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Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), a Comprehensive Guide in 7 Sections

The black swallowtail is found in the tri-county area around Titusville, Pennsylvania and throughout Pennsylvania. In North America it is found east of the Rocky Mountains.

Associated Plants

These butterflies select their host plants based on the odor they put out.

Common rue (Ruta graveolens) in a garden.
Common Rue (Ruta graveolens) — photo credit: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Host Plants

  • Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)
  • Common Rue (Ruta graveolens)
  • Water hemlock (Cicuta maculata)
  • Herbwilliam (Ptilimnium capillaceum)
  • Canby’s cowbane (Tiedemannia canbyi)
Pinkish-white flowers of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).
Flowers of Showy Milkweed — Asclepias speciosa Torr. observed in Canada by markeambard (licensed under CC0 1.0)

Nectar Plants

  • Phlox (Phlox sp.)
  • Milkweed (Asclepias
  • Clover (Trifolium sp.)
  • Thistle (Cirsium sp.)

Range and Habitat

Black swallowtail butterflies are found in the tri-county region around Titusville, Pa, throughout Pennsylvania, and east of the Rocky Mountains.

Meadow habitat in Europe.
Meadow Habitat — Leonhard Lenz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Habitat

These butterflies are found in open areas such as gardens, fields, dunes, farmland, meadows, open riverbanks, and seldom are located in woodlands.

Life Cycle

Black swallowtail caterpillar on a leaf.
Caterpillar of Black Swallowtail — NCBioTeacher, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Larva/Caterpillar

The caterpillar grows to 2″ and varies from white to leaf green with black stripes and red or orange coloring. Two broods can be produced in a year depending on the location.

Black swallowtail butterfly on purple coneflower.
Black Swallowtail Butterfly — Ltshears, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Adult

The adult butterflies grow to 7 to 9 cm in size and can have a wingspan of around 11 cm. The females of the species resemble the Pipevine Swallowtail in order to have protection from predators, since the Pipevine Swallowtail is poisonous to predators. This is called Batesian mimicry. It can have 2-3 broods a year, depending on the location.

Interesting Facts about Black Swallowtails

  • This is the state butterfly of Oklahoma and New Jersey.
  • The species name, polyxene, is for the youngest daughter of King Priam of Troy.

Monroe, James L. and David M. Wright. 2017. Butterflies of Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press. 304 pp.

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies. Chanticleer Press. 924 pp.

Papilio polyxenes. 2021-12-30. In Wikipedia.

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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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