Biodiversity in Belize
Biological Diversity in Belize
Site Search

What's New!



The complex relationship between the "Holstein" butterfly (Heliconius sapho), its food plant and its pollen source

The "holstein" (because of its black and white markings) butterfly has a very complex relationship with its environment. It depends on the caterpillar foodplant which in Belize is the rare passionvine Passiflora pittieri. No other Belizean passionvine species is capable of feeding the caterpillars of the Holstein. This passionflower has the habit of growing at very irregular intervals and most of the year there is no young growth available. The holstein caterpillars however, can not eat old leaves! 

How the holstein butterfly has overcome this problem is an interesting story which has become one of the text book examples of co-evolution. The key in this story is the Cucurbid vine Psiguria warscewiczii. This vine and the butterfly have virtually become dependant on each other (mutualism). 

The players:

Passiflora pittieri flower


The Passionvine: Passiflora pittieri is one of the rarer passionflower species in Belize. It occurs from Belize southward into South America

Heliconius sapho


The butterfly: Heliconius sapho is black and white but has a blue metalic sheen when seen under the right lighting conditions.


Psiguria warscewiczii male flowers

The cucurbid vine: Psiguria warscewiczii is a slender vine in the rainforest. The flowers are very small and the plant usually goes unnoticed.


The story below is a simplified vision of how this relationship came to be. The reality of action and reaction is much more complicated and involved many more steps and even players.


Heliconius butterfly lays eggs on passionvine

Passionvine develops toxins to deter herbivores such as Heliconius caterpillars.


Heliconius develops the ability to deal with toxins in passionvine.

Passiflora speciation leads to differences in toxicity, toxin levels etc.


Each species becomes highly specific to its host-passionvine.



Heliconius sapho caterpillars can not deal with toxin levels in mature leaves. They can only eat immature leaves

Passiflora pittieri plants spends long periods in “growth- inactivity”, but produces massive young growth at long intervals


Heliconius sapho is faced with long periods in which it can not lay eggs because the foodplant is not producing young growth






Only way to overcome this dilemma is by staying alive a long time.

Heliconius sapho on Psiguria


 Psiguria vines are visited by the butterflies for pollen.

By developing the ability to eat pollen (nutritious food), the butterfly can now live for up to 6 months and wait for the next young Passiflora shoot to appear


Heliconius with pollen load on proboscis

Psiguria warscewiczii male flowers



Psiguria vines develop small flowers forcing the butterflies to visit many flowers, thus increasing chances for cross-pollination.

Butterflies live long, have a good memory and good eyesight. They learn to locate both Passionflower and Psiguria and visit them on a daily basis to inspect for young shoots / flowers with pollen.


Passiflora pittieri vine starts to form a large young shoot


Psiguria continuously produces male flowers. By becoming a reliable pollen source they guarantee daily visits from pollen feeding (but also pollinating butterflies.

 Butterfly lays large number of eggs as the shoot just develops. 

Eggs of H.sapho on P.pittieri



 The eggs do not hatch for a relatively long time. Meanwhile shoots expand.

Eggs of H.sapho on P.pittieri growing shoot 


Heliconius butterflies only visit male flowers because female flowers do not have pollen. Psiguria vine becomes all-male. Occasionally a single plant changes sex and produces female flowers.

Eggs are timed to hatch when the amount of young leaf has expanded enough to support the large number of caterpillars

Heliconius sapho caterpillars on Passiflora pittieri

Butterfly expects to find male flower with pollen, but no pollen is available. 


While attempting to find pollen in this flower, it inadvertently leaves pollen behind that was gathered during visits to other flowers

Female flowerbuds of Psiguria warscewiczii







Pollination takes place

Developing fruit of Psiguria warscewiczii

Fruit forms

Fruit of Psiguria warscewiczii




Psiguria warscewiczii male flowers

 Psiguria vine returns to the male phase in order to keep Heliconius butterflies interested.

Back to top

About Belize|Administrative|Publications|Species Lists|Projects|Links|HOME


Send mail to with questions or comments about this website.
Copyright © 2002 and Belize Explorer Group Design Concepts
Last modified: December 8, 2003