Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes)

For the last couple of summers, Nancy has been working hard to ‘branch out’ with a larger selection of (native) butterfly host and nectar plants around the yard to bring a greater variety of butterflies to the neighborhood. It is starting to pay off. Besides our Monarchs, we’ve seen more Zebra Heliconians (our state butterfly, formerly known as the zebra longwing), we’ve seen Polydamas and Giant Swallowtails, we’ve seen one of the Duskywings (the Zarucco, I think), a few Sulphurs, and even some Atalas. We’ve recently seen chrysalises of the Atalas and then the Giant Swallowtails. Earlier this month, I expanded our explanation of the Atala Butterfly life cycle on that page of our website (www.BeeHappyGraphics.com/gallery/atala.html). Now I’m going to tell you a few things about the life cycle of a Giant Swallowtail Butterfly.

The Egg

For this discussion, we will start with a single, 1 to 1.5 millimeter (just under 1/16“) cream to brown colored egg with orange secretions, on the upper surface of a leaf. It is laid on members of the citrus family, the giant swallowtail’s host plants, represented in our case by wild lime. The egg lasts four to ten days before hatching, depending on the temperature and host plant.

The Caterpillar

Small Larva of Giant Swallowtail Butterfly
Figure 1: early phase (instar) of giant swallowtail caterpillar. Its head is to the right.

The larva (a.k.a. caterpillar) then goes through five instars (periods between molts) which, unlike the monarch butterfly instars, all look different. The first instar has hairs. The next instars have been compared to bird poop. The younger instars are more realistic-looking as bird droppings with more contrast than the later instars (shown in Figure 2). They rest on top of the leaf and are nocturnal (which makes sense – being seen moving around during the day could blow their disguise). The more mature instars rest on the stems and have been theorized to resemble small snake heads. These caterpillars also have a red, antenna-like osmeterium, which is not usually visible (and which we have not yet seen).

Larger Caterpillar and Chrysalis of Giant Swallowtail Butterfly
Figure 2: larger giant swallowtail larva on the left side of the branch (head up) and chrysalis on right side.

The Chrysalis

After three or four weeks, when it reaches a length of about two inches (5 cm), the larva will pupate. It could form the chrysalis (not to be confused with a ‘cacoon’, which is just an outer protective cover spun by a moth larvae for their chrysalis) right on the stem of the host plant (unlike the monarchlife cycle, who because its host plant is an easily devourable species of milkweed, must travel up to twenty feet to find a safe place to pupate, or the Atala, for which all sibling larvae pupate together so they don’t have to worry about their late-developing siblings coming by and eating them onto the ground), or it could travel a short distance to a vertical surface. As seen in the above picture, the chrysalis hangs tail-down at an angle of about 45° to the structure with its top suspended from silken threads. The pupa (a more general name for chrysalis that can be also applied to all metamorphizing insects, not just butterflies and moths) will last from ten to more than twelve days before emerging into an adult. Unlike the monarch, we have not noticed the giant swallowtail chrysalis changing color over time.

The Adult

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly
Figure 3: adult giant swallowtail butterfly. (Notice chrysalis below it.)

As shown in Figure 3, the adult is black with yellow trim on the top, and could possibly be confused with other black-and-yellow swallowtails like the Black Swallowtaildescribed (and very-rarely-seen species like the Schaus’described and Bahaman Swallowtailsdescribed). The underside of this butterfly (not shown (yet)) is predominantly a light yellow. The adult lives six to fourteen days. This butterfly lives in the near-coastal areas from Florida through the Carolinas (compared to the black swallowtail, which extends north just beyond Massachusetts).

Epilogue

Nancy took all of the pictures shown in this article. As you noticed, we haven’t yet photographically documented the entire life cycle of this butterfly, and I don’t know when Nancy will be satisfied enough with her pictures to add an image of the giant swallowtail to our commercial collection. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Besides our personal experience, we have relied on a number of resources, including University of Florida Entomology and Nematology Department and Butterflies of the East Coast: an observer’s guide by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor, as well as the links highlighted throughout the article.

My Answer To “What’s Wrong With This Picture”

Last updated on December 19th, 2018 at 10:09 am

Background

Several days ago, I showed a photograph and asked: “What’s Wrong With This Picture”.  Here is more information.

Sideways Moon (overview)

Nancy took this overview a minute later. Both were taken in March 2016, while we were on a trip to Antarctica. The mountains (and snow) in the first picture should have told you “we’re not in Kansas (or Florida), anymore.”video The moon in both pictures is waxing (growing) gibbous (more than half full), meaning the full moon would be five days later. Those are Gentoo penguins you see in this picture. She took these photos on the way back to the ship after our morning excursion, as I remember.

My Answers

Although I was a bit surprised nobody mentioned that the moon, as the subject of the first picture, was too centered, thus violating the rule of thirds, one member of my camera club did think the image confusing because she wasn’t sure what the subject was.  That was a completely valid point and was probably why Nancy had to be coaxed into taking that picture.    The overview shown above might be better in that respect, but here is why I (the technical support guy) found the image interesting:

The moon and the sun follow similar paths across the sky and the lighted part of the moon always points directly toward the sun along that path.  Every time I’ve ever seen the moon just above the horizon, it was pointing almost straight up (or down).  The moon in these two pictures is pointing to the left, a difference of almost 90° from my normal.

The mountains give almost no locational clue, but the snow at sea level tells you that we are not that close to the equator and the penguins tell us which hemisphere we are in (the specific species will narrow down the possible locations even further).  The angle of the moon does the best job, however, of narrowing the geographical possibilities – showing that we were close to the (Ant)arctic Circle.

To get the same effect with Photoshop wouldn’t be that hard, but would take more than just cropping.  And this effect doesn’t fall in the impossible range, like a star between the tips of a crescent moon, or maybe either type of eclipse during the quarter moon, so it is unlikely to be found in a unicorn shot or the like.  It is just a very unusual perspective that I wanted to appreciate for what it was and share with my friends.

By the way, this is the third article (set) I’ve published in the last three weeks involving the moon.  But fear not, I’m ready to move on.  Thank you for listening.

Two More Eclipse Questions

While we are on the subject of astronomy, I’d like to share just a bit more about eclipses.  Here are my questions (those who follow us on Facebook may have already seen these questions.  Try not to blurt out the answer before your friends have had a chance to think about it):

Question 1:
If the sun and moon both travel from east to west, why was the total solar eclipse last August seen first in Seattle and last in Charleston?
Answer:
The simple answer is that as the sun and moon race across the sky, the sun (on the outer lane) is overtaking the moon (on the inside lane). Here is an illustration of that.

Solar Eclipse Diagram
This drawing is not to scale

Since the surface of the Earth is moving from west to east as the Earth rotates, the big question for some of you is which is moving faster. Turns out it is the shadow. (Actually, the Earth’s rotation is reflected by the movement of the sun in this picture, but the question is still valid).

To see the Note click here.To hide the Note click here.
Here is an Earth-centric partial drawing of our solar system showing most of the details/numbers that needed to be considered in arriving at this answer.Solar System Diagram
The above ignores details like the fact that the Earth’s axis of rotation is not the same as the axis of its orbit around the sun or the axis of the moon’s orbit around the Earth. These factors affect the path of the eclipse across the Earth. Here is a map of the paths of all the total (and annular (defined in next note)) solar eclipses crossing North America in this first half of the 21st century.

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Because of the elliptical nature of the moon’s orbit, sometimes it seems larger than the sun and sometimes smaller (Based on the average distances shown in the second drawing (hidden in the previous note), the moon would be smaller). If the moon appears larger than the sun and completely hides it during an eclipse, it is called a total eclipse and its path is shown in blue on the map. When the moon appears smaller, the sun can peek out all around it, and it is called an annular eclipse. Those paths are shown in yellow.

Paths of Solar Eclipses
I derived this from other maps found at a NASA website. This information is courtesy of Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, from eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov.

Question 2:
Which side of the country would see a lunar eclipse first? Why?
Answer:
This could be considered a trick question. As the second drawing (hidden in first note) suggests, the geometry of a lunar eclipse is totally different from a solar eclipse and so the relative sizes of the shadow and the object being shadowed are completely different.
Animation of Solar Eclipse
Our last animated illustration shows the relative size of the Earth and moon (shadow) from the sun (under specific conditions) during a solar eclipse, but for a lunar eclipse imagine the Earth is the Earth’s shadow as the moon (in the place of the moon’s shadow) goes behind it. As the moon flies into the shadow, that event is visible simultaneously wherever the moon can be seen. For another (possibly better) view, see the second illustration in “A Nighttime Solar Eclipse?”.

Well, that should just about cover everything you ever wanted to know about an eclipse (and more). If you have any questions, you can ask in the comment section, or you may just want to consult an astronomer.

A Nighttime Solar Eclipse?

When I tried to print our second 26″ by 36″ canvas copy of “Eclipse Over Long Pine Key”, the colors were as shown below. I thought one of the ink cartridges must be empty or the printer had a clogged nozzle or something. I pulled out the roll of canvas, performed a cleaning, and did a nozzle check, all of which went well, so I did a small (5″ by 7″) test print on luster paper. It turned out the same way. It was late so I just shut off the printer and went to bed. The next morning the printer passed all tests and I was able to make the correct print with no problem. I’ve never had that problem before or since. I was intrigued by the picture and kept the small print as a memento.  I have no idea how to duplicate this image.

Nighttime Solar Eclipse?

Often, when people see the original version hanging in our booth at an art festival, many of them think it shows a time-lapse of the phases of the moon.  I assure them that although the moon plays a crucial role, it is not directly visible in the image. Below is an animation showing the three different celestial events involving the moon.  A solar eclipse happens only during the day when the moon is new, while the lunar eclipse only happens on a night with a full moon.  In the animation, both of those are total eclipses, while both versions of our “Eclipse Over Long Pine Key” show only a partial solar eclipse.  The third part of the animation shows a complete lunar cycle with all the phases of the moon.  In this case, unlike the other two events, the edge of the obscured part of the celestial body will always touch both poles.

Moon Animations

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While all parts of this animation are drawn to scale as seen from the Earth, the time compression is different for each celestial event.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Last updated on September 15th, 2018 at 11:58 pm

This barely retouched picture (not even cropped – only overcoming camera sensor limitations), which Nancy took a while back (at my request), shows something that most people never see.  Another good question might be “What aspect of this photograph gives the best clue about where it was taken?”

Sideways Moon (closeup)
There may be more than one correct answer to these questions.  I’ll have my answers in two weeks. Stay tuned!

Answers To Your Butterfly Questions

Last updated on July 7th, 2019 at 11:43 am

Jaret Daniels is one of the butterfly experts at the University of Florida.  He’s the one we’ve helped (along with the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA)) on rare butterfly surveys in southern Florida and the upper keys, and who is responsible for some of the photos and the distribution of the educational butterfly plant brochures we’ve been able to share in our booth at art festivals around the state.  I’ve had the chance to ask him some of your burning butterfly questions; here’s what he said.

On The Lifespan Of Monarch Butterflies

Question:
As I’ve mentioned in our booth (and on our website at Life Cycle of Monarch Butterfly), adult monarch butterflies live two to six weeks, but every fourth generation the adult will live six to eight months so they can make the migration.  I’ve also mentioned that we have in south Florida (and the Caribbean) a population of monarchs that doesn’t migrate (see also the Wikipedia article “Monarch butterfly migration”).  So naturally, the big question is “Does the fourth generation of the non-migrating monarchs still live six to eight months?
Answer:
No

On The Range Of Atala Butterflies

Question:
Since their rediscovery in 1979 (see Atala Butterfly) on Key Biscayne, the range of the Atala seems to be slowly expanding northward. Apparently, their traditional range was restricted to Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties (Florida’s southernmost counties)Atala study, but recent sightings have been as far north as Vero Beach on the Atlantic coast and Tampa on the Gulf coast of the peninsulasee map. The range of coontie, the host plant on which the Atala depends, on the other hand, includes most of the Florida peninsulacoontie range, which makes friends in central and northern Florida wonder “Could Atala’s live here?
Answer:
Probably not; the Atalas seem to be less cold-tolerant than the coontie.
(If it were me, I might still be inclined to go for it.)

Well, I hope this helps.  Feel free to comment.

Our Screech Owl Image – The Rest Of The Story

Last updated on August 22nd, 2018 at 11:47 am

On our webpage, Mother Screech Owl with Fledgling, we talk about a pair of screech owls using our backyard nest box. Here is the rest of the story.

The first nest box we built was actually for woodpeckers. The specifications on woodpecker nests are all smaller than needed for screech owlsspecs. I always thought the woodpeckers had thumbed their noses at it but Nancy insists that they had actually checked it out quite thoroughly. Apparently, the squirrels then found the nest box and gnawed the opening to make it more suitable for their own use.

Squirrel on owl nestbox
Squirrel on owl nest box

When the hole size was right, the owls chased the squirrels off and began raising families.

Baby screech owl in our backyard nestbox
Baby screech owl in our backyard nest box

After a couple of years, we thought that if they were going to continue, maybe we should build them a proper screech owl nest boxplans.

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By “we”, I mean Nancy would do the building on this project. The plans in the link are not the paper plans Nancy used, but I just found these while searching and liked the step-by-step process and pictures.
We placed the nest box on a similar twelve-foot 4″x4″ post a few yards away from the original, but the screech owls continued using the now-familiar original to raise their young. Interestingly, the woodpeckers found the new owl box and began using it.

After the fifth year, we suspect something must have happened to one of the screech owl parents and they never came back. We have started hearing them again in the evenings and so continue to have hope that they will someday return.