Swallowtail Butterfly: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

The Swallowtail Butterfly is truly an enchanting creature. As you explore the world of these captivating insects, you’ll be amazed by their vibrant colors and distinctive features.

One of the captivating aspects of Swallowtail Butterflies is their striking appearance. With bold black-and-yellow or black-and-blue patterns, these butterflies can easily be recognized even from a distance source. Among them, the Giant Swallowtail stands out as the largest butterfly in Missouri, boasting a stunning mix of dark blackish-brown wings adorned with yellow spots source.

As you delve deeper into the world of Swallowtail Butterflies, you’ll uncover fascinating facts about their unique life cycles, feeding habits, and the environments they thrive in. This knowledge will help deepen your appreciation for these beautiful creatures and their importance in our ecosystems.

Basic Facts about Swallowtail Butterflies

Varieties of Swallowtail Butterfly

Swallowtail butterflies belong to the Papilionidae family and are known for their prominent “tails”. There are several species of swallowtail butterflies, such as the pipevine swallowtail, eastern tiger swallowtail, western tiger swallowtail, giant swallowtail, zebra swallowtail, and two-tailed swallowtail. Each species has distinct features and colors, making them unique and easy to recognize1. Below is a comparison table showing some key features:

Species Color Distribution Unique features
Pipevine Swallowtail Blue/black with red spots Eastern US Iridescent blue sheen
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Black/yellow stripes Eastern US “Tiger” stripes
Western Tiger Swallowtail Black/yellow stripes Western US “Tiger” stripes
Giant Swallowtail Black/yellow, orange spots North/South America Largest swallowtail
Zebra Swallowtail Black/white stripes Eastern US Zebra-like stripes
Two-tailed Swallowtail Yellow/black with tails Western US Two tails per wing

Swallowtail Butterfly Lifespan

The lifespan of swallowtail butterflies varies depending on the species and environmental factors. Generally, they live for a few weeks to a month in their adult form2. For example:

  • The pipevine swallowtail typically lives for 2 to 4 weeks3.
  • The eastern and western tiger swallowtails have a lifespan of around 2 to 3 weeks4.

It’s important to consider that a butterfly’s total lifespan also includes its time as an egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis. This entire metamorphosis process can take several months, depending on the species and climate.

Physical Characteristics

Adult Butterfly Features

As an adult, the swallowtail butterfly has quite an attractive appearance. The colors on their wings vary, with combinations of black, yellow, green, and orange being common. For instance, the giant swallowtail butterfly, which is the largest butterfly in Missouri, has dark blackish-brown wings adorned with several yellow spots forming bands. Additionally, its hindwing “tails” have yellow spots at their tips. The undersides of the wings also showcase similar colors, with the addition of blue and red markings.

Their wingspan is also impressive, with species like the two-tailed swallowtail butterfly having a nearly five-inch wingspan. Comparisons between different swallowtail species can be made easily:

Swallowtail Species Wingspan
Giant Swallowtail Up to 6 inches
Two-tailed Swallowtail Nearly 5 inches
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail 3.1 to 5.5 inches

Larval Attributes

Swallowtail butterfly larvae have unique characteristics as well. One fascinating attribute is the osmeterium, which is a defense organ that only swallowtail caterpillars possess. When threatened, caterpillars can evert the osmeterium, releasing a foul-smelling secretion to deter predators.

Swallowtail caterpillars’ appearance can be deceiving, as they often resemble bird droppings. This clever camouflage technique helps protect them from predators. For example, the zebra swallowtail caterpillar has a bluish-green body crossed with thin yellow stripes.

Key features of swallowtail caterpillars:

  • Possess a unique organ called the osmeterium.
  • Camouflage themselves to resemble bird droppings.
  • Coloration varies but typically includes green, black, and yellow stripes or spots.

Lifecycle of a Swallowtail Butterfly

Egg Stage

During the Egg Stage, female Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on host plants, chosen specifically to provide nourishment for their offspring. The tiny eggs are spherical or oval in shape and vary in color, depending on the species. Here are some features of Swallowtail Butterfly eggs:

  • Spherical or oval in shape
  • Laid on specific host plants
  • Color varies depending on species

Larval Stage

In the Larval Stage, the eggs hatch into caterpillars with the primary goal of feeding and growing. Black Swallowtail caterpillars and Giant Swallowtail caterpillars are examples of larvae in this stage. They will undergo a series of growth spurts called instars, shedding their skin as they grow.

For example, Black Swallowtail caterpillars can be found munching on plants such as parsley, while Giant Swallowtail caterpillars favor citrus plants. The larvae display various physical adaptations that help them blend in with their environment and deter predators.

Pupal Stage

When the caterpillars are fully grown, they enter the Pupal Stage or chrysalis phase. During this stage, they attach themselves to a branch or stem and form a protective covering called a chrysalis. This is where the caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis to transform into an adult butterfly.

Here are some characteristics of the pupal stage:

  • Caterpillars attach to a branch or stem
  • Protective chrysalis formed
  • Metamorphosis takes place

Adult Butterfly Stage

Once the Adult Butterfly Stage is reached, a fully-formed Swallowtail butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. Their primary goals now are to find a mate and reproduce in order to complete the lifecycle. Adult Swallowtail butterflies have large, colorful wings and feed on nectar from flowers using a long, tube-like mouthpart called a proboscis.

To summarize, here are the main features of each stage in the Swallowtail Butterfly lifecycle:

Stage Main Features
Egg Stage Laid on host plants, vary in color
Larval Stage Caterpillars feed and grow
Pupal Stage (Chrysalis) Metamorphosis, protective covering
Adult Butterfly Stage Reproduction, nectar consumption

By understanding the Swallowtail Butterfly’s lifecycle, you can better appreciate the incredible transformation these insects undergo in their lives.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Caterpillar Diet

As a caterpillar, the Swallowtail Butterfly primarily feeds on the leaves of various plants. Some of these include:

  • Parsley
  • Fennel
  • Dill
  • Carrot

These plants are part of the carrot family and most of them, like parsley and fennel, are also classified as herbs. Caterpillars usually consume large quantities of their host plant’s leaves in order to stock up enough energy for metamorphosis.

Adult Butterfly Diet

Once the Swallowtail Butterfly has emerged as an adult, its diet changes quite a bit. While caterpillars focus on consuming leaves, adult butterflies feed on nectar from various flowers. Some favorite nectar plants for Swallowtail Butterflies are:

  • Milkweed
  • Clover
  • Zinnias

Here is a brief comparison table showing the differences between the diet of caterpillar and adult Swallowtail Butterflies:

Stage Diet Examples
Caterpillar Plant leaves Parsley, Fennel, Dill
Adult Butterfly Flower nectar Milkweed, Clover, Zinnias

It’s important to remember that adult butterflies have a proboscis, which is a long, straw-like structure they use for sipping nectar from flowers. Therefore, planting nectar-rich flowers in your garden will attract and support these beautiful creatures.

Overall, Swallowtail Butterflies have diverse diets that vary depending on their stage of life. Caterpillars tend to focus on specific plants in the carrot family, while adult butterflies enjoy the nectar of various flowers. With this knowledge, you can create a welcoming environment for Swallowtail Butterflies in your garden by providing the right plants and flowers to support their growth and development.

Habitats and Distribution

Swallowtail butterflies can be found in various habitats all around the world. They primarily inhabit fields, meadows, and woodland areas with plenty of lush vegetation. In North America, you can find these captivating creatures from southern Canada to Mexico, covering both eastern and western regions of the United States1.

Eastern and western swallowtails have their own unique distribution areas. For example, eastern swallowtails are more prevalent in the eastern United States, while western swallowtails can be found in southern California and other western regions2.

As for their preferred habitats, swallowtails tend to enjoy:

  • Wildflower meadows
  • Grassy fields
  • Deciduous forests
  • Wetlands

In summary, the habitats and distribution of swallowtail butterflies are quite diverse, spanning from North America to other parts of the world. They live in a myriad of landscapes, from fields and meadows to forests and wetlands. To increase your chances of spotting these enchanting creatures, visit lush, floral locations throughout the United States and beyond.

Swallowtails in the Garden

Creating a beautiful garden can be even more rewarding when you attract stunning butterflies like the Swallowtails. There are various types of Swallowtail butterfly, such as the Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, and Pipevine Swallowtail.

To encourage Swallowtail butterflies to your garden, plant host plants that they love. The Black Swallowtail often lays eggs on:

  • Queen Anne’s Lace
  • Parsley
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Carrots

Giant Swallowtail caterpillars enjoy citrus trees, while the Spicebush Swallowtail prefers the Spicebush plant.

When you want each stage of Swallowtail life to thrive along with the adult butterflies, provide shelter like tall stems and leaves for the caterpillars to hide. Additionally, be mindful of avoiding pesticides that may harm the larvae, and provide food sources in the form of appropriate host plants.

Black Swallowtail Giant Swallowtail Spicebush Swallowtail
Host Plants Queen Anne’s Lace, Parsley, Dill, Fennel, Carrots Citrus Trees Spicebush

Overall, with a few adaptations to your garden, you can create a welcoming environment for these beautiful and diverse Swallowtail species. Happy gardening!

Swallowtail Butterfly and Its Predators

Swallowtail butterflies are captivating creatures known for their vibrant colors and distinct tails. However, like other species, they face threats from various predators. Let’s explore the predators of the Swallowtail butterfly, including comparisons to the Monarch butterfly.

Birds are one of the primary predators of Swallowtail butterflies. They often hunt for the butterflies during their caterpillar phase, consuming them as a source of protein. However, do note that birds can sometimes mistake Monarch butterflies for Swallowtails, which is an unfortunate case since Monarchs are toxic to birds.

Swallowtail caterpillars also fall prey to predatory insects like ants, wasps, and spiders. On the other hand, the adult butterflies have better opportunities to escape these predators due to their agile flying and larger size.

Some species of Swallowtails, like the Spicebush Swallowtail, do have a few tricks up their sleeves to deter predators. This particular butterfly’s larvae use camouflage to resemble bird droppings or snake-like appearances, while adult butterflies produce toxins that repel predators.

Now, let’s compare Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies in relation to predators:

Aspect Swallowtail Butterfly Monarch Butterfly
Toxicity Less toxic due to diet Highly toxic
Predator Avoidance Depends on species Relies on being unpalatable to many predators
Common Predators Birds, ants, wasps, spiders Same as Swallowtails, but with fewer bird attacks due to toxicity

In conclusion, understanding the predators and threats faced by Swallowtail butterflies helps us better appreciate their survival strategies and underscores the importance of conservation efforts to protect these fascinating creatures.

Swallowtails and Their Role in Nature

Swallowtail butterflies are known for their stunning appearance and important role in nature. These large, colorful insects are great pollinators, helping plants to reproduce by transferring pollen. In this section, we will explore how swallowtails grow, their role in pollination, their unique mimicry, and their habitats, like the tulip tree.

These beauties start their life as tiny eggs laid on host plants, like the Canadian tiger swallowtail, which is found east of the Mississippi river. When they hatch, they become voracious caterpillars feeding on leaves. Later, they form a chrysalis, and soon after, transform into the magnificent adult butterfly you see fluttering in your garden.

Swallowtails are master mimics! Their ability to look similar to other less palatable species helps them avoid predators, like birds who think twice before snacking on what might be a bad-tasting insect. For instance, the spicebush swallowtail mimics the appearance of a toxic pipevine swallowtail to deter predators.

Here’s a comparison of some swallowtail characteristics:

  • Eastern tiger swallowtail: yellow with black stripes, found east of the Mississippi river
  • Western tiger swallowtail: similar to eastern, but found in riparian forests
  • Canadian tiger swallowtail: smaller subspecies, lives near tulip trees
  • Spicebush swallowtail: black with white spots, mimics toxic swallowtails

The tulip tree is one example where swallowtails, such as the Canadian tiger swallowtail, can be found. They lay their eggs on the leaves, which become the food source for the hatched caterpillars. You can also find these butterflies in meadows, urban areas, and forest edges.

As impressive pollinators, swallowtails play a significant part in maintaining the ecosystem. Their unique abilities, magnificent appearance, and interesting life cycle make them a fascinating subject for nature enthusiasts like you. So next time you spot a swallowtail butterfly, take a moment to appreciate the vital role it plays in nature!

Threats to Swallowtail Butterflies

Swallowtail butterflies face various threats throughout their life cycle. Among the main dangers, seasonal changes and human activities significantly impact their survival.

Seasonal Changes

During the winter months, these butterflies face harsh conditions that can lead to their deaths. Cold temperatures and a scarcity of resources, such as nectar-producing flowers, make it hard for them to survive. In fall and spring, unpredictable weather patterns can result in unfavorable environments, affecting their food sources, mating, and egg-laying opportunities.

Habitat Loss

Loss of habitats can be harmful to swallowtail butterflies. The natural places they inhabit, like forests and meadows, can be destroyed or modified by deforestation, urbanization, or agriculture. When their habitats are lost, they struggle to find the plants needed for food and reproduction.


Pesticides are another significant threat to swallowtail butterflies. When used in gardens or large-scale agriculture, they can harm or kill these insects directly. Pesticides can also damage the plants that swallowtails depend on for food and reproduction, impacting their survival in the long run.

To protect swallowtails, you can take certain actions in your everyday life, such as:

  • Plant native flowers to provide a food source.
  • Avoid using pesticides in your garden.
  • Create a butterfly-friendly habitat by providing shelter and water sources.

Conservation Efforts

Protecting Swallowtail butterflies, including the Palamedes Swallowtail, is crucial to maintaining their presence in the ecosystem. To support these butterflies, you can take several steps in your own backyard.

Firstly, creating a suitable habitat is essential. Plant native host plants and nectar sources to provide food and shelter for different life stages of Swallowtails. By planting species like citrus trees and milkweed, you can contribute to their habitat.

Moreover, avoid using pesticides and herbicides in your garden. Chemicals can be harmful to butterflies and other pollinators. Instead, use organic and environmentally friendly pest control methods.

In addition, get involved in local and national conservation programs working towards preserving Swallowtail butterflies. These organizations often rely on volunteers and donations to carry out their work. You can also be a citizen scientist and report your sightings of Swallowtails in your area, for example through iNaturalist.

Swallowtail butterflies, like many other species, have unique overwintering strategies. It helps them survive in cold temperatures, with some spending the winter as eggs while others as chrysalises. Being aware of these habits, you can take the appropriate action to protect them during the harsh winter months.

By taking these measures, you can contribute to the conservation efforts and ensure a thriving population of Swallowtail butterflies, including the solitary and elusive Palamedes Swallowtail.

Interesting Facts about Swallowtail Butterflies

Swallowtail butterflies exhibit a fascinating variety of appearances and behaviors. Here are some interesting facts about different swallowtail species and their characteristics:

  • Western tiger swallowtail is native to western North America. It is well known for its yellow and black striped wings and a wingspan of up to 6 inches. These butterflies often mimic other species for protection from predators.

  • Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly is found throughout the eastern United States. Its wing patterns are similar to the western tiger swallowtail, and it also relies on mimicry for survival. Eastern tiger swallowtails display sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females have different appearances.

  • Black swallowtails are native to North America and can be identified by their striking black wings with yellow spots and distinctive red eye spots. The females have a more muted coloration for camouflage.

  • Zebra swallowtail is known for its unique black and white striped pattern, resembling a zebra. These butterflies can be found in the southeastern United States and prefer habitats near pawpaw trees, their host plant.

  • Two-tailed swallowtail is the state butterfly of Arizona. As the name suggests, it has two tails on each hindwing. Their wing patterns include yellow with black stripes, similar to tiger swallowtails.

  • Giant swallowtail is the largest butterfly in North America, boasting a wingspan up to 6 inches. Their caterpillars, known as giant swallowtail caterpillars, have a unique appearance, often resembling bird droppings to deter predators.

  • Swallowtail butterflies are found in various habitats ranging from tropical to Canadian climates. They lay their eggs on host plants, where the larvae (caterpillars) feed on the leaves and grow.

Here are some features and characteristics of swallowtail butterflies listed in bullet points:

  • Bright, colorful wing patterns for protection through mimicry.
  • Sexual dimorphism in some species, with different appearances for males and females.
  • Larvae with unique strategies to avoid predation.
  • Diversity in geographical distribution and habitat preferences.
  • Mating behaviors including territorial displays and male-to-female contact during courtship.

By understanding these fascinating aspects of swallowtail butterflies, you can better appreciate their ecological roles and the importance of conserving their habitats.


  1. Swallowtails of Kentucky – University of Kentucky Entomology 2

  2. Butterflies – Smithsonian Institution 2

  3. Pipevine Swallowtail – Butterflies and Moths of North America

  4. Eastern and Western Tiger Swallowtail Facts

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Anatomically Correct Tattoos


Detailed Butterfly tatts
Wed, Apr 8, 2009 at 2:37 PM
Hi Bugman,
I wanted to share my beautiful (if I do say so myself) ink. I picked up the three mounted species during my travels and brought them in to get exact replicas (thanks Mark Mahoney). The top one is Trogonoptera brookiana (a birdwing?) , Monarch and a Ulysses. He got them perfectly, right down to the veins in the wings and the red marking on the thorax of the birdwing.
I read your site everyday and can’t get enough!
Hope to see you guys at the bug fair at the Natural History museum in May!
West Hollywood

Anatomically Correct Butterfly Tattoos
Anatomically Correct Butterfly Tattoos

My My Andrea,
What anatomical perfection.
Seriously though, Mark Mahoney did a wonderful job on the Raja Brook’s Birdwing, Monarch and Ulysses Swallowtail. As if the drawing we just posted of a Solpugid wasn’t enough to dispel any rumors that we are a serious insect identification website, your tattoo photo might just send the purists into a tizzy. We do like to keep things light and entertaining.
We often attend the Bug Fair, but as guests. Dare we ask how we will recognize you should we cross paths? Perhaps we will talk to our agent about getting a booth at the fair this year. It might be a good way to begin to publicize the book we are writing.


  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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