Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Last Year's Pipevine Swallowtails!!!

 So, I have been growing Woolly Pipevine for at least 14 years. I went with Aristolochia macrophylla over A. tomentosa because it's less aggressive.... or at least, it's easier to control. A. tomentosa sends up new stems from everywhere its roots spread out, so just one plant can take over a whole garden bed with new stems poking up and climbing all over the plants that grow there. A. macrophylla doesn't do this. It's just the one main trunk and lots of stems that come off of that and climb all over whatever. Put another way, the roots stay where you planted them. 

I initially planted this as a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly. But this isn't a species very common to my area. They are found in New Jersey and have been sighted in my county, but there aren't any large populations nearby. The reason for this is there aren't many host plants around. Black Swallowtail are abundant because they're a generalist on the carrot family, so every field that's been invaded by Queen Anna's Lace, or home gardener growing Parsley, Carrots, Fennel, Dill and so on are helping this species thrive. Tiger Swallowtails are even more common thanks to Tulip Trees, Black Cherry, and what remains of the Ash population being staples in the patchwork of our local forest lands. 

The nearest sighting of the Pipevine Swallowtail to me is about a 30 minute drive from my house. So for 14 years the vine pretty much went unused aside for the occasional Robin's nest, and Ant which used it to get from our shed to the Redbud it's latched onto. 

Ohh yes, the shed. The vine is slowly consuming it on both sides, though hasn't quite taken over the roof yet. The shingles still get too hot for its stems to lay but each year I see it adding another layer as the leaves it makes up there grow larger and larger and shade out enough for new stems to safely sit without getting baked off. 

I'd been thinking about pruning it back but then one day last July I went out there and noticed these clusters of little orange eggs. "OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!" I shouted.

A female Pipevine Swallowtail had found our vine and graced it with four clusters of eggs. Sadly one of them was on a vine that stuck out into the path and I was going to prune off. Raising butterflies in captivity is normally frowned upon but I decided to make an exception here, and this would let me better document their life cycle. And for the record, the majority of the egg clusters I left outside. It was just a cluster of 9 eggs that I brought in and raised in a butterfly cage. Also a few days later I discovered additional egg clusters that seem to have been laid after the first four clusters, so I guess she came back or a second female flew by. 

Outside I noticed all of the egg clusters were laid on the newest growth. This is likely because the toxin in the leaves will be at the lowest here and the caterpillars will be better able to handle it.


After a few days, they entered the "Forbidden Gummy Worm" phase of development. Seriously though don't eat these. The toxin pipevine plants make, and caterpillars eventually store in their bodies, is an actual carcinogen. This is likely why the plant fell out of favor among gardeners. 

I was making a mistake with raising the ones indoors. You're not supposed to bring them inside it seems as this throws off their natural rhythm. Should I do this in the future I'll be sure to keep the butterfly cage outside. 

It was neat having them inside though. Their constant chewing is loud and with nine of them going at it there was an ambient Yule Log effect going on. I wish I had recorded it.

Being Swallowtails, this meant their caterpillars have "horns" this yellow/orange tongue-like appendage that comes out of their head and sprays a kind of formic acid or foul smelling chemical out. The idea is should a bird try and pick one up, BAM!!! Awful Perfume Sample right in the eyes! The caterpillar will likely die soon after this happens but rest assured, that bird certainly won't be picking one of these up to feed to their kids. 

All that being said, I had to poke this thing with a pencil for a good ten minutes or so just to get him angry. 

Large black worms with orange dots all over them don't exactly blend in. It's almost like they're asking to be eaten. And as it turns out, this is exactly what they're doing. This is the same/similar strategy the Monarch Butterfly uses. Monarch caterpillars are black, white and yellow, and they actively feed in the day in full view of predators. They taste nasty though and have bad chemicals in them that might kill a baby bird. Eventually through repeated predator, the birds learn not to feed these caterpillars to their babies. The trouble with this strategy is there's always a new generation of birds to teach but eventually the local population learns to leave them alone and the caterpillars thrive.

It's around now that I noticed none of the outdoor caterpillars have survived past the second or third instar. This makes me glad I at least brought a few indoors. Maybe I'm greedy but I didn't want to wait another 14 years to photograph them. Also as far as caterpillars go, they look really cool.

 Chrysalis Day!

 One by one, they all shed their last layer of skin off and formed a chrysalis. 

10 to 14 days later, they started to emerge. 

BTW I have no idea how you tell the gender in this species. Some people say the females are this navy blue color while males are more of a green... but uhhh.

This is the same butterfly as the navy blue one pictured just above. I don't think the color thing is accurate. Either that or I somehow managed to hatch 8 girls. (1 did not emerge from its chrysalis at all. I'm assuming it's going to hatch out sometime this Spring.)

I released all 8 of them once their wings were expanded and they were able to fly. Sometimes they would hang out on the flowers I put them on but not for long. Within the hour they were fueled up and flew out into the world. 

A few days releasing them all though, I was delighted to come home and find one in my garden. This wasn't staged at all. I had to pull out my phone and quickly snap a picture. 

Hopefully they'll find my garden again this year. And hopefully more people will give Pipevine a try so this butterfly becomes a more common sight every year.