Odd Looking Caterpillar Becomes Beautiful Swallowtail Butterfly

by Larry Williams  | April 14, 2020

One of the things to do while stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, is to look for caterpillars and butterflies in your landscape. I’ve noticed giant swallowtail butterflies (Papilio cresphontes) a little early this year. The giant swallowtail is one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies in our area. Its larval stage is known as the orangedog caterpillar. This unusual name comes from the fact that it feeds on young foliage of citrus trees.

Orangedog caterpillar. Photo credit: Donald Hall, University of Florida

The orangedog caterpillar is mostly brown with some white blotches, resembling bird droppings more than a caterpillar. When disturbed, it may try to scare you off by extruding two orange horns that produces a pungent odor that is hard to wash off.

I’ve had some minor feeding on citrus trees in my landscape from orangedog caterpillars. But I tolerate them. I’m not growing the citrus to sell. Sure the caterpillars eat a few leaves but my citrus trees have thousands of leaves. New leaves eventually replace the eaten ones. I leave the caterpillars alone. They eat a few leaves, develop into chrysalises and then emerge as beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies. The whole experience is a great life lesson for my two teenagers. And, we get to enjoy beautiful giant swallowtail butterflies flying around in our landscape and still get plenty of fruit from the citrus trees. It is a win, win, win.

Yellow giant swallowtail butterfly on pink garden phlox. Photo credit: Larry Williams

In some cases, the caterpillars can cause widespread defoliation of citrus. A few orangedog caterpillars can defoliate small, potted citrus trees. Where you cannot tolerate their feeding habits, remove them from the plant. But consider relocating the caterpillars to another area. In addition to citrus, the orangedog caterpillars will use the herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and rue (Ruta graveolens) as a food source. Some butterfly gardens plant citrus trees to provide food for orangedog caterpillars so that they will have giant swallowtail butterflies. So you could plan ahead and grow some fennel, rue or find a butterfly garden in your area for the purpose of relocating the larvae.

The adult butterflies feed on nectar from many flowers, including azalea, bougainvillea, Japanese honeysuckle, goldenrod, dame’s rocket, bouncing Bet and swamp milkweed. Some plants in this list might be invasive.

Keep in mind that mature citrus trees can easily withstand the loss of a few leaves. If you find and allow a few orangedog caterpillars to feed on a few leaves of a mature citrus tree in your landscape, you and your neighbors might get to enjoy the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.

More information on the giant swallowtail butterfly is available online at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in134.

Larry Williams is the Extension horticulture agent with the Okaloosa County Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida. Contact Larry at 689-5850 or email lwilliams@myokaloosa.com.

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