Butterflies of Mexico, USA & Canada
Old World Swallowtail
Papilio machaon  LINNAEUS, 1758
subfamily - PAPILIONINAE
Papilio machaon, Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia, Canada  Martin Gascoigne-Pees
Back in the 18th century when Linnaeus created the System Naturae, the word Papilio was used as the genus name for every known species of butterfly in the world. Since then much has been learnt about the relationships between different species. Consequently most have been reassigned to new genera, and only about 215 of the 17600 currently known species are retained in Papilio.
Papilio machaon is widespread and common throughout much of the northern hemisphere. It occurs over the whole of continental Europe, eastward across temperate Asia to Japan; in Africa north of the Sahara; and throughout the temperate, subtropical and subarctic regions of North America.
Throughout most of it's range the Swallowtail shows itself to be highly adaptable, utilising a wide variety of habitats including sub-arctic tundra in Canada, prairies, woodlands and sagebrush in the south of the USA; hay meadows, roadside verges, river banks and sub-alpine pastures in Europe; high montane habitats in the Atlas mountains of north Africa, and semi-cultivated habitats in the Mediterranean area.
In North America the egg is usually laid on Artimesia or Petasites ( Asteraceae ), although various umbellifers e.g. Heracleum are used in the Yukon and in Europe and temperate Asia.
The young caterpillar is black, marked with a band of white. It looks remarkably like a small bird-dropping as it rests openly on the leaves. When fully grown in July it is a most magnificent creature - bright green, marked with narrow black bands and orange spots. Behind it's head is an eversible fleshy pink forked structure called an osmaterium which is raised if the larva is irritated. This organ emits pungent chemicals, capable of deterring ants, wasps and flies.
The chrysalis occurs in 2 colour forms, being either plain green, or light brown with a dark lateral stripe. It is attached vertically by a thin silken girdle and by the cremaster, usually low down on the stem of a reed, where it hibernates until the following spring.
Papilio machaon Adrian Hoskins
Adult behaviour

The butterfly has a characteristic powerful gliding flight, and is capable of covering large distances. Males indulge in 'hill-topping', i.e. flying to congregate at the top of hills, where they compete for the attention of passing females. At lowland sites they patrol back and forth along a regular route in search of females. Often both sexes home in on a particular clump of bushes where courtship and copulation take place. The pair often remain joined for 2 or 3 hours before the female departs to oviposit.

In the morning, and again in late afternoon both sexes can be seen flying freely about their habitat, pausing regularly to nectar at the pink flowers of angelica, knapweeds, marsh thistles, red campion, ragged robin and valerian. When nectaring they keep their wings constantly fluttering to prevent the weight of their bodies from dragging down on the fragile flowers. This fluttering behaviour is typical of all Papilioninae, wherever they occur in the world.

In cool but sunny weather, or during periods of hazy sunshine, Swallowtails can sometimes be seen basking amongst dry grasses. During overcast weather they roost hanging from reed stems, and probably also amongst the foliage of sallow and alder bushes, and other fenland vegetation.

Papilio machaon, Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia, Canada  Martin Gascoigne-Pees



Contact  /  About me

Butterfly-watching holidays

Trip reports

UK latest sightings

Frequently asked questions

Strange but true !

Taxonomy & Evolution



Enemies of butterflies

Survival strategies

Migration & dispersal

Habitats - UK / Palaearctic

Habitats - Tropical rainforests

Butterfly world census

Butterflies of the World :

British Isles


Amazon & Andes

North America

temperate Asia


Indian subcontinent

Malaysia & Borneo

Papua New Guinea

Australia & N.Z.

Insects of Britain & Europe

Insects of Amazonia

Moths of the Andes

Saturniidae - Silkmoths

Caterpillars of the World

Butterfly Photography

Recommended Books



Code of practice

Copyright - text & images

Copyright - text & images






All photographs, artwork, text & website design are the property of Adrian Hoskins ( unless otherwise stated ) and are protected by Copyright. Photographs or text on this website must not be reproduced in part or in whole or published elsewhere without prior written consent of Adrian Hoskins / learnaboutbutterflies.com

Site hosted by Just Host