A gratifying sign that spring has finally arrived fluttered around my face last week before landing on my shoulder as I sat alongside a woodland creek. Male tiger swallowtails are always a spectacular yellow with black wing stripes. This one wanted me to be aware that he was on the scene. Female tiger swallowtails that are yellow have a row of blue spots on the back edge of the wing. Some females also have a black form.
The tiger swallowtail is the state butterfly of six states – Alabama, Delaware, both Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. Selecting this magnificent insect as an official state symbol is commendable. One might justifiably wonder, however, what Alabama’s state legislators were thinking when they chose the tiger swallowtail as the state’s official “butterfly,” while anointing the monarch butterfly as the state “insect.” Fathoming the whys and wherefores of legislative decisions is often perplexing. One assumes the duly elected officials of the time (both butterflies were made official state symbols in 1989) realized that swallowtails are also insects. So either a political agenda was in play or the legislators got their antennae crossed.
Alabama may have a state insect (that happens to be a butterfly) and a state butterfly (which is an insect) but several other states also deserve recognition for their selection of official insects. California gets the award for being the first state to designate an official state insect, the California dogface butterfly in 1972. The state insects of Connecticut and South Carolina are praying mantises but with a rather significant difference: the Carolina mantis is a native species, whereas Connecticut selected the European mantis, an introduced, non-native species. Ironically, both prey on other insects, making the official state insects ones that eliminate insects throughout their respective states. The state insect of Alaska and Washington, the dragonfly, is also an insect predator.
One of the coolest state insects is New Mexico’s tarantula hawk wasp. Reaching lengths of about two inches, these are the largest wasps in the country, and they depend on the largest spiders in the country (tarantulas) for their survival. Females of the gun-metal blue wasps with red wings search for a tarantula and paralyze it by stinging. The wasp then drags the helpless spider to a hole in the ground and lays her eggs inside it. A few days later the young wasp larvae hatch out and feed on the still paralyzed spider. (Ever wonder where the idea for the movie “Alien” came from?)
More than a dozen states have at least two state insects, if you count butterflies as insects, which taxonomically one does. The record for multiple state insects is currently held by Tennessee, which has four. The European honeybee is designated as the “state agricultural insect,” and the state butterfly of Tennessee is the zebra swallowtail. The other two insects are the eastern firefly and the 7-spotted ladybug. Delaware has perhaps the oddest assortment of insect symbols. It has a state butterfly (the tiger swallowtail), a state macroinvertebrate (the stonefly), and a state bug (the ladybug).
Considering how provincial state legislatures can be, I find it surprising that more than a third of the states have selected state insects that are not native to the state or even to the country. A whopping 17 states have European honeybees as official insect symbols. No one can deny the value and importance of these little stinging creatures, but they were introduced from another continent. Surely a native species could be found to be the official insect.
Understandably, most state insects are benign and often beautiful (butterflies), assist in pest control (mantises, ladybugs), or have significant commercial value (honeybees). As of now, half a dozen states have no state insect. The boll weevil, fire ant and cockroach are unlikely to make the cut in any state, but one never knows what state legislators might do. Some might even check with an entomologist and find out they already have a state insect posing under another name.
Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.