Black Swallowtail

Papilio polyxenes

Last updated: January 21, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© IrinaK/Shutterstock.com

The Black swallowtail is the state butterfly of New Jersey and Oklahoma.

Black Swallowtail Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Arthropoda
Class
Insecta
Order
Lepidoptera
Family
Papilionidae
Genus
Papilio
Scientific Name
Papilio polyxenes

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Black Swallowtail Locations

Black Swallowtail Locations

Black Swallowtail Facts

Prey
flower nectar
Main Prey
Nectar from thistles, Joe Pye weed, and milkweed
Name Of Young
Larvae, pupa
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
  • Solitary except during mating season
Fun Fact
The Black swallowtail is the state butterfly of New Jersey and Oklahoma.
Estimated Population Size
Undetermined
Biggest Threat
habitat loss, climate change
Most Distinctive Feature
blue and yellow splashes of color on wind and tail edges
Distinctive Feature
large size
Other Name(s)
Eastern black swallowtail; parsnip swallowtail
Gestation Period
eggs hatch in 3-5 days
Temperament
docile, except in mating season.
Wingspan
2.5- 3.5 inches
Training
N/A
Optimum pH Level
N/A
Incubation Period
eggs hatch in 3-5 days
Age Of Independence
birth
Age Of Fledgling
N/A
Average Spawn Size
200-400 eggs per clutch
Litter Size
200-400
Habitat
open fields and garden near a water source
Predators
birds, snakes, lizards
Diet
Herbivore
Average Litter Size
300
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Favorite Food
flower nectar
Type
Papilionidae
Common Name
black swallowtail
Special Features
The black swallowtail has developed a chemical defense mechanism, the osmeterium, to deter predators from eating their larvae.
Origin
undetermined
Location
North America
Average Clutch Size
300
Slogan
N/A
Group
Insecta
Nesting Location
N/A
Age of Molting
N/A
Migratory
1

Black Swallowtail Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • Blue
  • Black
  • Orange
Skin Type
Exoskeleton
Lifespan
1-4 weeks
Weight
less tha 1 ounce
Height
0.25-0.5 inches
Length
1-2 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
1 week
Age of Weaning
N/A
Venomous
No
Aggression
Low

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The black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) also known as the Eastern black swallowtail is a species of butterfly that can be found in various regions of North America. They have black wings with yellow spots and a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.5 inches. The females also have a blue or blue-green spot on the hindwings. Black swallowtail butterflies feed on a variety of plants, including thistle flowers, milkweed, and clover. They are also known for their strong, fast flight and their distinctive, fluttering flight pattern. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about black swallowtail butterflies!

A black swallowtail butterfly is visible center frame facing left. The butterfly is feeding on an orange Xenia which is in the left part of the frame. The butterfly is primarily black with splotches of orange blue and white on its tail and the edges of its wings. The background is out of focus green.
Black swallowtail butterflies feed on a variety of plants, including thistle flowers, milkweed, and clover.

©sclements/Shutterstock.com

Five Fantastic Black Swallowtail Facts

  • Black swallowtails have scent glands, osmeterium, that release a repugnant odor when the butterflies feel threatened or sense danger.
  • The black swallowtail is the State butterfly of New Jersey and Oklahoma
  • The scientific name for the black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, is derived from an ancient Greek princess, Polyxena.
  • The black swallowtail butterfly has a symbiotic relationship with ants, that will protect the butterfly’s caterpillars from other ants in exchange for a sugary secretion produced by the caterpillars.
  • The black swallowtail butterfly is also known to be able to mimic other butterfly species such as the pipevine swallowtail and the spicebush swallowtail.
black swallowtail is visible taking flight in the left part of the frame against a black background. Below the Butterfly Orange Cosmos (flowers) are visible.
The black swallowtail is the State butterfly of New Jersey and Oklahoma

©KathereneS/Shutterstock.com

Black Swallowtail: Scientific Name

Papilio is the Latin word for butterfly. The Greek word poly translates to very, while xena means guest or stranger. The scientific name Papilio polyxenes is derived from the name of the daughter of King Priam, Polyxena. King Priam was the last king of Troy, according to Greek mythology. He had many other children besides Polyxena, including Cassandra, Paris, and Hector, who are also heroes in Greek mythology. Polyxena’s life was cut short. She was sacrificed to appease the ghost of Achilles.

Appearance and Behavior

Appearance

Black swallowtail butterflies, also known as Eastern black swallowtails or parsnip swallowtails, are known for their distinctive black and yellow coloration. The upper side of the wings are black, with yellow spots on the forewings. Females have a row of blue spots on the hindwings. The blue markings are smaller and less evident in males. The underside of the wings is mottled brown and gray with yellow and blue spots. The body is black with yellow spots

Verbena canadensis
Female black swallowtails have a row of blue spots on the hindwings.

©Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com


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Black swallowtails are found throughout much of the Eastern United States and Canada. They are known for their strong, swift flight. With wingspans of 2.75 to 3.75 inches, they are considered to be large. Female black swallowtails tend to be larger than males. Black swallowtails are most active during the day and can be seen flying around in search of nectar.

Behavior

They are also known to be strong fliers and are able to fly long distances in search of food and mating partners. They are most commonly seen feeding on flowers in open fields and gardens. generally, docile animals. Males can become quite aggressive when defending their territory. Prior to migrating or mating, males will puddle. Puddling involves male swallowtails gathering in bogs or puddles to absorb sodium, which increases neuromuscular activity. The extra sodium gives the butterflies the requisite energy to migrate or mate.

Texas Thistle
Black swallowtails are most active during the day and can be seen flying around in search of nectar.

©iStock.com/wayne stockburger

Males also participate in an activity known as hill-topping. In hill-topping, the males will fly to the highest point in their territory in search of a mate. Research suggests that this gives them an excellent vantage point for being seen by potential mates, as well as being able to see potential mates.

Black swallowtail butterflies are equipped with specialized scent glands called osmeterium that secrete a disagreeable odor when the butterfly feels threatened or senses danger. The scent is so repugnant that it deters the would-be predator.

Black Swallowtail: Evolution

The species has a long history and has undergone various changes throughout its evolution. Over time, the black swallowtail has evolved to adapt to different environments and changes in its food sources. For example, the species has developed a chemical defense mechanism, the osmeterium, to deter predators from eating their larvae. Puddling and hill-topping, discussed above, are adapted behaviors that have allowed the species to survive.

Their larval (caterpillar) form has a symbiotic relationship with common black garden ants, in which the common ants will provide a distraction that deters predators, mostly larger and more dangerous ants. Over time the larva has developed a dorsal nectary organ to produce sugars and amino acids off of which the ants feed. The black swallowtail is a resilient species that has adapted to a wide range of environments and changes in its food sources throughout its evolution.

A black swallowtail, position with its back to the camera is visible feeding from a zinnia. The zinnia is mottled yellow and red. To the left of the zinnia from which the butterfly is feeding is an orange zinnia. The butterfly is mostly black, though its wings have splotches of light-yellow and light blue other edges.Green background of leaves.
A Black Swallowtail Butterfly feeding on Zinnia flowers in the garden.

©Melody Mellinger/Shutterstock.com

Habitat

The swallowtail’s range extends from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico. They are commonly found in the eastern United States and Canada, but can also be found as far west as the Great Plains and as far south as Florida and Texas, and Northern Mexico. These beautiful butterflies are found in a variety of habitats including woodlands, meadows, fields, and gardens. They prefer areas with a mix of open spaces and shaded areas and are often found near wetlands or other bodies of water. Females lay their eggs on plants in the Apiaceae family, such as dill, fennel, and parsley.

A black swallowtail butterfly is visible in the center frame feeding on a lavender-colored thistle flower. A black-and-yellow striped bumblebee is feeding on thistle flower, directly below the butterfly. The background is out of focus greenery.
Thistle (pictured),
clover, and milkweed, are among black swallowtails’ preferred sources of nectar.

©Walt Bilous/Shutterstock.com

Black Swallowtail: Diet

Black Swallowtail butterflies feed on the nectar from a variety of flowers. They have a preference for flowers with a wide landing platform, such as thistles and Joe Pye weed. Thistle, clover, and milkweed are among their preferred necatar sources. The nectar from the flowers provides the butterfly with the energy it needs to fly and search for a mate or more be tar. The butterfly’s proboscis allows it to reach deep into flowers to extract nectar. a proboscis is a long, slender hollow tongue-like mouth appendage through which the butterfly ingests the nectar.

Close up of Joe Pye weed in flower, with clusters bright pink flowers atop straight dark red to brown stalks amid green foliage , an out of focus weathered wooden fence in the background.
Joe Pye weed is favored by balck swallowtail butterflies for its wide landing platform.

©Andrey_Nikitin/Shutterstock.com

Predators and Threats

Black swallowtails have several predators, including birds, lizards, and spiders. Some common bird predators include the Eastern Bluebird, Baltimore Oriole, and the American Goldfinch. Additionally, their larvae (caterpillars) are also preyed upon by ladybugs, green lacewings, and other beneficial insects. Black swallowtails face a variety of threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change.

a goldfinches lower frame right, looking left, perched on a small branch. The bird is yellow, with black andd gray wings. The top of the bird's head is black and its beak is orange, Indistinct light green background. T
The American Goldfinch will eat a black swallowtail butterfly, given the chnace.

©Rabbitti/Shutterstock.com

Habitat Loss


Habitat loss is a major threat to black swallowtails as it reduces the availability of host plants and nectar sources. Urbanization, agriculture, and development can all lead to the destruction of natural habitats, including meadows, prairies, and wetlands. These habitats are particularly important for the butterflies during their breeding and migration seasons.
Pesticide use can also have a significant impact on black swallowtail populations, as the chemicals can kill both the adults and their larvae. Pesticides also reduce the availability of nectar sources, making it more difficult for adults to find food

Photograph of a mountain top that has been destroyed by logging. Brownish red dirt is visible where all of the trees have been clear-cut. Many tree trunks are seen in the center frame. The destroyed mountaintop is dimmed with live, green trees. In the background are mountain tops that have not been destroyed.
Habitat loss is a major threat to black swallowtails as it reduces the availability of host plants and nectar sources.

©Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

Climate Change

Climate change may also affect these lovely butterflies as it can alter their migration patterns and breeding cycles. Changes in temperature and precipitation affect the timing of plant growth and blooming, which can make it harder for the butterflies to find the host plants on which to lay their eggs.

Non-Native Plants

The abundance of non-native plant species in gardens and landscaping reduces the availability of host plants which are necessary for their larvae to survive.
For example, the black swallowtail caterpillar feeds on plants from the Apiaceae family, such as dill, fennel, and parsley, and if these plants are not available the caterpillars will have nothing to eat. Additionally, the use of non-native plant species in gardens and landscaping can reduce the availability of their host plants, which are necessary for their larvae to survive.

The chrysalis of a black swallowtail is visible center frame attached to a green stem by white threadlike material. The chrysalis is primarily green and looks similar to a puffed up leaf. Shot against a green background.
After the caterpillar has completed its growth, it will form a chrysalis by attaching itself to a twig or other solid surface.

©Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

Lifecycle

The lifecycle of a black swallowtail is comprised of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). Females lay their eggs on the leaves of plants in the parsley family, such as dill, fennel, and parsley. The eggs are small, round, and green in color.
After about 4-5 days, the eggs hatch into small black and yellow striped caterpillars. The caterpillars will feed on the leaves of the host plant for 2-3 weeks, growing larger and stronger. During this time the caterpillar will molt, shedding its skin multiple times.
After the caterpillar has completed its growth, it will form a chrysalis by attaching itself to a twig or other solid surface. The chrysalis is green or brown in color and is usually well-camouflaged among the leaves of the host plant. Inside the chrysalis, the pupa undergoes a complete metamorphosis, transforming into a butterfly. After 10-14 days, the metamorphosis is complete, and the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. The butterfly is black and has distinctive blue, orange, and yellow markings on its wings. The adult butterfly will feed on nectar from flowers and then mate and lay eggs, starting the cycle again. The adult black swallowtail butterfly will live for about 2-3 weeks.

The molting larva of a black swallowtail butterfly is visible center frame on a green leaf. It is mostly brown and light is yellow green as it is shedding its skin
Black swallowtail caterpillars will molt, shedding their skin multiple times.

©Chen Liang-Dao/Shutterstock.com

Conservation Status

The black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) is classified as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, butterfly populations fluctuate annually. Although the black swallowtail is not presently considered at risk of extinction, continued loss of habitat and climate change are factors affecting their population and could very well lead to their extinction if these factors are not addressed.

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About the Author

Hi! I'm Kat, and my favorite animals are river otters and goldfinches. Baking, gardening, and sewing are my favorite pastimes. I live with two people and two dogs.

Black Swallowtail FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What do black swallowtails eat?

Black swallowtails feed on the nectar from a variety of flowering plants, including thistles and milkweed. They extract the nectar through the proboscis, a long, hollow tongue-like tube.

Where do black swallowtails live?

Black swallowtails are native to North America, from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico.

Are black swallowtail butterflies considered an endangered species?

No, black swallowtails are not considered endangered. They are a species of least concern at present. However, habitat loss and climate change will eventually affect their populations if these factors are not addressed.

How long do black swallowtails live?

Blacswallowtails have relatively long lifespans compared to other types of butterflies, owing to the temperate climates in which they are found. From the egg stage through metamorphosis takes about 3-4 weeks. Once the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, it will live for 1-4 weeks.

What is the black swallowtails habitat?

Black swallowtail butterflies live in open fields and gardens. They prefer an environment that has sun and shade near a water source.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. ufl.edu, Available here: https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/bfly2/eastern_black_swallowtail.htm
  2. inaturalist.org, Available here: https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/58523-Papilio-polyxenes
  3. wikipedia.org, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papilio_polyxenes

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