Spotting the Zebra Longwing Butterfly IN OUR NORTH GEORGIA GARDEN
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.