The Zebra longwing (Heliconius charitonius) butterflies are easy to recognize, not only by their slow, floating and sometimes mesmerizing flight, but also by their elongated wings that are all black with yellow stripes.
The slow-moving zebras are easy to photograph and observe, but when startled they can move as fast as a jet. They are usually found frolicking in the shadows of a tree’s canopy because they love the shade. When planting passion vines (passiflora), which is the Zebra’s host plant, (the plant the female butterfly uses to lay their eggs on) be sure to plant them in dappled sunlight.
Zebra longwings are found throughout Florida, and in 1996 the Governor of Florida designated them as the official state butterfly.
Zebras have several unusual habits that most other butterflies don’t have. One is that they roost at dusk in large numbers and return to the same roost night after night, after flying in all directions during the day in search of nectar and mates. This habit gives them the nickname of the “social butterfly.” This roosting at night in masses also gives them some protection against predators because they emit a foul odor in masses which repel any intruders.
Zebra longwings not only feed on nectar, but they will process some of the pollen they collect for superior nutrition. After collecting pollen on their proboscis, they will secrete enzymes that break down the pollen into amino acids before it is drawn up through the proboscis passage. This process creates an important source of nutrition for them, possibly explaining why they can live up to six months, whereas most other species of butterflies live approximately seven days, with exception of the Florida swallowtails which can live for a couple of weeks.
Male Zebra butterflies can detect a female pupa even before she emerges from the chrysalis and will gather around and wait. In some cases the male can gain entrance into the pupa and mate even before she emerges from the chrysalis. In scientific circles this is sometimes referred to as pupa rape. These guys better get a grip before they get arrested by the butterfly police!! Usually the bigger butterfly wins the mating game, just as they win other battles between butterflies. Since they have no weapons usually it’s as simple as the big guy wins.
Zebras are just one of the Florida heliconian butterflies; the other two are Julia and Gulf Fritillary. All three “longwings,” as they are called, use passion vines to lay their eggs on and to raise their young. So, more than one passion vine may be necessary to accommodate these three butterflies. My theory is the more the merrier. You can never have too many host plants.
Some of the longwing’s favorite nectar plants are red pentas, porterweed and jatropha, just to name a few.
The caterpillar is pure white with black spines which are supposed to help ward off predators. Actually, they are soft hairs and harmless.
Their eggs are yellow and are usually laid on the new growth of the host plant which is true of most butterflies but they will lay them anywhere on the host plant. I have actually seen butterflies lay eggs on the pots themselves that their host plants are planted in. In butterfly gardening there is always room for surprise. The pupa resembles an upside down rabbit and in the center there are four gold window panes; if disturbed, it will wiggle around in place like a Mexican jumping bean. Some of us as kids played with Mexican jumping beans. Who knew they were just the pupa of a common moth? When you disturb them they move around in the chrysalis. We just thought it was magic.
The entire process from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly takes about five to seven days each cycle. This will slightly differ with cooler temperatures.
Enjoy this butterfly season. Considering their numbers already, this should be a banner year for our “flying- flowers.”
Mike Malloy, local author and artist known as “The Butterfly Man” has been a Naples resident since 1991, moving from the New York, New Jersey area. At that time he started a landscaping and lawn service business and after almost forty years totally in that line of work, he decided to sell his business and concentrate on his passion: “bringing butterflies back to Naples.” He has since written two books entitled “Butterfly Gardening Made Easy for Southwest Florida,” and “Tropical Color – A Guide to Colorful Plants for the Southwest Florida Garden”, and currently writes articles on various gardening topics for several local publications. Mike has planted, designed and maintained numerous butterfly gardens around Naples including many Collier County schools, the City of Naples, Rookery Bay, the Conservancy and Big Cypress National Preserve and is a familiar face at the Third Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and on Thursdays at the Naples Botanical Garden where he does a Plant Clinic. Mike also does butterfly art and has a website, naplesbutterfly.co