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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillar and Citrus Rescue Squad

Neighbors organized to swoop in and rescue Giant swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and their citrus host plants.

The need to protect host plants is particularly acute when dealing with caterpillars that threaten a plant that also provides food for humans. It stands to reason that if you have, say, a lime tree in your garden, you want to sit back and enjoy a margarita while not watching your tree get denuded of leaves by a hungry caterpillar that, let’s face it, looks a lot like bird poop.

Bird poop or caterpillars?

 In response to a posting on Nextdoor where people were discussing the best ways to get rid of these caterpillars, we came up with a better alternative to killing them: we formed a Giant Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillar and Citrus Rescue Squad composed of neighbors willing to swoop in and rescue the caterpillars -- and therefore the citrus -- and take them to a foster garden with a large Wild lime tree, or other citrus that has plenty of leaves to host these hungry babies.

Giant swallowtail butterfly laying an egg on Wild lime.  The largest butterflies in North America, these beauties are worth saving!

What a perfect way to protect our citrus and our beautiful butterflies while meeting new neighbors in the process: a win for nature and the community!  And you can start your very own local squad, calling it whatever you want. 

Friend and neighbor Jill bringing some rescued baby caterpillars to a Wild lime host plant

How to Form Your Own “Squad”

  • Write a post on NextDoor or a local Facebook page.  Say something along these lines: Do you have a large citrus tree like a Wild lime with plenty of leaves?  Would you join me in forming a group that rescues citrus trees that are under assault from too many Giant swallowtail caterpillars, as an alternative to the homeowner killing the caterpillars?  Please pm me if you are interested in either helping rescue and/or host the caterpillars.

It is very important that you don’t shame those neighbors who want to keep their citrus safe from caterpillars.  Bear in mind that your group exists to rescue both the host plant and the caterpillar.

  • Form a WhatsApp chat group.  If you don’t have WhatsApp, get it.  It’s time.  We had 17 neighbors express interest in joining our group within two days.
  • Ask one group member to be the point person.  For security, it might be better to have a male member who is willing to offer his cell phone number on social media for people with citrus in need of saving.  Post frequently on Nextdoor to remind people of the presence and purpose of your group.  It is best not to be judgmental as you’ll scare people off and they’ll find a way to dispose of the caterpillars rather than turning them over to you.
Point Person Ed: How lucky are we?
  • When the point person gets a text, he/she can post on WhatsApp.  Hopefully a member who lives closest to the tree in need of rescue can go, in order to reduce your group’s carbon footprint. Even better if, like Jill in the photo above, you can carry out the rescue by bike.  The rescuer should bring a large Tupperware container with some host plant leaves, a clipper, and something like the wooden clothespins pictured below.
  • Document your rescue in photos and post about it.  Everybody has heard of dog and cat rescues.  Caterpillar rescues open people’s eyes to the fact that there are alternatives to pesticides, and that one person’s “pest” is another’s beautiful butterfly.
These one-inch wooden clothespins make it very easy to clip the leaf the caterpillar is on to the host plant.  It is always best not to touch the caterpillar.  The caterpillar will crawl off onto the host plant and you can remove and reuse the clothespin
A rescued caterpillar clothespinned to a new host plant.  Once it crawls onto the Wild lime, the clothespin can be reused.
This rescued Giant swallowtail butterfly, recently emerged from its chrysalis, is notably larger than a recently emerged Monarch butterfly.  Such beauty is so worth saving.

We are joining forces with the fabulous Miami Beach Botanical Garden, which has plenty of Wild lime leaves to offer hungry caterpillars, and with members of the Miami Beach Garden Club, to rescue citrus host plants and Giant swallowtail caterpillars a little further afield. It is wonderful to expand our territory!  Let us know if you start your own local rescue squad!

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