Old World Swallowtail Butterfly: Identification, Life Cycle, and Behavior

Dive into the world of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly, a fascinating creature renowned for its distinctive coloration and patterns.

This article takes you through their classification, distribution, traits, life cycle, and behaviors.

Discover how to identify male and female butterflies, learn about their unique mating rituals and diet, and understand the threats they face.

old world swallowtail butterfly

What is the Classification of Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

The Old World Swallowtail Butterfly belongs to the kingdom Animalia. This orientates it amongst the vast and diverse collective of multicellular organisms that possess specialized sensory organs and show pronounced responses to stimuli.

To be more specific, it lies in the phylum Arthropoda, the most substantial phylum in the animal kingdom, in which insects, crustaceans, arachnids and other invertebrates are housed.

Going deeper into classification, the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly is a member of the class Insecta. This classification coinages it into the world’s largest and most diverse group of animals.

Furthermore, it finds its place in the order Lepidoptera. This order comprises butterflies, moths, and skippers, all insects noted for their albuminous scales that cover their body and wings.

Nearing the bottom of the taxonomy, it situates under the family Papilionoidea, commonly referred to as true butterflies.

It is part of the Papilio genus, a genus that consists of mostly large-sized, hardy and often conspicuously coloured butterflies. Lastly, it is designated by the species name Papilio machaon, an old world swallowtail butterfly widely spread across the world.

Just to give you an overview, categorical organization of this magnificent creature is summarized in the table below:

Classification Category
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Arthropoda
Class Insecta
Order Lepidoptera
Family Papilionidae
Genus Papilio
Species Papilio machaon

What is the Distribution of Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

The Old World Swallowtail Butterfly, scientifically known as Papilio machaon, has a wide range of distribution. It’s found populating areas of the world that expand from Europe and Asia to North America.

You can often find them fluttering about in various environments like meadows, fields, and open woodlands.

Papilio machaon inhabits a diverse assortment of locations. A distinct characteristic of the species is its adaptability to different habitats.

It has found its home not only in the sunny Mediterranean areas but also the chilly regions of Northern Canada and Alaska.

Their adaptability extends even to higher altitudes. It’s not uncommon to find them decorating the Island of Crete at over 2,000 meters (approximately 6,500 feet) above sea level.

More than just being fascinating creatures, they show immense ecological resilience.

Always remember that they prefer regions that are sunny and warm, although their adaptability ensures their survival in colder climates.

Indeed, these butterflies exhibit an impressive distribution range, testifying to their resilience and adaptability.

What are the Main Characteristics of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

The Old World Swallowtail Butterfly is renowned for its striking looks. These exquisite butterflies display a unique combination of colors that creates a dazzling spectacle. The primary features that distinguish them include their large size, vibrant colors, and the distinct “swallowtails.”

Standing up to 3.5 inches (8 – 10 cm) wide, it’s among the larger variety of butterflies. The most prevalent colors of their wings are yellow and black, but there might be shades of blue and red, too. Their wings’ upper surfaces are bright yellow with contrasting black wing margins and veins.

The distinct tail-like extensions at the bottom of their hind-wings, resembling swallows’ tails, are noteworthy.

This attribute gives them their common name – Swallowtail. Although not all species have these appendages, it’s a significant characteristic of the Old World Swallowtails.

Their large, round eyes provide a wide field of view. This sharp vision helps them locate nectar-rich flowers with ease. The proboscis, a long, tube-like tongue used for feeding, is another key feature.

  • Body size: 3.5 inches (8-10 cm)
  • Wing color: predominantly yellow and black
  • Wing shape: broad with tail-like appendages
  • Other attributes: large round eyes and elongated proboscis

Considering all these features, you might indeed marvel at the beauty nature offers through these splendid creations. A sight of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly is indeed a feast for the eyes.

How to Identify Male and Female Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

Identifying the gender of an Old World Swallowtail Butterfly can be a fascinating exercise. The distinctions may not be very pronounced, but keen observation can make it easy.

Males of the Old World Swallowtail butterfly can be distinguished by their larger size and more vibrant colors.

They usually exhibit a vibrant yellow hue on their wings, edged with black. The male’s hindwings have blue spots bordered with an arc of black crescents.

  • Large size
  • Vibrant yellow wings with black edges
  • Blue spots on hindwings

On the other hand, females tend to be a bit more subtly colored. Their body is more streamlined, and their wings sport a lighter shade of yellow with blue spots near the tail.

An interesting difference is a row of blue spots on the hindwing, surrounded by a broad black line.

  • More streamlined body
  • Lighter yellow wings with blue spots near tail
  • Blue spots on hindwing surrounded by a black line

Thus, by paying attention to their color patterns, sizes, and the subtle differences in their wings, you should be able to tell the males from the females in the Old World Swallowtail butterflies.

What is the Mating Ritual of Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

The mating ritual of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly, also known as Papilio machaon, is a fascinating spectacle.

It involves an intricate dance where the male chases the female in tight, aerial circles. This distinctive pursuit is followed by a period of rest and exchange of pheromones.

  • The male Swallowtail Butterfly is equipped with specialized structures capable of producing pheromones. These are bedded in the hind-wing and the scent they release is vital to attract female butterflies.
  • Compared to other butterflies, the male Swallowtail Butterfly has a unique strategy in the mating game. He directly competes with other males for the attention of available female butterflies.

The successful male which won against rivals then presents himself to the chosen female. He flutters around her, showers her with his pheromones, and if she is receptive, he mounts her and initiates the mating process.

These are the basic steps in the mating ritual of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly. Throughout this process, the male and female may fly together to different areas, often covering significant distances.

It’s an exhaustive process, filled with intricacies, color, and charm – a testament to the beauty of Nature and its delicate processes.

What Does the Caterpillar of Old World Swallowtail Butterfly Look Like?

The caterpillar of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly is recognizable for its distinctive design, immediately catching your eye with its vibrant colors and unique physical features.

Unlike the adult butterfly, which dons a colorful palette, the caterpillars exhibit a more modest color scheme, primarily of black, white, and green, allowing them to blend into their surroundings.

Upon closer inspection, you will notice tiny white dots and thin bands scattered across the caterpillar’s cylindrical, elongated body. With each segment, the green hue becomes more distinct, presenting a kaleidoscope array of colors that shimmer under the sun.

Additionally, the caterpillar is equipped with a unique organ known as an osmeterium. When perturbed, the caterpillar deploys this forked, orange structure from just behind its head, releasing a foul odor to deter predators.

This clever defense mechanism, along with their particular body pattern and colors, helps these caterpillars prepare and survive until they reach their butterfly stage.

Overall, its physical characteristics, retina-catching colors, and particularly the osmeterium, make the caterpillar of the Old World Swallowtail butterfly a truly distinctive creature in its own right.

Despite their subtle nature as compared to their adult stage, they hold their own charm and are an integral part of the butterfly’s life cycle.

Understanding their appearance not only aids in their identification but also offers insight into their behavior and survival techniques.

What is the Life Cycle of Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

The life cycle of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly, scientifically known as Papilio machaon, involves four distinct stages.

  • Stage One: Egg The life begins with the lovely pear-shaped egg phase. Female butterflies lay these tiny yellow eggs individually on the underside of the host plants. It usually takes around 4 to 10 days for the eggs to hatch.
  • Stage Two: Caterpillar From the hatched eggs, emerges the caterpillar or larva phase. They are initially of a bird-dropping mimicry pattern and become green with black and orange markings as they mature. During this stage, which lasts about 3-4 weeks, they feed vigorously on the foliage of host plants and undergo more changes.
  • Stage Three: Pupa Post feeding, the caterpillar transforms into a pupa or chrysalis phase. This stage lasts approximately 2 weeks. Protected by a hard-outer shell, the caterpillar undergoes significant physical changes, including developing wings.
  • Stage Four: Adult And finally, emerges the beautiful adult butterfly, displaying the distinct and vibrant colors. The newly emerged butterflies let their wings dry before they are able to fly and start the cycle all over again.

It’s important to note that there might be differences in timing based on factors like temperature and food availability. But essentially, this outlined cycle forms the backbone of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly’s journey from egg to an adult butterfly.

In summary, their life cycle, like other butterflies, is a fascinating process of metamorphosis and modification, demonstrating the complexity and adaptability of nature’s creatures.

What Is the Average Life Expectancy of an Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

Old World Swallowtail Butterflies, also known as Papilio machaon, typically have a short but intense lifecycle. In essence, their average life expectancy ranges from two to four weeks, based on various environmental factors.

Starting from the egg stage, their life expectancy can increase. While the initial point is set at two weeks, severe weather conditions or predation can shorten this timeline.

On the other hand, optimal conditions can extend this lifespan to nearly a month—though this is a remarkable exception rather than the rule.

Cold climates, lack of food or loss of habitat can lead to a shorter lifespan. In general, a male OWS butterfly lives longer than its female counterparts.

The reason behind this is a mystery but there are theories that state it has to do with their mating practices.

In spite of their often short lives, these delicate creatures make the most out of their time on earth.

Through a biological process called metamorphosis, they transition from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, experiencing several stages of major transformation.

So, while they may not live to see more than a month, Old World Swallowtail butterflies truly pack a lot of life into a short timeframe.

Each stage of their life is filled with challenges and changes, culminating in the beautiful and vibrant creature we see flitting from flower to flower.

What Does the Diet of an Old World Swallowtail Butterfly Consist Of?

The diet of the Old World Swallowtail butterfly, scientifically known as Papilio machaon, revolves around nectar from a variety of flowering plants. In their caterpillar phase, they have a more specific diet.

As caterpillars, they feed almost exclusively on plants from the Apiaceae family. This includes plant species such as dill, fennel, and carrot tops, these are often found in backyard gardens.

Upon maturing into adult butterflies, they become less picky eaters. They rely on their long proboscis to extract nectar from an array of flowering plants.

This includes Buddleia, also known as the butterfly bush, milkweed, and asters.

It’s interesting to note that butterfly diet is shaped largely by their environment. Therefore, the Old World Swallowtail butterfly’s diet might differ based on the available plant nectar in their respective region.

After all, a butterfly’s goal isn’t to please its palette, but to derive the needed nutrients to survive and procreate.

Which Plants Serve as the Primary Hosts for Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

The Old World Swallowtail Butterfly, scientifically known as Papilio machaon, has special relationships with particular plants.

Specifically, the caterpillars of this species need certain plants to grow and develop. Therefore, understanding these primary host plants is key to conserving and raising these lovely creatures.

Umbelliferous plants, otherwise known as plants loosely shaped like an umbrella, serve as the primary hosts for Old World Swallowtail Butterflies.

Some of these include plants from the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, such as fennelparsley, and carrot. The adult butterflies lay eggs on these plants, and it is these that the larvae feed exclusively upon.

Another plant that plays a significant role in caterpillar nutrition is Milk Parsley (Peucedanum palustre). Typically found in marshy environments in Europe, Milk Parsley is a uniquely favored food source for Swallowtail caterpillars in some parts of their range.

Swallowtail caterpillars exhibit an amazing tactic to identify these host plants. Usually, they will crawl to the top of a plant and nibble a bit. If it’s their favorable plant, they’ll stay and feast, but if it’s not to their liking, they vamoose.

So, if you’re planning to attract these butterflies or rear them in captivity, ensure these plants are readily available. They wouldn’t just provide nutrition for the caterpillars, but would also play a part in female butterfly’s choice for egg-laying.

Remember, the availability of these plants is instrumental for their survival and propagation.

What are the Unique Mimicry Behaviors in Old World Swallowtail Butterfly?

Experience the spectacle of mimicry in the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly, where their cunning survival strategy comes to life. The beauty of these butterflies isn’t solely about showing off. It’s also an intricate art of imitation.

One key example of this mimicry is in the larvae. They mimic bird droppings to stay hidden from predators. This is called masquerading. It’s a sight to behold, as their black body with a white median line truly resembles a bird’s excrement.

Adult swallowtails, on the other hand, engage in what is known as Batesian mimicry. Here, they flaunt colors and patterns that mimic toxic or venomous species.

This false signal wards off potential predators, tricking them into thinking they are dealing with a less appetizing or potentially harmful meal.

Moreover, Old World Swallowtail females embody yet another form of mimicry: sex mimicry. Confusingly enough, females come in two color forms – yellow and black.

The black variant mirrors the male’s coloration, possibly as a tactic to avoid unwanted attention from males after mating.

In conclusion, the flora and fauna world is jam-packed with superb mimics, and the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly is surely one of the masters.

Their survival skills, steeped in the art of imitating and disguising, are a testament to the mind-boggling complexity of nature. It shows that sometimes in life, being a copycat is the best survival strategy!

What Are the Main Threats to Old World Swallowtail Butterfly Populations?

There are a number of threats that the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly faces. Habitat loss is perhaps the most prominent and widespread issue.

  • As human activities continue to encroach on natural areas, the butterfly’s preferred habitats – open woodlands and meadows – are being destroyed.
  • Pesticide use is particularly detrimental. Not only can these chemicals kill the butterflies directly, but they can also eliminate the plants that the caterpillars need to survive.
  • Climate change is also a worry. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns can decimate butterfly populations, altering their habitats and disrupting their delicate life cycles.

Deforestation, another aspect of habitat loss, impacts these butterflies. When trees are removed, the microclimate changes, making it unsuitable for the swallowtail butterfly.

Lastly, over-collection by butterfly enthusiasts can pose a threat to these creatures. Their beautiful coloration makes them a popular choice among collectors, but over-collection can lead to devastating declines in populations.

Preventing these threats is crucial in the preservation of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly.

Preservation efforts include habitat restoration, reducing pesticide use, implementing climate change strategies, and encouraging responsible collecting practices.


Understanding the numerous characteristics of the Old World Swallowtail Butterfly is truly fascinating.

From its unique lifecycle to its distinct behavior and threats it faces, this butterfly is a marvel of nature.

Please don’t hesitate to drop a comment with your thoughts or any other intriguing facts you might know about this exceptional butterfly.

Butterflies   Updated: September 13, 2023
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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