Pipevine Caterpillar

Pipevine Dreams in New Jersey

Pipevine Swallowtail populations in northern New Jersey are scattered, as is their food plant. Colonies are locally common in Bergen County at the Palisades Greenbrook Sanctuary in the Palisades Interstate Park. Other areas of New Jersey and the New York City area will probably find Pipevine Swallowtail populations to be sporadic, dependent on available caterpillar food.

Deedee Burnside's garden in Bergen Co., New Jersey is located near known wild colonies of Pipevine Swallowtails. Given her location, it was not too surprising that Deedee first noticed Pipevine Swallowtail eggs on her garden pipevine (A. macrophylla) in 2006, the same year that she planted them.

Soon after noticing the eggs, friend and fellow gardener Fred Weber brought Pipevine caterpillarsmore Pipevine Swallowtail eggs from his garden in Essex Co., New Jersey. This first group of eggs hatched out, ate lustily, and quickly became beautiful black caterpillars.

As Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars eat the leaves of the pipevine plant, they concentrate certain chemicals in their bodies (in this case aristolochic acid) which do not harm the caterpillars but make them unpalatable to predators. It is generally considered that birds avoid Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars and butterflies but Deedee and Fred found out otherwise as one afternoon they watched sadly as cardinals ate every single caterpillar on their vines.

Undeterred by hungry birds and still interested in having a colony of Pipevine Swallowtails in her garden, the following summer Deedee and Free tried transferring any Pipevine Swallowtail eggs that were laid on the garden plants to a large plastic bucket covered with netting and filled with pipevine cuttings. While this method was somewhat successful, there were too many eggs and caterpillars for the buckets and a new plan had to be devised.

For the summer of 2008, Fred chose to built a safe haven for caterpillars under a protected eave of the house. Simply built out of hardware cloth and lathe, the enclosure provides a large, airy, bird-free zone where Pipevine Swallowtails can eat, pupate, and emerge as butterflies.

In 2008 any Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar eggs that were laid on the garden vines were transferred Pipevine Swallowtail just emerged from the garden to the protected screened area under the eaves. Shoots of pipevine were cut daily and placed in the screened in enclosure for the hungry caterpillars. Deedee notes that the ends of the pipevine cuttings were placed in a bottle filled with water to keep them fresh but that a cotton plug must be added around the opening of the bottle so that the caterpillars do not become trapped inside and drown.

The protective enclosure proved a success with two broods safely raised the first summer. The caterpillars grow to about two and a half inches before gradually becoming a chrysalis. After another two weeks, butterflies emerge and are released to the wild.

Some caterpillars form chrysalises right before winter. These were left to over winter in the enclosure with the hope that a new batch of Pipevine Swallowtails will emerge in May 2009.

In addiction to raising Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars in a bird protected area, Deedee and Fred have given away as many divisions of their pipevine plants as they can to other gardeners in their general area with the hope of increasing the Pipevine Swallowtail population of Bergen and Essex Counties New Jersey.