Wet spring brings swallowtail summer

Tribune-Star/Mike LunsfordLanding for a moment: This yellow swallowtail butterfly lands on a flower as the columnist captures it.

As far as the calendar goes, summer runs into late September, but once the page on August is turned, I tend to believe the season is mostly gone; it’s the way teachers — even retired ones — see the world.

One thing, however, is certain about this still-reasonably young summer: it has been a good one for swallowtail butterflies, at least on my place and in my garden.

The cone flower and tiger lilies and phlox that I transplanted around my yard so many years ago enjoyed the wet spring and have been alive with hosts of those colorful friends in recent weeks.

According to my “Kaufman Field Guide,” swallowtails are among our largest butterflies. All species in the Midwest have “tails” on their hindwings, and when very young, their larvae may appear to be bird droppings, so many survive an onslaught of hungry birds, at least for a while.

What I find most intriguing about swallowtails is that each of the species seems to have a favored food source.

The Eastern Tiger often consumes cottonwood and tulip poplar leaves (perhaps a reason I have seen so many of them near my cabin, for a poplar gives me shade all morning).

Zebra swallowtails, not as numerous on my property in the past, but having a great summer here now, feed on paw paws, of which I have many just below my yard on a wooded hillside. I hardly notice those trees until the fall when their huge leaves turn a pleasant yellow.

Black swallowtails feed on parsley, dill, and Queen Anne’s Lace (I have plenty of the latter here too), while Spicebush swallows choose, of course, spicebush, but they like the taste of sassafras just as well. I have seen many of those this summer, and, perhaps a bit unusual for us, even a few Giant swallowtails. They prefer hoptree and rue, neither of which I could identify if it were next to me.

Jill Staake, a contributing writer for “Birds and Blooms Magazine,” loves swallowtails too, and although she says it is speculation, this season may be a banner butterfly year for several reasons.

“Most swallowtails, though not all, overwinter in their pupal state — in chrysalis — emerging in spring to feed and mate. In your area, most would likely start to emerge in May, although I think you had a cooler, wetter spring than normal, so some delay could have caused more of them to wait and emerge at once, making you more likely to see larger numbers,” she said from her home in Florida.

Staake also says that swallowtails have several unique features that make them stand out among butterflies: “Their caterpillars have a special organ called the osmeterium. This is a fleshy forked gland that emerges from the front of their heads above the eyes when they are startled or need to defend themselves. Their bodies use the oils from the foods they eat to coat the osmeterium in a very strong foul-smelling liquid that is poisonous, or at least repellent, to most predators.”

And, although swallowtails are known, of course, for their beautiful tails, Staake says that they too are part of their defense systems.

“A predator will aim for the tails, but often end up with a mouth of useless scales, while the butterfly escapes with just a bit of wing damage. It’s pretty common to see swallowtails with one or both of their tails missing, while the butterfly itself is doing just fine.”

Of course, there are many misconceptions about butterflies, and one is that having an abundance of flowers is the only way to attract them, and that so-called “butterfly houses” work. Those structures “usually just wind up as homes for wasps and other pests,” she says.

“Each butterfly species has a specific plant or group of plants that their caterpillars can eat. Having these in your yard will encourage butterflies to linger and lay eggs, rewarding you with caterpillars, and then the next generation of butterflies. And, butterflies require shelter. Rock piles, trees, ornamental grasses, and dense shrubbery can all provide protection against bad weather and predators. They also need to obtain salts and minerals, which they often do by ‘puddling’ on mud or wet sand. In the morning, and on cooler days, they need places to spread their wings and warm up. A large flat rock in the sun is ideal for this behavior,” she adds.

One of the earliest memories I have is of butterflies. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 when I discovered the rather goofy-looking caterpillar of an Eastern Tiger swallowtail as I walked from my back step to my grandparents’ place next door. Theirs was a long driveway of crushed coal cinders that ran up the hill past our house and near a copse of marshy woods.

On a leaf, as plain as day, inched a clownish, nearly walrus-like green worm, and I scooped it up in my hands and speed-walked it to our kitchen, holding it like a live grenade. My mom simply told me to put it back where I found it, that it “knew what to do with itself.”

A few hot breezy evenings ago, I sat at my desk, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed what appeared to be a few yellow leaves floating into the yard from the woods. I suspected that our black walnuts were shedding in what has now become a very dry month, but I soon realized the leaves were actually butterflies.

They were all Tiger swallowtails, silently gliding in from the trees to a patch of cone flowers I have kept watered near my porch rail. That moment made it worth the trouble.

You can contact Mike Lunsford at hickory913@gmail.com; his website is at www.mikelunsford.com.