The appearance of a zebra heliconian (also called a zebra longwing) in our backyard, has always been special treat. However, for reasons I do not fully understand, my wife and I have seen more of the beautiful black and yellow-striped butterflies this year than ever before.
We saw our first zebras of the year back in August. After a long hiatus, they began appearing weeks later on a regular basis. Invariably, once they reappeared we never spotted more than one zebra heliconian at a time. However, during the past few weeks we have been regularly seeing at least two at a time. Two days ago, for the first time ever, we startled to find four of them feeding at bright orange Mexican sunflower blossoms. Oddly, the day before a friend told me he had seen four in his yard.
The zebra heliconian is a year-round resident in Florida southward through Central America. Zebra longwings can also be found along the southern Gulf Coast of the United States all the way to Texas. In fact, this Neotropical butterfly can be observed somewhere in the United States throughout the entire year.
During the summer, in spite of the fact they normally doesn’t range far, many zebra longwings begin drifting northward far from the Sunshine State. As such, each year, they are regularly seen in South Carolina. In fact, sightings have been made as far north as New York.
The field guides tell us that, in Georgia, this butterfly is most often seen in the Coastal Plain. However, the truth of the matter is, in most years, as few will show up in backyard throughout the Lower Piedmont. This year, for example, I have received reports of them being seen from Grovetown, Forsyth, and Woodland.
The zebra longwing has the distinction of having the longest continuous life span as an adult of any butterfly found in the United States. While most adult butterflies live only a few weeks or less, the zebra longwing’s adult life extends for six or more months. This longevity undoubtedly allows them to roam as far as they do.
One of the things I find most fascinating about zebra longwings is they congregate at nighttime roosts. These aggregations are called crèches and can number anywhere from 25-30 individuals. Typically branches or Spanish moss are chosen for roost sites. Such locations are sometimes used by the butterflies for days on end.
I would dearly love to find a zebra longwing crèche this year. Meanwhile, although I don’t know how long the Johnsons will be able to enjoy watching zebra heliconians drifting about our backyard, every time we see them, we will consider the event a rare autumn treat.