Seeing Stripes: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a common resident of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC). This butterfly is easily recognizable with boldly striped yellow and black wings. When visiting the CBC, you’ll often spot them sipping nectar from the flowers and nectar feeders or sunning themselves with their wings spread open. These butterflies have some unique features and behaviors that set them apart form the rest!

Aposematic Coloration

Bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration. They indicate to potential predators of the “unprofitability” of a prey item. The bold yellow and black stripes on the zebra longwing serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterfly’s unpalatable and poisonous nature. Zebra longwing caterpillars feed on passion vine (passiflora) leaves and acquire some of their toxins, making them distasteful to predators. 


Bright, contrasting colors warn predators to stay away.

Pollen feeders

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their proboscis, most commonly flower nectar. Zebra longwings, on the other hand, also feed on pollen. They use their saliva to dissolve the pollen and take in its nutrients. Pollen, unlike nectar, contains proteins and is very nutritious. Pollen feeding is correlated with overall higher fitness. This diet allows zebra longwings to live longer (up to six months) and increases females’ egg production. 

zebra pollen face

You can see pollen on this zebra longwing’s proboscis. Feeding on pollen increases longevity.

Pupal Mating

Male zebra longwings exhibit pupal mating, zebra_longwing_and_chrysaliin which they will mate with a female before and immediately after she emerges from her chrysalis. Males will seek out a female pupae and will perch on it and guard it from competing males. Many males may fight for the opportunity to mate with the yet-to-emerge female. The successful male will insert his abdomen into the softening pupae and copulate with the female. Mating will continue as she emerges and dries her wings. The males will pass a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. This male (at right) begins mating with the female before she has even emerged from her chrysalis.


This mating pair shows the freshly emerged female still clinging to her chrysalis.

Communal Roosting

Adult zebra longwings roost communally in groups of up to 60 individuals at night. They tend to return to the same roost on a nightly basis. In the late afternoon, zebras can be observed fluttering and basking near their roost site as they slowly gather together for the night. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. 


These zebra longwings are preparing for the night by roosting together for safety.

So now you know! These beautiful, brightly colored butterflies are bad-tasting, and long-lived. They have unique mating habits and the snuggle together at night. Something to remember next time you visit the zebras at the CBC!

Cockrell Butterfly Center Spring Plant Sale

Spring is almost here!

Of course it has felt like it for months now, but with all of the rain we have had lately, we should have a good show of blooms. And with the blooms come the butterflies. Most of the time, butterflies get most of the attention, but have you ever thought about creating a moth garden. Why moths? There are approximately 11,230 identified species of Lepidoptera in North America. Almost 90% of those are moths. Now, while most moths can appear small and drab, even serve as pests for some plants, there are some very interesting and beautiful species of moths. For example, Hawk or Sphinx moths (sometimes even called Hummingbird moths because of their large tapered bodies and hovering flight) are large and sometimes showy with interesting, cryptic patterns adorning their wings.

 Their caterpillars look similar to the Spicebush Swallowtail with their large eye spots and chunky bodies.

They feed on a variety of plants, but what I see the most are Tersa Sphinx moths (Xylophanes tersa) because they eat the leaves of Pentas (a very popular nectar plant for butterfly gardens). So think of those Pentas as two plants in one, nectar and host! The adults are seen mostly on white flowers that bloom (or stay open) at dusk. Moon Vine, Cestrum, Jasmine, Rangoon Creeper and Evening Primrose are all recommended as excellent moth attractors!

Most other showy moths like Polyphemus, Luna, Cecropia, IO, and Imperial moths are in the Giant Silkworm family (Saturniida) and do not feed as adults because they do not have mouthparts. Their host plants are trees, mostly Oak and Hickory related species, so it is kind of hard to find their caterpillars. If you do, you are lucky! Some of the most beautiful and impressive caterpillars are from Saturniid moths. The adults are attracted to bright lights at night, so this is a possible way of encountering them.

Polyphemus Moth

The spring plant sale for the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a one stop shop for any butterfly (and moth) plants you need. We will have the standard, reliable plants that every butterfly garden should have, like Porterweed, Mexican Milkweed, Brazilian Pipevine, several Passion vines, Mexican Bauhinia, Pentas and more. This year we also have some different natives to share with you. We will have Salvia azurea (Pitcher Sage), Cirsium texanum (Texas Thistle), Simsia calva (Bush Sunflower), Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush) and Eupatorium greggii (Gregg’s Mistflower). Some non-native, but excellent butterfly plants that we will also have are: Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), Celosia spicata (Cramer’s Amazon Celosia), several types of Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons) and many many more!

Cramer's Amazon Celosia

The spring sale is Saturday, March 31st, 2012 from 9am to noon. Located on the 7th level of the museum parking garage. We accept cash, check and credit. Come early and bring a wagon!

Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Oct. 8!

This time of year, gardening can make you feel as hot as Priscilla Queen of the Desert

With water restrictions and heat advisories, who wants to get into that mess? The drought and high temperatures have also caused butterflies to suffer, leaving their numbers well below normal for the season. In addition to the gardens we plant to supplement their diet, butterflies rely on native plants throughout their lifecycle. The lack of rain has caused the wildflowers either to have a very short blooming period, or not bloom at all. That means a decrease in nectar for butterflies. Native host plants as well are suffering in the dry heat, leaving caterpillars short of food as well. Triple digit temperatures cause female butterflies to not lay eggs and in general cause the overall populations to languish.

But, there is good news.

Soon the triple digits should be a thing of the past and we can all get outside and start tending our gardens again instead of watching through the window as they shrivel. The butterflies will be back as well and we need to be ready for them.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Saturday, October 8

If your garden needs perking up, head over to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 8th, from 9 to 11am, on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We will have a wide variety of host and nectar plants to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to your garden.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
The Cockrell Butterfly Center is the perfect place to see gorgeous,exotic butterflies – but you can help
preserve these fragile wonders by creating a butterfly habitat for local species
in your own backyard.

Check out the list of available plants for more information.

Here are some tips for attending the plant sale:

1. Get there early. This year our sale is only from 9 to 11 am.
2. Bring a wagon to cart around your goodies.
3. We take cash, check and credit cards.

Do You Know Plants?

This is a question I recently posed to my followers on twitter.

Plant nerds do you know your stuff? One ticket to the butterfly center goes to 1st to give Latin name for this plant!
Zac Stayton

And here’s the photo:

Can you name this plant?

Well apparently someone does!

Congratulations to @faziarizvi for giving us the correct Latin name of the plant above, and winning a ticket to the butterfly center!

The correct answer is Strophanthus preussii, which are scandent shrubs native to tropical West Africa.  Its name means “twisted cord flower,” and it’s easy to see why it’s so named; the tips of the petals extend and twist to form long purple cords that can trail over a foot below the flower. Strophanthus is in the Apocynaceae family which contains better known plants such as Oleander and Asian Jasmine.

Come see this plant, now blooming, at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and stay tuned for the next installment of “Do You Know Plants?”, and your chance to win more cool prizes.