my south Florida butterfly garden, I included a plant called a pipevine to attract a specific black and yellow swallowtail. There are several species of plants called pipevines. They are scientifically called Aristolochia spp. They make really interesting flowers and, in keeping with their vine tendencies, they prefer something to climb on like a trellis or fence. Some of them can become exuberant, which is not always desirable for the neighbors but is much appreciated by the butterflies.

The flowers are shaped like a dutchman's pipe, which is why they are commonly called dutchman's pipevines. There are over 500 species in the family Aristolochiaceae. They are also commonly called birthworts.

Some species make a flower with a rancid smell that attracts flies for pollination. Despite the amazing blooms, the butterflies aren't particularly interested in that part of the plant (though they will happily munch on them). The butterflies lay their eggs on them because the toxic leaves are the necessary diet, with the required chemical make up, to feed their hungry caterpillars and give them a level of protection from some predators.

As is often the case when we use common names rather than scientific nomenclature, there seemed to be several names for the swallowtail I was hoping to get. It is called the Gold Rim, The Tailless and the Polydamas swallowtail and in the literature, there were references to the Pipevine swallowtail mixed in.

Battus polydamas is its nerd name. It is the only swallowtail in Florida that doesn't have the drop down tails coming from its hind wings. Also, you can see why it's called the Gold Rim by looking at its markings.

To my delight, my pipevine soon had clusters of round, yellow eggs on it and I anxiously awaited the arrival of my new caterpillars.

The Gold Rim swallowtail lays her eggs in clusters because her caterpillars are gregarious in their earlier stages. This is science speak for the habit of staying together in a group while feeding. They generally emerge from their eggs around the same time and practice the survival tactic of safety in numbers.

As they grow, they molt their skin. After the molt, they eat their old skin to recycle the nutrients it contains and to destroy any evidence that a predator may use to find them. As they get larger, they eat parts of leaves leaving the remainder half chewed and obvious to predators who could use that as a sign that food is nearby. To remedy this, the caterpillars often chew the stems of partially chewed leaves so that the leaf drops to the ground. This leaves a collection of partly chewed leaves on the ground surrounding the plant.

These caterpillars get big and juicy but are harmless to the touch. They remain with their siblings for the first few instars.

Because my pipevine is so large, it always has numerous caterpillars on it, often in different stages of growth as seen in the photo below where the big one is eating a flower and the younger ones just emerged from their eggshells.

When the large caterpillars have had enough to eat, they form a sling out of silk and lean into it. They attach their last set of prolegs, on their tail end, to the substrate. This is their pre-pupal position, where they begin the final stage of their complete metamorphosis. Some will do this on the pipevine and others will crawl to a different location.

After their last molt, they will be either a green or a brown pupa.

Once I found one on the handle of our garbage can and asked my husband to refrain from taking the trash out for about 10 days until the butterfly emerged. This is the life of a butterfly gardener.

These butterflies colonize to a greater extent than most other kinds. This means that once they find your pipevine, they are likely to be there with all of their friends on a regular basis. Instead of spreading out to start new populations, many will stay in my garden where there is enough pipevine for dozens of them. For most months of the year, the skies over my landscape are filled with dancing groups of adults. It's brilliant.

As adults, they nectar from Fire Spikes, Bougainvilleas, Tecoma Stans and many other flowers.

One more important point is that though these southern butterflies feed on pipevines, and thus could logically be called "pipevine swallowtails", this is not the most helpful way to refer to them. Stay with me here. They are found in the southern parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Florida and sometimes a few other southern US locations.

Confusingly, there is another toxic butterfly that has a much broader range across the US and is very common. It is called the "Pipevine Swallowtail" (Battus philenor) and it too feeds on birthworts in its juvenile stages. It is obviously different as an adult because it is blue and has the standard issue drop down parts on its hindwings that many swallowtails have.

Its underside is breathtaking.

In my south Florida garden, I only get the Polydamas Swallowtail, the Pipevine Swallowtail is not usually in my range. Yet, it took me a bit of trial and error to realize this, and that is why I wrote this blog post, to save you the confusion!

If you enjoyed this, please check out my online classes and books.

You can find me on Facebook at Raising Florida Butterflies.

Have a Fluttery Day!

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