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State Insect of Florida Lesson: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

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Florida's State Insect: Zebra Longwing Butterfly

Florida's State Insect: Zebra Longwing Butterfly

Florida's state insect is the zebra longwing butterfly. It was designated in 1996 and represents the unique semi-tropical flora and fauna of the beautiful state of Florida. This article tells you what you need to know about this wonderful butterfly.

Zebra Longwing Butterfly's Scientific Name

Florida's state insect belongs to a group of butterflies that are essentially tropical in distribution. The scientific name for this group is the subfamily Heliconiinae. There are many kinds of butterflies in the group, and they all share some special characteristics.

The scientific name of the zebra longwing is Heliconius charithonia. That means the genus name is Heliconius and the species name is charithonia. Scientific names are always in italics.

As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!

Zebra Longwings Mating

Zebra Longwings Mating

Zebra Longwings and Chemical Protection

Butterflies in the subfamily Heliconiinae are typically protected from predators by poisonous substances ingested by the larval stage. This means that the caterpillars feed on the leaves of plants that are themselves protected by being bitter or toxic. The zebra longwing caterpillar eats the leaves of Passiflora vines, and the toxic sap from their diet gives them a similar kind of toxicity. This is believed to deter predators like birds, lizards, and frogs.

Bright Warning Colors

These butterflies do not try to hide or camouflage themselves—instead, they are brightly colored and their flight is slow and fluttering. Their bright colors are a sign to birds and lizards that the insect tastes bad and should be avoided. And for this reason, the butterflies form the basis for a vast and complex system of mimicry by other insects.


Early Stages

The caterpillar of the zebra longing feeds on yellow passionflower and other species of Passiflora. It is covered with spines that may help protect it from parasitic wasps.

The pupa is something to see—if you can pick it out among the leafs and stems of the food plant. It looks exactly like a twisted, dried leaf.

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Complete Metamorphosis

"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. For butterflies, this means egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. It helps to take the butterfly as the example, although dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.

The zebra longwing butterfly is typical of the insects that undergo complete metamorphosis. The egg is laid on Passiflora vines, and the caterpillar that hatches out eats the leaves of the plant. As it grows, it sheds its skin, also known as molting. The stages between molts are called instars, and after the last instar, the caterpillar sheds its skin one more time.

The four-stage metamorphosis of the butterfly

The four-stage metamorphosis of the butterfly

The last tine the caterpillar sheds its skin, it enters the cocoon/chrysalis phase, known by scientists as "diapause." It's also called a "pupa." Inside the pupa, the insect's cells are rearranging. They actually break down into a kind of goop, and then reassemble to form the body and wings of the adult butterfly or moth.

The final "instar" occurs when the insect hatches out of the pupal skin. It is now ready to mate and continue the cycle. The adult feeds just enough to promote the goal of mating and laying eggs; other than that, it has no purpose on this planet.

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Zebra Longwing Caterpillar

Zebra Longwing Caterpillar

Zebra Longwing Habits

This species has several unusual habits. The adults feed on nectar from flowers, but they also "eat" pollen. It's thought that their consumption of pollen gives the adults even more chemical protection, since it is used to create toxic compounds in the insect's body.

Male zebra longwings also offer "nuptial gifts" to females while mating. This is a capsule that provides chemicals that protect the mother and future offspring from predators. The capsule also contains chemicals that make the mated female less attractive to other males, so they will not harass her while she focuses on laying her fertilized eggs.

Zebra Butterflies "Roosting" at Night in a Tree

Zebra Butterflies "Roosting" at Night in a Tree

Check Out My Other State Insect Articles on Owlcation!


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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