Create Your Own Nature Channel with a Flock of Roosting Zebras in Your Garden

Greetings South Floridians!  Imagine having a flock of Zebra butterflies in your garden.  Or maybe it’s a flutter?  A flurry?  Whatever it is called it is one of the most calming and mesmerizing sights you can see in a garden in these parts.  Zebra heliconian or longwing butterflies typically fly with a gentle flutter, unlike Monarchs who zoom around on strong wings, tiny Cassius blues with their chaotic and rapid flight style, or the Giant swallowtails with their stately swooping.  And Zebras flutter gently in groups unlike any of the other butterflies you might encounter in your garden, which really amplifies that calm and mesmerizing feeling.  Happily, if you have all the right ingredients, Zebras will hang around in your garden, allowing you to observe all aspects of their very interesting and highly unusual behavior.  If you’re really lucky, you might even get them to roost together in your garden at night.  Read on to see how to ensure your garden is filled with the beauty of our state butterfly.

A flock of roosters? Whatever you call them, you know your garden is a sanctuary when Zebra butterflies feel safe enough to sleep there, and that is a really good feeling. Providing a windbreak is important, but native nectar and host plants are key.

So what are the right ingredients that will not only attract Zebras, but will make them never want to leave your garden?  Native nectar plants attract the Zebra butterflies, along with a whole host of other butterflies.  And some attract birds as well.

The flowers of a Firebush will light up your garden even on the dreariest of days.

 

Zebra butterflies are drawn to the elongated flowers of the Firebush. Other pollinators and Hummingbirds love them as well.

 

Scarlet, or Tropical, sage is a Zebra butterfly fave. Hummingbirds will thank you too.

 

The flowers of the native Lantana involucrata aka Wild lantana or Wild sage attract Zebra butterflies and other pollinators. The berries delight birds.

 

Bees and butterflies love the sweet nectar of Wild coffee flowers. When they are in bloom, the garden smells like honey.  The flowers will turn into berries that delight birds.  

While nectar plants are necessary to attract the butterfly to your garden, making sure you have enough of their host plant — where they lay their eggs so their caterpillars can eat the leaves — is key.  In the case of the Zebra, the host plant is passion vine, which is fitting as Zebras are standouts in terms of butterfly mating behavior.

The teeny tiny flower of the Corkystem passion vine attracts pollinators.

 

If you have a hedge in South Florida and see Zebras fluttering around it, no doubt a bird or lizard dropped the remnants of a nice berry, from which the passion vine grew.  The Corkystem can grow in sun or shade, but female Zebras prefer a nice shady spot to lay their eggs, perhaps because their coloration is light and shadow so they are better camouflaged.

 

Another Florida native passion vine is the Maypop, with its surreal purple flowers. The Monarch pictured here was newly emerged from a nearby chrysalis and is still waiting for its wings to lengthen and harden.  

But back to Zebra reproduction: remember the mesmerizing “flock” or “flurry” of Zebras mentioned at the top?  That is all about sex.  Male Zebras travel in groups (gangs?) looking, or rather smelling their way around the garden, searching for female Zebras ripening in the chrysalis. The sense of smell is very important to a butterfly, as the female needs to be able to smell a host plant to be sure she is depositing her eggs where her babies will survive, so this method of mating ensures that the males with the best sense of smell are the ones to pass down their genes.  The male Zebra’s sense of species isn’t always as keen, however; their urge to reproduce is so strong that they sometimes try to mate with Monarchs, Julias, and other butterflies. 

What in the world, you might reasonably ask? This is a closeup of a female Zebra chrysalis in the center of the photo. On either side of her is a male Zebra, hanging upside down, his abdomen locked and loaded and ready to mate with the female as soon as she descends from the chrysalis. If another male were to try to horn in, and chances are they will, the males spread their wings to guard their prize.  Sometimes, they don’t even wait until the female emerges, engaging in pupal mating.  Each male has a 50/50 chance of passing on his genes.  A little creepy from the human perspective, you say?  Perhaps so, but read on to see why it makes so much sense from nature’s point of view. 

 

The newly emerged female is on the left, her wings still small and furled. Mating takes time, as does allowing the wings to lengthen and harden enough to fly.  Mating with a newly emerged butterfly is a perfect way to use that down time.  Nature is amazing like that.

 

On her maiden flight, the female is already pregnant. Since a butterfly’s only job in life is to reproduce, that is an excellent thing from nature’s perspective.  The male’s final act as a suitor is to endow her with a chemical that repels other males so she can go about the business of laying his eggs without being pestered by other amorous males.

 

It doesn’t take long for the pregnant female to start unloading her eggs. In this wonderful photo taken by Jane Atchison-Nevel, you can also see the yellow pollen on the proboscis. Zebra butterflies are capable of digesting pollen, which enables them to live longer than your average butterfly species, whose diet is limited to nectar.

 

Female Zebras lay their eggs on the freshest, newest fronds in clusters. It looks like several females laid their eggs on this frond. A number of the eggs will be eaten by ants or lizards before the caterpillars have a chance to hatch.

 

Enough eggs survive for lots and lots of caterpillars to hatch.  The white bits you see are empty egg casings.

 

So Zebras roost together, flutter around looking for females together, are laid together in clutches and, interestingly, the caterpillars tend to stay together to eat, wandering away from each other only when necessary to find sufficient passion vine leaves.

When you stop using pesticides and plant the right plants, you will have your very own Nature Channel right outside your door, a world of magic and beauty that elicits wonder and calms and soothes the soul.  As an added bonus, the passion vine is also the host plant for other Florida butterflies, including: 

Gulf fritillary butterflies, shown here mating, with the future butterfly munching away nearby.

 

And the Julia butterfly. While Gulf fritillaries and Julias don’t travel in groups, and don’t tend to hang around the garden like the Zebras, they are always a sight to behold.

2 thoughts on “Create Your Own Nature Channel with a Flock of Roosting Zebras in Your Garden

  1. Maria Ruiz Reply

    Thank you Mary, I truly enjoy the information you share, you have opened my eyes to butterflies. Keep it coming…:)

    Maria Ruiz

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      Thank you so much for letting me know, Maria! We love to educate and inspire!

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