A garden is the best alternative therapy.

Giant Swallowtail on trailing lantana

I wrote a few days ago about the butterfly “that got away” – after seeing what I thought was the largest Tiger Swallowtail I’d ever seen in the garden.  Now I’m pretty sure that I was mistaken.  It wasn’t a Tiger Swallowtail at all!

The Giant Swallowtail is cousin to the commonly seen Eastern Black and Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.  It is also the largest species of butterfly in North America.  Adult wingspan ranges from four inches to nearly six and a half inches across, with an average of about five and a half inches.   Like its cousins, the Giant is brightly colored and has a whimsical hop to its flight.  They are quite a fascinating species to watch as they move through the garden!

At first glance, I thought the Giant was a Tiger Swallowtail because of the main colors displayed.  There is a big difference, though.  The Giant is mostly black with a solid yellow band running diagonally from the tip of the fore wing across the thorax and across again to the tip of the other fore wing.  In addition, there is another solid yellow band that runs from the middle of the tip of the fore wing perpendicularly across the fore wing band and then down diagonally along the border of the hind wings.  The Giant’s tail is solid black, with a yellow “eye” in the middle.    In contrast, the Tiger Swallowtail is mostly yellow with black stripes running perpendicularly across the fore wings, resembling tiger stripes.    The hind wings on the Giant are also much larger than the Tiger.

As far as range of flight, Giant Swallowtails are very common throughout the deep south and southwest.   Their range continues up from New Mexico, east of the Rockies through the midwest states.  They are also common throughout Florida and along the eastern coastal states all the way up to Vermont.  In northern climates, their flight is from May through August, and here in Central Texas, they can be seen into the middle of October.

Female Giants lay their eggs one at a time on twigs and leaves of their host plants, which include those of the citrus family, rue, prickly ash and hop tree.   This is why Giant Swallowtail butterflies are also known as “orange dogs” and “orange puppies” because, in its larva form, it can be destructive to plants of the citrus family (1).  As caterpillars, the Giant starts out looking like bird droppings, then develops into a brown snake-like worm with a false head and eye. If these defenses fail, like other swallowtail, they possess osmeterium, which poke out like orange antenna and emit a foul odor.

Adult Giants nectar on flowers of the milkweed family, japanese honeysuckle, goldenrod, lantana, bougainvillea and azaleas (2).

Did you know??

There are over 500 species of swallowtail butterflies in the world?

It takes about a month for a swallowtail butterfly to complete it’s journey from an egg to an adult.   They move through four phases of development:  egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa and butterfly.


Comments on: "Beneficial Insect Files: Giant Swallowtail Butterfly" (11)

  1. Thanks for the lesson on Giant Swallowtails. I hope it will help me in identifying some in my garden. As always, your photos are great–and what a gorgeous subject you had to work with!

    • roundrockgarden said:

      You get the lesson as I do the research. I’m just fascinated by all of the insects in my yard, I just have to look them up! 🙂 And thanks, she was a beauty, wasn’t she?

  2. wellcraftedtoo said:

    How pretty!

    Thought at first I also had a ‘giant’ in my back yard, but decided, after checking my field guide, that is was a more typical (for northern Illinois) Tiger Swallowtail.

    This has been a super season for plant growth (hot, humid, rainy) as well as birds, insects, and butterflies!

    My pix are at http://pamelanmartin.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/and-you-thought-you-were-pretty/.

    Thanks for the info.

    • roundrockgarden said:

      Haha! That’s funny because I was the opposite. I saw a giant and thought it was a tiger! The one you captured was lovely!

  3. Yet another fabulous post. I get confused on the swallowtails, too, and always have to look them up.

    Great info & incredible pictures!

  4. The Giants, if I’m not mistaken, have largely horizontal markings (going across their wings, if that makes sense). The Tigers have black bands that are largely vertical. Tigers also have, I think, more blue and orange markings and spots at the bottoms of their wings than do the Giants. Actually, I’m not even sure if Giants fly through our area (northern Illinois); got to recheck that!

    • roundrockgarden said:

      yeah, that makes sense – and what i was trying to explain! 😉 i can’t get enough of the swallowtails! thanks for your comment, pamela!

  5. I am always thrilled to see butterflies in my garden. All too often I have no idea what kind they are. This post has fantastic photos and great information. Thanks!

    • roundrockgarden said:

      thank you, deb! butterflies are wonderful creatures, i will literally stop what i’m doing in the garden to watch them (or photograph them if i can!). if you would have asked me a year ago what sort of butterflies these are i wouldn’t have had a clue! it’s only when i see them that i go running to google for the answers! luckily, there are many people out there doing the same, so it’s relatively easy to find pics and compare.

  6. […] reading all of the other garden blogs, I assumed that this was probably pretty easy.  (Check out this blog, or this one.)  Unfortunately, there is a small problem.  Every time I get close to them, they […]

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