Raising Eastern Tiger Swallowtails: A Journey through the Butterfly Life Cycle

Image: Raising the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly- A Butterfly Photo Adventure from Tiger Swallowtail Egg to Butterfly

The magic of nature often unfolds right in our very own backyards. Last season, our garden became a sanctuary for a mesmerizing spectacle: the eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). These enchanting creatures, normally seen in small numbers, flocked to our garden, delighting us with their presence day after day. As we tended to our butterfly garden, they hovered around us, as friendly as can be. While they shared our love for nectar flowers, their favorite spot was the vibrant Mexican sunflowers.

Eager to create an even more inviting habitat for these magnificent beings, we introduced two chokecherry trees as potential hosts for their eggs and caterpillars. Unlike milkweed-obsessed monarchs, Eastern tiger swallowtails have a broader palette when it comes to choosing host plants. Their life cycle spans up to two months, making it more challenging for Northern gardeners to raise them due to fewer generations and the need for a greater variety of plants.

Our limited space didn’t allow for large trees, so we opted for smaller host options. We carefully planted a waferash tree, which reaches a maximum height of 20 feet, and even placed a black cherry tree in a container.

Image: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail can be distinguished from males by the blue coloration of the bottom of their hindwings

In May, while busy planting in our garden, we were visited by a magnificent female tiger swallowtail. It nearly flew right into us, leaving us in awe of its beauty. With our newly acquired host plants waiting to be permanently planted, we ventured to our chokecherry trees in search of eggs. Among the fading blooms, we spotted potential predators such as ants and spiders. However, on another tree, we discovered three delicately camouflaged circles on separate leaves – the precious eggs we were hoping to find.

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Image: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Eggs on Chokecherry Leaves

Our excitement grew as we confirmed our discovery through online research. We were now ready to embark on the adventure of raising these delicate creatures. Besides chokecherry, other host plants suitable for eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars include wild black cherry, tulip tree, and sweet bay magnolia.

As the eggs hatched, we marveled at the transformation of the caterpillars. Their darkened bodies were adorned with distinct white saddles, and the false eyes, which would later serve as a deceptive defense mechanism, began to take shape. To keep their delicate wafer-thin chokecherry leaves fresh, we discovered the usefulness of floral tubes as an essential raising tool.

Image: Floral tubes keep wafer-thin chokecherry leaves fresh for days when raising eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars

As the caterpillars continued their growth, they entered an awkward teenage phase. Their green bodies, accompanied by false eyes with blue coloration and orange rims, hinted at their impending maturity. Purple dots adorned their bodies, almost resembling zits. It was during this phase that we discovered the true head of the eastern tiger caterpillar, distinct from the false eyes.

Image: The instar 3 swallowtail caterpillar is going through that awkward teenage phase

As the caterpillars shed their skin and entered the next instar, their transformation became even more apparent. Green bodies, fully visible false eyes, and the gradual disappearance of the white saddle marked their progress.

Image: Instar 4 Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar

In their final instar, the caterpillars turned green, retaining a yellow ring and purple dots. This stage was accompanied by remarkable growth, a clear sign of their imminent transition.

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Image: Raising Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies- instar 5 eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars finally show some serious growth

When the caterpillar’s coloration took on a deep shade of brown, resembling a UPS truck, we knew the next phase was about to unfold. It started with the purge of undigested food, which alarmed some observers. However, this was a normal part of the process, clearing the way for the caterpillar’s metamorphosis.

Preparing a stick inside the cage as a resting spot for their chrysalises seemed like a wise idea. Simple and yet efficient. While one caterpillar adhered to the plan, the remaining three formed a conga line along the upper corner of the mesh cage.

Image: Tiger swallowtail chrysalides in the corner of their mesh cage

Throughout their chrysalis stage, we learned that patience was key. Unlike monarchs, whose cycle usually lasts 7-10 days, Eastern tiger swallowtails operated on a different timeline. They could take up to 2-3 weeks or even longer, depending on their own rhythm. Some might even choose to overwinter until the following season.

By mid-July, our adventure reached an exciting climax. The first two butterflies emerged from their chrysalises, revealing their vibrant wings to the world. After a brief period of sun-drying, we released them into the wild. They were truly magnificent creatures, with powerful wings.

Image: An eastern tiger swallowtail male emerges from its chrysalis

The remaining two butterflies, both females, held a surprise in store for us. Breaking convention, they belonged to the dark form, mimicking the poisonous pipevine swallowtail as a defense mechanism against predators. Their fascinating markings concealed beneath the dark cloak fascinated us.

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Image: Raising Swallowtails through the butterfly life cycle

As the final female rested on our butterfly bush, a sense of accomplishment filled our hearts. Raising the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly had been an extraordinary experience, one we eagerly anticipated continuing in the seasons to come.

Image: On some dark form butterflies, you can clearly see the tiger swallowtail markings under the dark cloak when revealed by the bright sun

If you wish to start your own journey of raising eastern tiger swallowtails through all four stages of the butterfly life cycle, find more information and helpful tools on Ames Farm Center‘s butterfly page. Happy raising!