Iconic SWFL butterfly species needs help recovering post-Ian

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Sightings of the zebra longwing, once the most prominent butterfly in Southwest Florida, have been spotty since Hurricane Ian. One group is working to bring it back.

“Structurally, they’re built quite differently from the other butterflies,” said Cheryl Anderson, curator of Tom Allen Butterfly House.

Anderson feels their name is fitting, as they do have long wings. The upper ones are uniquely twice as long as the lower wings.

“When you look at their flight path, instead of like… how a monarch and pipevine flies, these guys flutter [differently],” Anderson said.

The beautiful creature also has a lifespan longer than most: two to three months instead of two to three weeks. But Lori Haus-Bulcock with Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife says the insect’s personality is what sets it apart most.

“It dances, it’s a dancer; it dances with all his friends,” Haus-Bulcock said. “These other butterflies don’t do that.”

With yellow stripes on black, it’s Florida’s state butterfly. While it’s a caterpillar, it has a particular plant where it lays its eggs, the corky stem passion vine.

“And the reason the zebra is so prominent in Florida is because this is a very common plant that grows everywhere in Florida,” Anderson said.

Anderson says that the plant took a massive hit from Ian, causing the butterfly that depends on it to practically disappear.

“I think in the six months since the storm, I’ve seen two zebras out in the park, just two in six months,” Anderson said. “And normally you might see six a day.”

But Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife wanted to do something. After the storm, Haus-Bulcock went on the difficult hunt for the host plant in hopes it would encourage the butterflies to return. But what she found was even better.

“And then I look on the tree that some of it was climbing on, and I found a chrysalis,” Haus-Bulcock said. “I know! And then I looked in the woods, and there were two flying around.”

They brought some back to the garden and bought other eggs.

“They’ll come back, you know, they will come back just like they did after Charlie,” Anderson said. “You know what, what we’re trying to do is just speed it up.”

If you’re looking to help out the zebra longwing or any other butterfly, you can do so by planting butterfly-friendly native plants like the corky stem passion vine for the zebras or milkweed for the monarchs.

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