Follow the swallowtail
If you’ve driven on any of the country roads in Southern Maryland recently, you might have noticed the abundance of swallowtail butterflies in our area.
They lazily cross the road, not very efficiently zig-zagging back and forth in some kind of dance only they can hear the music to and that must certainly have a spastic beat.
I try not to hit any kind of animal with my car, butterflies included, but my eyes are getting older and I don’t see them right away anymore. Sometimes it’s unavoidable when they make a last-second unpredictable turn into my car’s path. I’ll hit the brakes, which is one more good reason not to tailgate. My kids keep a tally of how many butterflies we see on the school run each afternoon.
But what’s better than keeping a tally from a car is seeing butterflies up close. They aren’t skittish and oftentimes will glide right past your nose without a care in the world. If you live in a place with open spaces and some native vegetation, there’s a good chance you can see a few flitting about if you go for an afternoon stroll around your neighborhood. A shaded path through the woods is another place to look for them, as well as anywhere there is water. They are equally at home in lots of different environments and can be found in just about every nook and cranny of Southern Maryland.
Thinking of butterflies usually conjures up a mental picture of fairies, flowers, whimsy and mirth. Because of this, they are popular creatures at my house. On more than one occasion the costume of choice for Halloween has been a butterfly; the only fancy cake pan I own is in a butterfly shape. But butterflies are insects, and therefore they have some interesting eating habits that don’t quite fit in with their enchanting image.
Have you been to any of the local beaches lately? You probably saw a butterfly or two flitting about and perhaps landing on the sand. Butterflies aren’t beach bums who like to sunbathe and listen to the waves lap the shore. No, they are doing what lepidopterists (butterfly scientists) call “puddling” — sipping up moisture that contains nutrients they can’t get from nectar alone. That’s why you might also see butterflies visiting mud puddles after rainstorms and — not so daintily — cow pies, roadkill or compost piles.
This is a great time of year to look for butterflies. I guarantee you’ll see some swallowtails if you find some summersweet shrubs in bloom. Summersweet is a shrub that’s native to Maryland and is enjoyed by many kinds of insects and birds. Swallowtails just can’t resist it.
As the name implies, it gives off a very sweet-smelling fragrance when it blooms in late summer, while most other flowering plants are petering out from the heat and dryness. Summersweet will bloom even if it’s growing in full shade and
is happiest in moist soil near swampy areas and by ponds.
Just recently I was surprised by how many of these shrubs were blooming along the trail at St. Mary’s Lake. There were butterflies galore and numerous bees visiting the flowers and collecting nectar. It was quite the show. I saw one zebra swallowtail, dozens of the Eastern tiger variety and a few of the pipevine kind.
There are many different species of swallowtails in Maryland, eight to be exact. The Eastern tiger swallowtail is yellow and black and hard to miss. It’s ubiquitous in Southern Maryland in the later summer months. There are also three dark swallowtail species extremely common in our state. They aren’t the flashiest of butterflies, but they make up for that with their size because they are quite large and very noticeable.
It can be difficult to tell the darker swallowtail species apart unless you have a welltrained eye or a camera to capture its image to examine in detail because a moving butterfly is a hard target to study. But telling them apart gets even more complicated since some butterflies use mimicry to disguise themselves as another — unpalatable — kind.
One of the darker swallowtail species, the pipevine swallowtail, eats from a plant that makes them taste terrible. So some female Eastern tiger swallowtails have appropriated this look and aren’t the usual yellow and black color but are dark instead.
Eastern tiger swallowtails make a tasty meal for insect-eating birds and frogs, but the females who are dark have figured out a brilliant way to stay safe from predators. Swallowtail caterpillars also have an uncanny resemblance to bird droppings, which keep them safe in that stage too.
Planting native flowers, shrubs and trees is not only the best way to attract butterflies to your yard, it’s also beneficial for other kinds of wildlife that live there, like birds. Many plants touted as butterfly-attracting, such as the butterfly bush, provide only nectar and aren’t a resource for butterflies during their larval stage. In fact, no North American caterpillars will eat the leaves of the butterfly bush. Using native plants in your landscape supports butterflies in all stages of their lives.
And, because they are often so exquisite, it’s easy to forget that butterflies are actually insects. So using pesticide on the plants in your yard will indiscriminately wipe out all the bugs, butterflies and other important pollinators included. For the health and well-being of the ecosystem, figure out another way to combat the ants and stinkbugs or learn to coexist.
This time of year I can sit on my back deck and watch swallowtails glide high and low across my yard all afternoon. If you are getting to know the butterflies that live near you, an accordion-style laminated guide can be real handy. They are available with just the butterflies in this specific region, which is nice because you don’t have to waste time hunting through photos of the more than 750 species of butterflies that live in North America.
You can find them for sale online and at lots of museums and nature center gift shops for less than $10. They’re small enough to tuck into a backpack or stroller basket and are waterproof, which is nice when you accidentally leave your copy on the back deck in a summer thunderstorm.