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The State Insect of Florida
State Insect of Florida -- Zebra Longwing
As in insect-obsessed boy growing up in northern Illinois, I could only look at the image of this exotic butterfly in my trusted Golden Guide to the Butterflies and wonder when I would ever see one in real life. I finally got the chance many years later, when as an adult I was visiting friends in Miami. In their garden this amazing creature was flying around a flowering bush, instantly identifiable by its coal-black wings with bright yellow "zebra" stripes. The flight was fluttering and weak, a sign that the insect is protected by poisonous alkaloids incorporated from the Passiflora vine on which its spiny caterpillar feeds. This is really a special insect, beautiful and distinct, and quite common throughout Florida and down through the American tropics.
Zebra Longwings Mating
The zebra longwing belongs to a large group of butterflies known as the Heliconiinae, which in turn is part of a very large family called the Nymphalidae. The Heliconians are typically protected from predators by poisonous substances ingested by the larval stage. 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, most of whom are perfectly edible but gain protection by looking very much like the poisonous Heliconiinae.
Zebra Longwing 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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