“Look,” I said to my husband, touching his arm and pointing, “there’s a tiger swallowtail.” Our dogs perked up, scanning the mountain for critters – and our plates. The butterfly danced over our heads, dodging and flitting as we ate supper on the deck again last week.
“Yes, I see him,” Keith said.
“Seems early, don’t you think?”
Later, after some research, I learned that this fellow had hibernated over winter and became an adult, right on time: February through November for tiger swallowtails in the south and here starting in March. I also learned that this butterfly was indeed a fellow, a lone male. Females have more blue spots on their tails and are dimorphic, that is, they can be yellow morph like males or dark – black.
What was this fellow going to eat so early in the season, I wondered. Swallowtails prefer nectar from red or pink flowers, maybe from our neighbors’ weeping willow currently blooming. But they also extract nutrients from puddles, carrion, dung and urine. Unlike our dogs, this insect was not looking for our leftovers but perhaps their leavings.
If this male tiger swallowtail mates with a female, she will lay eggs on a likely host, such as our tulip poplars now budding. Eggs hatch within days and resulting larva – caterpillars – feast on the host’s leaves. Then the caterpillars pupate, entering the chrysalis stage for a week and a half before becoming adult butterflies.
In this area, tiger swallowtails produce two or three generations within a season. But their life span is short. Spring and summer might seem to last forever, but fall and winter come, right on time.
Last month, my writing teacher Sharon Harrigan recommended this quote from an online newsletter called Advice to Writers, about writing from writers. The post was from American writer and poet Sarah Manguso:
“The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”
I no longer produce eggs to be fertilized and hatched into caterpillar childhoods and chrysalises bursting with adolescence and adulthood. My wings are a bit tattered, my colors muted. But I can still encourage others.
“Be safe, tiger swallowtail, and don’t despair,” I whispered to the butterfly as he found evening sanctuary among the leaf litter in one of our pots. “Choose life.”