What Do Swallowtail Caterpillars Eat?

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eat various host plants, such as citruses, parsley families, custard apples, rose families, and laurels, while adults prefer nectar from different flowers.

What do swallowtail caterpillars eat: The Details

Swallowtail caterpillars are the larvae of butterflies belonging to the family Papilionidae. They have specific host plants on which they feed during their caterpillar stage. Different species of swallowtail butterflies have different host plant food sources, and these plants are essential for the caterpillars’ growth and development.

1. Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes):

  • Host Plants: Plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae) are commonly used by Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars. These include parsley, dill, fennel, and Queen Anne’s lace.

2. Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes):

  • Host Plants: Giant Swallowtail caterpillars often feed on citrus trees, such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits.

3. Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus):

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  • Host Plants: Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars primarily feed on spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum).

4. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus):

  • Host Plants: Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars have a variety of host plants, including trees like tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), black cherry (Prunus serotina), and other plants like sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).

5. Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus):

  • Host Plants: Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars often feed on plants in the pawpaw family (Annonaceae), specifically the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba).

6. Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor):

  • Host Plants: The Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar feeds on plants known as pipevines or Dutchman’s pipevines (Aristolochia species), which serve as its host plants.

7. Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon):

  • Host Plants: Sweet fennel and wild fennel are one of the primary host plants for the Anise Swallowtail caterpillar. The caterpillar might feed on other plants in the carrot family, such as parsley and dill.

Do Swallowtail Caterpillars Eat Each Other?

Swallowtail caterpillars typically do not eat each other as a regular part of their behavior.

However, there are some rare instances in which cannibalism might occur, but these instances are usually related to scarcity of food or other unusual circumstances.

What do swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eat after they turn into a butterfly?

Once swallowtail caterpillars complete their growth and enter the pupal stage, they undergo metamorphosis inside the pupa (chrysalis) and eventually emerge as butterflies. After emerging as butterflies, their diet changes significantly from what they consumed as caterpillars.

Swallowtail butterflies primarily feed on nectar from flowers. Swallowtail butterflies are known for their attraction to a wide variety of flowering plants, including:

  • dogwood
  • lilac
  • cherry
  • redbud
  • coneflowers
  • daisies
  • mints
  • sunflowers
  • milkweed
  • thistle
  • goldenrod
  • zinnias
  • marigolds
  • phlox

In addition to nectar, some swallowtail species may also feed on other sources of nutrition, such as rotting fruits or minerals found in mud or wet soil. This behavior, known as “mud-puddling,” allows butterflies to obtain essential minerals and salts.

Giant Swallowtail butterfly
Giant Swallowtail butterfly

What are the characteristics of swallowtail caterpillars?

Swallowtail caterpillars display a range of characteristics that distinguish them from other caterpillar species. While there can be variations between different species of swallowtail caterpillars, they generally share some common features.

1. Coloration and Markings:

  • Swallowtail caterpillars often have distinct coloration and markings that can vary depending on the species and instar (molt) stage.
  • Some species have vibrant colors such as green, yellow, black, and white, often with striking patterns or stripes.

2. Eye Spots:

  • Many swallowtail caterpillars have eye-like spots on their bodies. These spots can serve as a form of mimicry or defense against predators, making them appear larger and potentially deterring predators.

3. Scent Glands:

  • Some species of swallowtail caterpillars have specialized scent glands called osmeteria. The osmeterium can emit foul-smelling chemicals as a defense mechanism to deter predators.

4. Fake Antennae:

  • Some swallowtail caterpillars have structures that resemble antennae on their heads. These structures may help confuse predators by making the caterpillar appear as if it has multiple ends.

5. Molting:

  • As they grow, swallowtail caterpillars go through several molting stages (instars) where they shed their old skin and develop a new one. Each instar might have slightly different characteristics and coloration.

9. Mimicry:

  • Some swallowtail caterpillars display mimicry to resemble objects in their environment, such as bird droppings or twigs. This helps them avoid detection by predators.

How do you raise a swallowtail caterpillar?

Raising a swallowtail caterpillar involves creating a suitable environment, providing the correct host plants, and ensuring the caterpillar’s well-being throughout its growth and development.

Here are the general steps to raise a swallowtail caterpillar:

Identify the Species:

  • Identify the species of swallowtail caterpillar you have found. Different species have different host plant requirements and care needs.

Collect Caterpillar and Host Plant:

  • Carefully collect the caterpillar and a portion of its host plant. The host plant is essential for the caterpillar’s diet. Make sure the plant is healthy and free from pesticides.

Prepare an Enclosure:

  • Place the caterpillar, along with its host plant, in a suitable enclosure. You can use a mesh cage, a large container with a ventilated lid, or even a glass jar with holes for air circulation.

Provide Fresh Food:

  • Monitor the caterpillar’s food supply and replace it with fresh host plant leaves as needed. Caterpillars have hearty appetites, so be prepared to provide new leaves regularly.

Maintain the Environment:

  • Keep the enclosure in a well-lit area but avoid direct sunlight, which can cause overheating. Maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity level.

Provide Sticks or Twigs:

  • As the caterpillar grows and prepares to pupate, it will need a suitable place to attach itself. Provide sticks or twigs inside the enclosure for this purpose.


  • When the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it will attach itself to a surface and form a chrysalis (pupa). Avoid disturbing the caterpillar during this delicate stage.

Pupa Care:

  • Keep the pupa in a safe and stable environment. Avoid handling it to prevent damage.

Emerging Butterfly:

  • After a period of time, the adult butterfly will emerge from the pupa. Allow the butterfly to hang and expand its wings before releasing it.

Release the Butterfly:

  • Once the butterfly is fully ready, release it into a suitable outdoor habitat with abundant flowers for nectar.

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