In my Backyard

Zebra Heliconian Butterfly

Zebra Heliconian Butterfly. Photo by Chuck Lauer Vose, 10/22/21.
  • Common Names: Zebra Heliconian, Zebra Longwing
  • Taxonomic Name: Heliconius charithonia tuckerorum
  • Host plant: Passion flower vines
  • Habitat: Thickets and shrubby, disturbed areas
  • Distribution: Subtropical southern united states – primarily peninsular Florida, and Southern Texas – down to Central America and northern South America (see a detailed map)
  • Conservation Status: G5 (secure)
  • Caterpillar Season: year-round

I was so excited today when I discovered that a new butterfly species had come visiting the backyard. The Zebra Heliconian butterfly is strikingly beautiful. It is the state butterfly of Florida and it’s not hard to see why it was chosen! But this butterfly isn’t special just for its looks, there are some really interesting details I came across in my reading.

The Zebra Heliconian butterfly is longer-lived than many and will lay three or more generations of eggs in a year. These eggs and the newly hatched caterpillars may be preyed on by ants which are attracted to the plant by the nectar produced from specialized glands at the base of the passion vine leaves (Minnow, et. al 2005). However, the caterpillars are not totally defenseless, their coloration, markings and spines tell potential predators they are not good for eating (Dietz, 2018).

Unlike most butterflies that can only sip nectar, Heliconians can actually eat pollen as well. This gives them a disting survival advantage since pollen contains proteins that nectar does not. Heliconians consume pollen using a “pollen processing behavior consisted of a lengthy series of repeated coiling and uncoiling movements in a loosely coiled proboscis position combined with up and down movements and the release of saliva” (Hikl, Krenn 2011).

I was going to try to record the butterfly doing this pollen-eating myself, but the research paper “Pollen Processing Behavior of Heliconius Butterflies: A Derived Grooming Behavior” published by Anna-Laetitia Hikl and Harald W. Krenn have a very close-up video recording of it that totally blew my mind and I had to share.

Movements of the proboscis during pollen processing in Heliconius cydno (Hikl, Krenn 2011).

Zebra Heliconians are also known to roost in groups at night in the branches of trees. They also have long memories and will return to the same places they found food previously – even after a food source is gone, they will come back in search of it. This feeding behavior is known as trap-lining (Moisset, 2021) and requires a certain degree of spatial cognition and memory. Trap-lining is most commonly seen in the case of food foraging from flowers (Ohashi, Thomson, 2013).

Sources Cited:

Dietz, Jonnie. Know your native pollinators: Zebra longwing. August 28, 2018. Florida Museum of Natural History

Hikl AL, Krenn HW. Pollen processing behavior of Heliconius butterflies: a derived grooming behavior. J Insect Sci. 2011;11:99. doi:10.1673/031.011.9901

Minno, Marc C. Butler, Jerry F., Hall, Donald W.. 2005. Florida butterfly caterpillars and their host plants. Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida.

Moisset, Beatriz, “Zebra Longwing Butterfly (Heliconius charithonia).” U.S. Forest Service., Date accessed; October 22, 2021

Ohashi, Kazuharu; Thomson, James D. (2013). “Trapline foraging by bumblebees: VI. Behavioral alterations under speed-accuracy trade-offs”. Behavioral Ecology. 24 (1): 182–189. doi:10.1093/beheco/ars152