Bartram's sabatia (Sabatia bartramii)

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Milkweed is critical food for Monarch larva. Photo by John Flannery

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Zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) by Ryan Fessenden

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Zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) by Ryan Fessenden
Zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) by Ryan Fessenden

Zebra longwings

by Jonnie Dietz, Florida Museum of Natural History

"Know your native pollinators" is a series of articles that will help you identify and appreciate Florida's varied pollinators, including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, birds and bats.

Zebra longwings are found throughout the state, but this common Florida butterfly is anything but ordinary!

CLASSIFICATION

Family: Nymphalidae (Brush-footed butterflies)
Species: Heliconius charithonia

HOST PLANTS

Purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) by Stacey Matrazzo
Purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) by Stacey Matrazzo

FORAGING PREFERENCES

Butterflies will nectar on a variety of flowers. They prefer long, tubular flowers like Firebush (Hamelia patens) and Tropical sage (Salvia coccinea) as well as composites such as Spanish needles (Bidens alba) that allow them to land and rest while feeding. They are also especially fond of flowers in the Verbena family, including Mock vervain (Glandularia spp.), and Blue porterweed (Stachytapheta jamaicensis).

Firebush (Hamelia patens) by Mary Keim
Firebush (Hamelia patens) by Mary Keim

DID YOU KNOW? The Zebra longwing is Florida’s official state butterfly!

ABOUT

Zebra longwings are found throughout the state and are a common garden visitor. Their elongated wings make them easy to distinguish from other Florida natives, but their unique attributes don’t stop there. Here are a few more qualities that make Zebra longwings really stand out:

Life span
Most adult butterflies live an average of 2–4 weeks, but longwings have a special trick that extends their lives by several months! While feeding on nectar, a longwing collects globs of sticky pollen on its proboscis. After enough pollen is collected, the butterfly will regurgitate digestive enzymes onto the pollen mass, breaking it down into a digestible, protein-rich supplement. This “pollen milkshake” contributes to the butterfly’s longevity, and aids in the production of eggs or sperm.


Can you see the yellow pollen on this butterfly’s proboscis? (She’s also laying an egg!) Photo by Adam Skowronski

Mating
Zebra longwing chrysalides resemble a dead leaf and are not easy to spot… unless you’re a male longwing looking for love. Females play hard to get while transforming inside their chrysalis, but their pupae have a distinct scent that adult males are able to distinguish from the developing males. Once the male locates a chrysalis, he will repeatedly visit and perch on top of it, anxiously awaiting the female’s arrival. By the time she finally emerges, multiple males may have gathered on her chrysalis. After mating, the male applies a chemical to the female, which acts as a repellent to other interested suitors.


These butterflies are mating on the female’s empty chrysalis. Photo by Jonnie Dietz

Roosting
At night, Zebra longwings frequently roost together in groups. Up to 60 individuals may perch together on a branch, and they often return to the same place each evening.

Roosting_Hisgett

Zebra longwings roosting together for the night. Photo by Tony Hisgett

LIFE CYCLE

Eggs
Females lay small yellow eggs singly or in groups on the leaves and tendrils of their hostplants (Passiflora spp.).

Caterpillars
Caterpillars are white with black dots and soft, black spikes. Their coloration signals that they contain distasteful chemicals, warning predators against eating them. Zebra longwing caterpillars will molt (shed their skin) five times before they pupate. Although unpalatable to their predators, Zebra longwing caterpillars are harmless to humans.

Zebra longwing caterpillar by Ryan Fessenden
Zebra longwing caterpillar by Ryan Fessenden

Adults
Adults have elongated wings and look unlike any other butterfly in Florida. Their black wings have yellow stripes — colors that advertise they, too, are distasteful to predators. Zebra longwings have multiple generations per year and will fly year round in South Florida.

Check out this video for more information about Zebra longwing butterflies!

References:

  • Daniels, Jaret C. “Zebra Longwing, Heliconius charitonia (Linnaeus) (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae).” EDIS New Publications RSS, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, 20 Jan. 2015, edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in805.
  • Emmel, Thomas C. Florida’s Fabulous Butterflies. World Publications, 1997. Print.
  • Florida Museum. “Zebra Longwing.” Zebra Longwing: Florida Museum of Natural History, 17 Aug. 2017, www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/100years/zebra-longwing/.

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Annual Meeting at Bok Tower Gardens

Florida Wildflower Foundation members are invited to join us Saturday, Sept. 29 at Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, for our annual membership meeting. Learn about the inspiration behind the gardens’ iconic tower and garden design, get a tour of the gardens’ amazing restoration area, and dine amidst the beauty of the gardens.

Join us Friday and Saturday at the Florida Wildflower Symposium

Want to learn about Florida’s native wildflowers and the butterflies, bees and wildlife depending on them? Join us at the Florida Wildflower Symposium on April 27 and 28 in Orlando to learn from expert speakers and workshop leaders. Visit the symposium page to learn more. Online registration is closed, but you can register onsite Friday and Saturday. Cost is $45 for Florida Wildflower Foundation members and $60 for nonmembers.

20 Easy Wildflowers Walk & Talk at Bok Tower Gardens

Learn how to succeed with larger scale native wildflower plantings. This event combines a guided instructional walk through Florida native plantings at Bok Tower Gardens with a classroom course reviewing the species used as well as planning and installation processes. Renowned upland restoration expert and native plant horticulturist Nancy Bissett of The Natives will lead the walk and provide the classroom instruction.

Nov. 18 Field trip to Heartwood Preserve

Heartwood Preserve is the first conservation cemetery within a nature preserve in the Tampa Bay area. Join us on this unique opportunity to learn about the efforts to conserve and permanently protect this endangered natural habitat through environmentally friendly burial options. Visit longleaf pine flatwoods and cypress wetlands. Learn the land’s history and management, the importance of fire ecology and the process of conservation burial. 

March 9 Brevard County Wildflower Meeting

If you love Brevard’s wildflowers, plan to join us at 10 a.m. Friday, March 9, for an informative session on preserving native vegetation on county roadsides.

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Painted leaf (Poinsettia cyathophora) Photo by Christina Evans (https://www.flickr.com/photos/21248205@N03/6565646157)Painted leaf (Poinsettia cyathophora) Photo by Christina Evans (https://www.flickr.com/photos/21248205@N03/6565646157)

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Florida paintbrush (Carphephorus corymbosus) Photo by Eleanor Dietrich

Know your native pollinators: Zebra longwings

Zebra longwing butterflies (Heliconius charitonia) are found throughout the state, but this common Florida butterfly is anything but ordinary! Their elongated wings make them easy to distinguish from other Florida natives, but their unique attributes don’t stop there.