WILD GEORGIA: State’s official butterfly is an attention-getter

The Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (female shown here) is Georgia's official state butterfly. Its striking yellow-and-black coloration is common throughout the state. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
The Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (female shown here) is Georgia's official state butterfly. Its striking yellow-and-black coloration is common throughout the state. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Charles Seabrook

Credit: Charles Seabrook

It’s a scene I’ve witnessed countless times in my Decatur yard and elsewhere: A gorgeous yellow and black Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly flits gracefully from flower to flower, occasionally landing to sip nectar.

I never tire of watching it. Seeing a large, magnificent tiger swallowtail with a wingspan 3 to 5.5 inches wide always makes me want to grab my camera, no matter how many hundreds of photos I’ve taken of the species over the years.

My children once jokingly said that they were going to have a bumper sticker made for my truck saying that “I brake for Eastern tiger swallowtails.” Indeed, I encounter the stunning butterflies all over Georgia and the entire Southeast during spring through fall, when the insects fly high over hardwood forests and along streams — or flutter about yards, gardens and orchards.

I also occasionally see them in large numbers at wet spots on the ground, where they gather in “puddle parties” to absorb moisture and minerals.

No wonder that the Eastern tiger swallowtail is the official state butterfly of Georgia and four other states — Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Delaware.

Male tiger swallowtails almost always are yellow with vertical black stripes. Females’ wings may be yellow or solid black, with the black replacing the broad yellow expanses. Regardless of the coloration, the females’ hind wings are marked by bluish and red wing scales.

Biologists believe that the black coloration in some females may add protection by mimicking the poisonous pipevine swallowtail butterfly, which most predators avoid.

A female tiger swallowtail lays up to 250 eggs during her short, two-week lifetime. Although she may sip nectar from a variety of flowers, she lays her eggs only on “host plants” preferred by tiger swallowtail caterpillars — tulip poplar, wild cherry, sweet-bay, basswood, ash and wafer ash trees. The caterpillars hatch in 10-14 days and then feed voraciously for about four weeks before forming chrysalises and developing into adults.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be new on Thursday. Mars and Venus are low in the west at dusk. Venus will appear near the moon Saturday night; Mars will do so on Sunday. Jupiter and Saturn rise in the east after midnight.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.