Earlier this summer I watched a pair of Black Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) flutter madly around each other. This species seems to be Camp Salmen’s most numerous and arguably, its prettiest butterfly. They fly with big, floppy wings that seem ungainly but they appear to navigate with great aeronautic skill because they seem to be able to go straight to where they want to go
I couldn’t tell if the two were mating or fighting. It seems the species is pretty much preoccupied with defending territory or getting hooked up with the opposite sex. As they flitted and bumped into each other I imagined they were either doing a delicate, poetic aerial ballet set to romantic violin music, or they were just fighting like a pair of sissies. It turns out it should have been pretty easy to tell since the boys have gold dots on the top and bottom of their wings and the girls have beautiful blue hues on theirs.
Now the summer is waning and I’m amazed they’re still around. An insect this big, black and slow, lazily gliding around open fields, ought to be an easy target for hungry insectivores on the wing. In their previous larval version they were a gaudy green, white, yellow and black striped caterpillar that looked like it came out of Alice in Wonderland. These make themselves unpalatable by eating things that make them taste toxic. Though the adult butterfly does not do this and is, indeed, edible, predators still avoid them. They accomplish this by simply mimicking the appearance of another big, black butterfly, the Pipevine Swallowtail that is toxic. Apparently, potential predators elect to take no chances and leave both bugs alone.
Being endowed with the classic, coiled up butterfly proboscis, the Black Swallowtail feeds on nectar all summer long by unrolling and jabbing this appendage into flowers to get the sugar rush it needs for all that fluttering around. It is during this act that it performs the double duty of inadvertently spreading pollen from flower to flower, and doing plants a huge favor since they can’t easily do this for themselves because they have no wings and don’t get around like the butterfly does.