There are over 600 kinds of Swallowtail butterflies around the world, with only about 30 living in North America. Here’s how you can differentiate the ones that visit your garden.
Groups of swallowtail butterflies
Swallowtail butterflies are known for the tails on their hind wings. There are several butterfly family groups and over 600 subspecies globally, with about 30 living in North America. They are divided into 4 general groups:
- Black swallowtail
- Giant swallowtail
- Pipevine swallowtail
- Tiger swallowtail
What is a Swallowtail Butterfly?
Swallowtail butterflies belong to the Papilionidae superfamily (Papilionidae Latreille family). They’re large, brightly colored, with tails on their hind wings (with the exceptions of Indra and Polydamus). These tails are their main characteristic. This family has over 600 species globally, and many people love them.
Some species of Swallowtails are black and share similar yellow, blue, and orange patterns. This makes the identification difficult, and people often mix some of the most common Swallowtail butterflies.
Average life cycle stages and description
|Egg stage||eggs are often dome-shaped, this stage lasts 3 to 5 days|
|Caterpillar (larval) stage||starts smooth, often resembling bird droppings, and may change colors later; the stage lasts 3 to 4 weeks, depending on the species|
|Chrysalis (pupa) stage||different for each subspecies, and lasts up to 20 days|
|Adult butterfly stage||colors, wingspans, and shape depend on the subspecies, and may live up to 2 weeks|
1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is frequent around wooded areas and hosts on trees. However, they’ll love a flower garden as well. In some areas, females are black with barely visible tiger stripes.
Their usual colors are black, yellow, and a bit of blue near the tail. This species is a native North American butterfly. These butterflies are diurnal and solitary. Adults fly high above the ground. Some subspecies are:
- Canadian tiger swallowtail
- Western tiger swallowtail
- Pale swallowtail
- Appalachian tiger swallowtail
2. Canadian Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
The Canadian tiger swallowtail is a bit smaller than the Eastern tiger swallowtail. It has broad black stripes with yellow spots that merge into bands. Black females are extremely rare. Its wingspan is 2 5/8 to 3 1/8 inches. They’re found in North America:
- Central Alaska
- Parts of Canada
- Northern Great Lakes states
- Northern New England
3. Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
The Western tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio rutulus) is a common butterfly with yellow and black stripes. The appearance is similar to the Eastern king, but you can distinguish the Western by location. They’re often seen in meadows, woodland edges, streams, and suburban gardens. The area where you will see the Western tiger includes the Western US and southern parts of British Columbia.
Its wingspan is 2 3/4 to 4 inches. The Western tiger likes various host plants and trees, such as:
4. Pale Swallowtail Butterfly
The Pale swallowtail subspecies has a creamy white back with black stripes, often looking whitish in bright light. Their front wings are narrow and pointed, with a total wingspan of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches. Their favorite habitat is near foothills, open woodlands, chaparral, and streams. Pale’s range includes British Columbia, parts of Montana, New Mexico, and Baja California.
5. Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
The Appalachian tigers are slightly bigger than the Eastern kind. Their wings are also angular, and their vertical stripes are narrower. The wingspan is 3 3/8 to 4 1/2 inches. Their habitat is around deciduous broadleaf forests in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The range of this species includes Southern Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania to Georgia and westward to northeast Alabama.
6. Eastern Black Swallowtail
The Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius, order Lepidoptera, family Papilionidae) is among the most commonly studied Swallowtail butterflies. On the other hand, it’s sometimes considered a pest. Its upper wing surface is mostly black. Males have a yellow band at the edge of their wings, while females have a row of yellow spots and an iridescent blue band. Their wingspan ranges from 3 1/4 to 4 1/4 inches.
Their habitat includes open areas, such as fields, deserts, marshes, and roadsides. You may notice see this butterfly if you live in the Eastern US, Colorado, California, and Canada, specifically in northern parts of Quebec and Saskatchewan.
7. Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly
Pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) has the upper surface of wings colored in iridescent blue or blue-green. On the underside, there’s a row of 7 round orange spots in an iridescent blue area. Their wingspan is 2 3/4 to 5 inches. This butterfly hosts on pipevines (Aristolochia sp), where it got its name from.
This kind prefers open habitats, woodland, and woodland edges. Its range includes tropical lowlands and southern Mexico. They’re rare visitors in Canada, but present in the eastern US. The caterpillars of pipevine swallowtails are quite fast.
8. Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly
Spicebush swallowtails have mostly black wings with ivory spots, with a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches. They look like black swallowtails, and their ranges often overlap. Here’s how to differentiate them — black swallowtails have a tiny black dot in the orange circle of their lower wing, while Spicebush doesn’t.
Their habitat is around deciduous fields, woodlands, roadsides, yards, wooded swamps, and parks. They’re usually located in southern Canada. In the US, they live in Florida, Oklahoma, and central Texas. As its name says, it will live on spicebush, red bay, camphor, and tulip tree. Its caterpillars have large eyespots to scare off predators.
9. Giant Swallowtail Butterfly
This is the largest swallowtail butterfly in the US. Its wingspan is 4 to 6 1/4 inches. Giant swallowtails have a diagonal band of yellow spots, which merge with yellow spots on the tails, making a triangle when the wings are fully open. Furthermore, their topside is dark while their undersides are bright, which helps them camouflage in nature.
This kind lays eggs in citrus trees, and their caterpillars look like fresh bird droppings. Their habitat is near rocky and sandy hillsides, streams, and citrus groves. If you live around eastern North America, the Rocky Mountains, and Southwest to South America, Giants might be a common guest in your garden.
10. Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly
The Zebra swallowtail is likely the prettiest of all swallowtails. You will recognize it by along tails on hind wings. Zebras have black stripes on a pale, whitish background. Some may have reddish spots near the end of their bodies. Their wingspan is 2 1/2 to 4 inches.
Zebra swallowtails fly around the eastern area of the US and South Texas, yet they’re among the rarest kind of swallowtails. It’s mostly found around its host plant, pawpaw. This kind breeds in moist low woodlands around swamps and rivers.
11. Palamedes Swallowtail Butterfly
Palamedes swallowtail is large and mostly black, with a wingspan of 4 1/2 to 5 1/8 inches. The lower surface of their hind wings has a yellow stripe and a postmedian band of yellow-orange crescents. This kind is similar to spicebush and black swallowtails with slightly different wing patterns.
Its favorite habitat includes moist wooded areas, swamps, and around palmetto trees. If you live around the Gulf coast — Texas, Florida, and the Atlantic coast (Carolinas), you will likely see this kind around.
12. Anise Swallowtail Butterfly
Anise swallowtail has a wingspan of 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 inches. The upper surface of their wings has a yellow-orange spot near their tails. Both sexes have yellow wings, and their early stages are similar. This kind looks like a common Black swallowtail butterfly. Their caterpillars feed on fennel anise and are easy to raise.
This species likes mountains, gardens, fields, vacant lots, and roadsides. It’s common around British Columbia, southeastern areas of North Dakota, southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Baja California. Some may stray towards central Nebraska and eastern North Dakota.
13. Two-Tailed Swallowtail Butterfly
The Two-tailed swallowtail has a wingspan of 3 1/2 to 5 inches, and each of its hindwings has two tails, therefore the name. When it comes to color, the upper sides of the wings are packed with narrow black stripes on yellow background.
Two-tailed butterflies like slopes, canyons, moist valleys, streams, woodlands, suburbs, and cities. They’re usually located around Western North America in the following areas:
- Southern British Columbia
- Central Nebraska
14. Old World Swallowtail Butterfly
The Old world is known as the Common swallowtail since its range includes Europe, North Africa, Asia, and North America. Its wingspan is 2 1/2 to 3 inches, with the upper side of the hind wing with orange eyespots. In the US, it’s found west of the high plains in mountain meadows.
The Old world swallowtail caterpillar looks like a bird dropping, which camouflages and defends it from predators. Overall, this butterfly is similar to Anise and Indra swallowtail.
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Mileva is a friendly butterfly and nature lover. She enjoys spending time outdoors and getting to know different types of insects, animals and plants. She’s always curious and learning new things, and she shares her love of nature on Butterfly Hobbyist.