Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Spotting the Zebra Longwing Butterfly IN OUR NORTH GEORGIA GARDEN

The Zebra Longwing butterfly (Heliconius charitonia) is not a butterfly I associate with north Georgia; however, I do know it from the many butterfly houses I have visited, so I was surprised to spot one in our garden one afternoon in late September. It was fluttering back and forth between the Maryland goldenaster and 'hot lips' salvia. Its constant movement made photographing it with my phone unsuccessful so I ran indoors to retrieve another camera. Unfortunately, by the time I reappeared the zebra longwing had disappeared, and so did my chance of getting a documented photo.

I considered it a one-off sighting that would just have to be saved in the memory bank. Then on a sunny day in mid-October, my husband came rushing indoors exclaiming that he had seen a black and yellow stripped butterfly in the kitchen garden and inquired if I knew what it was, because he'd never seen this one before. This time I rushed outside with camera in hand, and sure enough, there were two zebra longwing butterflies visiting some late blooming zinnias.


These unmistakable butterflies with their long narrow wings and black and yellow stripes definitely catch one's eye. Common to Central America and Mexico, found throughout Florida and parts of Texas, and occasionally pushed into southern Georgia and Alabama, this butterfly rarely wanders this far north, simply because it can't survive the cold. My theory is that these butterflies were displaced by Tropical Storm Irma that blew through our area in mid-September traveling up from Florida. Hurricanes can dislocate butterflies outside their normal range and there is lots of documentation on how such storms have hindered butterfly migrations; the impact on monarchs being the most widely recorded.

Of course, now that this butterfly was in our own backyard, my curious mind wanted to know more about our new [temporary] visitor. So I delved into research mode, and what a fascinating butterfly this is.


Unlike most other butterfly species, that live for only a few weeks in their adult stage, the zebra longwing butterfly can live and lay eggs for up to eight months. Why? Well, it turns out that these butterflies have a special skill that allows them to eat pollen!

Whereas, most butterflies drink nectar through their long proboscis, longwings secrete an enzyme in their saliva which enables them to break down pollen that sticks to their proboscis, and then suck it up with the nectar. While nectar is mostly sugar, pollen is rich in proteins and amino acids that provide extra nutrients and energy to these butterflies. This special diet allows them to live longer, but also very dependent on flowers, making them especially good pollinators. Eating pollen has other benefits too. It serves as a defense mechanism as butterflies that eat pollen are thought to be more distasteful to predators and more brightly colored (warning sign). Pollen feeding is also correlated to better overall fitness and longevity.

If you live in the home range of this butterfly and want them to reside in your garden it is vital to provide an abundance of nectar rich flowers. Unlike most Lepidoptera species that determine a suitable site based on the host plants provided, the zebra longwing is attracted to the flowers offered. Some of their favorite flowers include milkweed, lantana, shepherd's needle, tall verbena, salvia, pentas and firebush. They share the same host plant with the variegated and gulf fritillary butterflies, passion vine (passiflora incarnata, p. lutea, p. suberosa).


Another unique behavior this butterfly practices is pupal-mating. This is when males search the host plant for female pupae and then camp out patiently waiting for the female to emerge so that mating can occur before the female is completely eclosed. She will immediately begin laying eggs and can lay up to 1,000 eggs at a time.

Most butterfly species usually derive all their eggs from the efforts of the caterpillar during the larval stage when the caterpillar collects amino acids from the host plant; for longwings this is only counts for 20%. The other 80% of egg production comes from the amino acids collected from pollen during the adult stage. This is why flowers are so critical to this butterfly. Longwings are clever and learn the locations of pollen plans and establish foraging routes accordingly. Studies show that if a plant which they frequent is removed, the zebra longwing will continue to return to that location in search of those flowers.

Yet another interesting characteristic of this species is the social order they establish when roosting. They are known for returning to the same place each night. The oldest butterflies choose the best places and are known to gently nudge the younger butterflies to get them going in the morning.


Our two visiting zebra longwing butterflies flew gracefully through our garden for a few weeks and I savored every moment. It's unlikely we'll see more in the near future or that these two neotropical butterflies will survive our cold temperature that is making its debut this weekend. This happenstance gave us a rare glimpse into the life of these fascinating butterflies.

16 comments:

  1. Your posts are always so informative. I had not heard of these butterflies outside of Florida, nor did I know anything about their interesting habits. That passionflower is gorgeous.

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    1. This particular passion flower was photographed in Chapel Hill, NC at Fearrington Village a few years ago. Not sure which type it is (could be a hybrid) but it was the only photo I had of a passion vine without pollinators on it. I'm always photographing insect so flowers without them seem naked to me.

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    2. (couldn't find the comment box so am using this Reply ...)

      Have to agree on the passion vine - a beauty ! I had one in the garden that was doing really well for a while; not sure what happened to it but it didn't survive. Now I have a sky vine growing in its place - requires constant cutting back but doing well. My Dutchman's Pipe has exceeded the 8' I gave it and attracts a large number of swallowtails - they're beautiful as long as you don't mind the huge appetite of the caterpillars which seem to decimate the plant at times.

      I haven't seen the zebra longwing around here (southwest Florida) but will keep a closer eye now that I've seen your examples - lovely.

      Thanks for dropping by.

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  2. Thanks for the insight into this special visitor! I witnessed one near the passion vine in my garden (we're in Murrayville) on September 17th, so your explanation of the displacement makes perfect sense. (As a side note, I was inspired to plant lots of passion vine after spending time in your garden last year. Apparently paid off in more ways than one!)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your sighting. It's nice to know others in the area had a similar experience. Awww, I'm so happy that you took something away from the tour of our garden. I'd love to visit your garden if you are open to visitors.

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  3. Such a wealth of information about these beautiful butterflies! Thanks, Karin! That must have been such a joy to see them in your garden. I remember seeing quite a few of them along the woodland walk near my parents' place in Florida. They seemed to prefer the dappled shade at the edge of the woods. I remember how difficult they were to photograph--bravo on your beautiful photos!

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    1. I did read that they hang around woodland edges. In our garden they were frequently out in full sun but our kitchen garden is near the woodland garden so that may have been why they liked it there.

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  4. One of my favorites and I deeply miss it now that I live back in Texas. I think they may live near the Rio Grande Valley and there are some random sightings I've seen online south of Houston but they are not at all common here. What luck for you but hopefully they will have made the trip back south soon!

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    1. Oh, I bet you do miss them. I also get very attached to the butterflies in our garden. Years when populations are down it makes me sad. I love a garden filled with fluttering insects!

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  5. Wonderful pictures. Perhaps your Longwings will be able to get back to Florida where the climate is kinder to them.

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    1. I'm not convinced that they would find their way back. I'll have to do some research on whether or not butterflies can find their way back to their home range if they leave due to non-migratory situations.

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  6. A fascinating, informative post - how wonderful that your husband is as aware and excited about wildlife as you are!

    Now that the they've had a nice feast in your garden, hopefully they can find their way a bit further south before the cold weather hits.

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    1. Yes, I'm very fortunate that he is as into gardening as I am. Often times he is the one who spots a snake or unusual bird in our garden. I think I'll keep him!

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  7. Wow, how awesome to see such a rare beauty in your garden! Such interesting information about them, too. That is fascinating how they remember locations and revisit them. Their diet is so interesting too. I hope they make it back down South!

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    1. I was amazed when I first spotted it. It was almost surreal. Then I was even more fascinated as I learned what different skills they have from all the other butterflies we usually see in our garden.

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  8. What a beautiful critter and thank you for sharing this informative post. It makes ecological sense that they live longer when their home range has blooms almost year round. I wonder if other tropical butterfly also have longer lives.

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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