Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Black Swallow-Tail Butterfly

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HIS graceful butterfly is a very good friend to the flowers, being a most efficient pollen carrier. It haunts the gardens and sips nectar from all the blossom cups held out for its refreshment; and it is found throughout almost all parts of the United States. The grace of its appearance is much enhanced by the "swallow-tails," two projections from the hind margins of the hind wings. The wings are velvety black with three rows of yellow spots across them, the outer row being little crescents set in the margin of the wing; and each triplet of yellow spots is in the same cell of the wing between the same two veins. The hind wings are more elaborate, for between the two inside rows of yellow spots, there are exquisite metallic blue splashes, more vivid and more sharply outlined toward the inside of the wing and shading off to black at the outside. And just above the inner angle of the hind wing is an orange eye-spot with a black center. On the lower surface of the wings, most of the yellow spots are replaced with orange.


The eggs of the black swallow-tail butterfly, enlarged.

Photo-micrograph by M. V. Slingerland.

The mother butterfly is larger than her mate and has more blue on her wings, while he has the yellow markings of the hind wings much more conspicuous. She lays her egg, just the color of a drop of honey, on the under surface of the leaf of the food plant. After about ten days there hatches from this egg a spiny little fellow, black and angular, with a saddle-shaped, whitish blotch in the middle of its back. But it would take an elfin rider to sit in this warty, spiny saddle. The caterpillar has six spines on each segment, making six rows of spines, the whole length of the body; the spines on the black portions are black and those on the saddle white, but they all have orange-colored bases.

When little, spiny saddle-back gets ready to change its skin to one more commodious for its increased size, it seeks some convenient spot on the leaf or stem and spins a little silken carpet from the silk gland opening in its under lip; on this carpet it rests quietly for some time, and then the old tight skin splits down the back, the head portion coming off separately. Swelling out to fill its new skin to the utmost, it leaves its cast-off clothes clinging to the silken carpet and marches back to its supper.

But after one of these changes of skin it becomes a very different looking caterpillar, for now it is as smooth as it was formerly spiny; it is now brilliant caraway green, ornamented with roundwise stripes of velvety black; and set in the front margin of each of these stripes are six yellow spots. In shape, the caterpillar is larger toward the head; its true feet have little, sharp claws and look very different from the four pairs of prolegs and the hind prop-leg, all of which enable him to hold fast to the stem or the leaf; these fat legs are green, each ornamented with a black, velvety polka-dot.


Black swallow-tail caterpillars, showing two stages of growth. The larger one has the scent organs protruded.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

When we were children we spent hours poking these interesting creatures with straws to see them push forth their brilliant orange horns. We knew this was an act of resentment, but we did not realize that from these horns was exhaled the nauseating odor of caraway which greeted our nostrils. We incidentally discovered that they did not waste this odor upon each other, for once we saw two of the full-grown caterpillars meet on a caraway stem. Neither seemed to know that the other was there until they touched; then both drew back the head and butted each other like billy-goats, Whack! whack! Then both turned laboriously around and hurried off in a panic.

The scent organs of these caterpillars are really little Y-shaped pockets in the segment back of the head, pockets full of this peculiar caterpillar perfume. Under the stimulus of attack, the pocket is turned wrong side out and pushed far out making the "horns," and at the same time throwing the strong odor upon the air. This spoils the flavor of these caterpillars as bird food, so they live on in serene peace, never hiding under the leaves but trusting, like the skunk, to a peculiar power of repelling the enemy.

We must admire this caterpillar for the methodical way in which it eats the leaf: Beginning near the base, it does not burn its bridges behind it by eating through the midrib, but eats everything down to the midrib; after it arrives at the tip of the leaf it finishes midrib and all on its return journey, doing a clean job, and finishing everything as it moves along. (See Moths and Butterflies, Dickerson, p. 42.)


On the left, the chrysalis.

On the right, the caterpillar of the black swallow-tail ready to change to a chrysalis.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

When the caterpillar has completed its growth, it is two inches long; it then seeks some sheltered spot, the lower edge of a clapboard or fence rail being a favorite place; it there spins a button of silk which it grasps firmly with its hind prop-leg, and then, with head up, or perhaps horizontal, it spins a strong loop or halter of silk, fastening each end of it firmly to the object on which it rests. It thrusts its head through, so that the halter acts as a sling holding the insect from falling. There it sheds its last caterpillar skin, which shrinks back around the button, revealing the chrysalis which is angular with ear-like projections in front. Then comes the critical moment, for the chrysalis lets go of the button with its caterpillar feet, and trusting to the sling for support, pushes off the shrunken skin just shed and inserts the hooks, with which it is furnished, firmly in the button of silk. Sometimes during this process, the chrysalis loses its hold entirely and falls to the ground, which is a fatal disaster. The chrysalis is yellowish brown and usually looks very much like the object to which it is attached, and is thus undoubtedly protected from sight of possible enemies. Then some day it breaks open, and from it issues a crumpled mass of very damp insect velvet, which soon expands into a beautiful butterfly.

References—Everyday Butterflies, Scudder; Moths and Butterflies, Dickerson; How to Know the Butterflies, Comstock; Moths and Butterflies, Ballard.

Lesson LXX

The Black Swallow-Tail Butterfly

Leading thought—The caterpillars of the swallow-tail butterflies have scent organs near the head which they thrust forth when attacked, thus giving off a disagreeable odor which is nauseating to birds.

Method—In September, bring into the schoolroom and place in the terrarium, or breeding cage, a caraway or parsley plant on which these caterpillars are feeding, giving them fresh food day by day, and allow the pupils to observe them at recess and thus complete the lesson.

The Caterpillar and Chrysalis


1. Touch the caterpillar on the head with a bit of grass. What does it do? What color are the horns? Where do they come from? Are there two separate horns or two branches of one horn? What odor comes from these horns? How does this protect the caterpillar? Does the caterpillar try to hide under the leaves when feeding? Is this evidence that it is not afraid of birds?

2. Describe the caterpillar as follows: What is its shape? Is it larger toward the head or the rear end? What is its ground color? How is it striped? How many black stripes? How many yellow spots in each black stripe? Are the yellow spots in the middle, or at each edge of the stripe?

3. How do the front three pairs of legs look? How do they compare with the prolegs? How many prop-legs are there? What is the color of the prolegs? How are they marked? Describe the prop-leg. What is its use?

4. Observe the caterpillar eating a leaf. How does it manage so as not to waste any?

5. Have you found the egg from which the caterpillar came? What color is it? Where is it laid?

6. How does the young caterpillar look? What are its colors? How many fleshy spines has it on each segment? Are these white on the white segments and black on the black segments? What is the color of the spines at their base?


Black swallow-tail butterfly.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

7. Watch one of these caterpillars shed its skin. How does it prepare for this? How does it spin its carpet? Where does the silk come from? Describe how it acts when shedding its skin.

8. When a caterpillar is full grown, how does it hang itself up to change to a chrysalis? How does it make the silk button? How does it weave the loop or halter? How does it fasten it? When the halter is woven what does the caterpillar do with it? Describe how the last caterpillar skin is shed. How does the insect use its loop or halter while getting free from the molted skin?

9. Describe the chrysalis. What is its general shape? What is its color? Is it easily seen? Can you see where the wings are, within the chrysalis? How is the chrysalis supported?

10. How does the chrysalis look when the butterfly is about to emerge? Where does it break open? How does the butterfly look at first?

The Butterfly

1. Why is this butterfly called the black swallow-tail? What is the ground color of the wings? How many rows of yellow spots on the front wings? Are they all the same shape? How are they arranged between each two veins? Describe the hind wings. What colors are on them that are not on the front wings? Describe where this color is placed. Describe the eye-spot on the hind wing. Where is it? How do the markings on the lower side of the wing differ from those above? How does the ground color differ from the upper side?

2. What is the color of the body of the butterfly? Has it any marks? Has it the same number of legs as the Monarch? Describe its antennæ. Watch the butterfly getting nectar from the petunia blossom and describe the tongue. Where is the tongue when not in use?

3. How does the butterfly pass the winter? How does the mother butterfly differ in size and in markings from her mate?


"The 'caraway worms' were the ones that revealed to us the mystery of the pupa and butterfly. We saw one climb up the side of a house, and watched it as with many slow, graceful movements of the head, it wove for itself the loop of silk which we called the 'swing' and which held it in place after it changed to a chrysalis. We wondered why such a brilliant caterpillar should change to such a dull-colored object, almost the color of the clapboard against which it hung. Then, one day, we found a damp, crumpled, black butterfly hanging to the empty chrysalis skin, its wings 'all mussed' as we termed it; and we gazed at it pityingly; but even as we gazed, the crumpled wings expanded and then there came to our childish minds a dim realization of the miracle wrought within that little, dingy, empty shell."

—How to Know the Butterflies, Comstock.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Structure of Insects  |  Next: The Monarch Butterfly
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.