What we've always loved about the county fairs: the incredible exhibits. Especially exhibits dealing with photographs and paintings of insects.
When the Solano County Fair in Vallejo opens Wednesday, July 29 and continues through Sunday, Aug. 2, you'll see butterflies and bees (live ones!) on the grounds at 900 Fairgrounds Drive, but inside the exhibit halls, you'll see other bugs.
In the adult section, Iris Mayhew of Vallejo, who acknowledges being a beginning artist, painted a Western tiger swallowtail on a decorative plate. She's hoping to get more involved in painting insects, including honey bees and dragonflies.
It's art imitating real life but she's made it her own. It was Oscar Wilde who wrote in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life".
Last Sunday, McCormack Hall superintendent Gloria Gonzalez and assistant superintendent Sharon Payne and assistants Angelina Gonzalez, Julianna Payne and Iris Mayhew and her 10-year-old Ian Mayhew, all of Vallejo, were busily dressing up the hall for fairtime. They affixed best-of-show, best-of-division and blue ribbons (bragging rights) to the exhibits, transforming a once empty hall to a county celebration.
The work of the Gonzalez-Payne team will bring back memories of fairs gone by--from weathered old barns to intricately detailed quilts to patiently pickled preserves. Yes, someone even preserved quail eggs!
It's time to round up friends and family to see what the county fair has to offer.
And quite appropriately, the theme is "Meet Me at the Fair!"
There is such a thing as a free lunch. And a free breakfast. And a free dinner.
And a free snack.
That is, if you're a freeloader fly.
If you've ever watched a spider snare a bee or other insect in its web, and wrap it like a fit-to-be-tied holiday present, you've probably seen tiny little freeloader flies dining on the prey.
They are so tiny--usually 1 to 3 mm in length--that it takes a keen eye to spot them if they're not moving. The eyes are often red though "this need not be obvious because many species of the flies are small and dusky."
The close-up below is a hand-held photo taken with a Canon EOS 7D with a MPE-65mm lens.
Freeloader flies belong to the family Milichiidae. The close-up below may be in the genus Desmometopa, but it's difficult to tell by the image, says Martin Hauser, senior insect biosystematist with the Plant Pest Diagnostics, California Department of Food and Agriculture.
As it turned out, the spider dropped its prey and the freeloaders flies didn't have to leave the table.
Muir said it well.
Muir (1938-1914), the naturalist and conservationist known as "The Father of Our National Parks," was the driving force behind the establishment of our national parks, including Yosemite National Park.
But have you ever thought about what he said: ""When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe"?
In our yard, we are rearing Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) on their host plant, the passionflower vine. The Gulf Frit is a bright orangish-reddish butterfly with silver-spangled underwings. It's a member of the family Nymphalidae and subfamily Heliconiinae.
We also consider it part of our family. The females and males mate, the females lay eggs on the passionflower vine, the eggs become caterpillars and the caterpillars become adults. That is, if the Western scrub jays and the praying mantids and the European paper wasps let them.
Lately, the caterpillars seem to be multiplying faster than the proverbial rabbits. The Western scrub jays are missing. They no longer sit on the fence and cherry-pick their prey. Why are they MIA? Three resident juvenile Cooper's hawks (as identified by Andrew Engilis, Jr., curator of the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology) possess an appetite for jays (among other prey). The result: too many caterpillars on our passionflower vine. The 'cats are defoliating the plant faster than we expected. In short, it's a veritable population crisis on our passionflower vine.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
We love the caterpillars. We love the butterflies. We love the praying mantids. And we are trying our best to love, or at least like, the wasps after hearing researcher Amy Toth of Iowa State University speak fondly of them at UC Davis. Read the 10 things we should like about wasps. Note that she's trying to popularize the hashtag, #wasplove.
Meanwhile, what about those hawks? It's hawk heaven here. We love seeing them cooling their toes, splashing around in our front-yard birdbath, and communicating with their siblings. It's a sign of the times. California's severe drought means an influx of critters, large and small, heading for urban birdbaths. In addition to hawks, our birdbath draws squirrels, doves, finches, woodpeckers, scrub jays, sparrows, crows, honey bees and even a passing wild turkey with a neck long enough to reach the water.
Lately, it's a hawk birdbath. The jays are gone. The caterpillars are thriving.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
Oh, what a (moth) night!
The event took place from 8 to 11 p.m. The crowd marveled at the moth specimens inside the museum, and then stepped outside to check the moths flying into blacklighting and mercury vapor setup.
Like a moth to a flame...
"We saw some familiar faces, but many new ones," said Tabatha Yang, public education and outreach coordinator for the Bohart Museum, home of nearly eight million insect specimens.
It was "getaway weekend" for a mother-daughter team. They booked room reservations a Davis hotel, and did some shopping. Then it was Moth Night. "The daughter, a high school sophomore, came here for the 4-H Field Day this spring," Yang noted. Keenly interested in entomology, the teenager decided the Bohart open house "was a good reason for her to come back."
Another teenage visitor was in a Tech Trek (a STEM outreach event for junior high girls) and brought her family to the open house.
Highlights of Moth Night included:
- Entomologist and Bohart associate Jeff Smith of Rocklin demonstrating Lepitodera preparation using material that entomologist Fran Keller recently brought back from Belize.
- "Moth Man" John DeBenedictis of Davis and Bohart senior museum scientist Steve Heydon showing the crowd the moths flying into the blacklighting and mercury vapor lighting setup.
- Bohart associate Greg Kareofelas of Davis guiding guests through the moth collection
Also helping were volunteers Maia Lundy, Fran Keller, Wade Spencer, Laura Morgan, Alex Nguyen, Melissa Cruz, Joel Hernandez, James Heydon, Anita Pratap, and Maria Nansen with daughters Miriam, 15, Emma, 12, and Molly, 6. Their father is a UC Davis entomologist. The sisters helped the visitors create buttons.
The event wrapped up "the very successful 10 weekend events we hosted this past academic year," Yang noted. "Stay tuned for the 2015-2016 Bohart 0pen Huse schedule to be announced later in August."
The museum is directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
So says ecologist Richard 'Rick' Karban, professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, and author of the newly published book, Plant Sensing and Communication (University of Chicago Press).
Over the past several years, we've heard Karban speak about plant communication at UC Davis and beyond. His talks always draw an enthusiastic crowd.
Whenever I see Gulf Fritillary caterpillars chewing on our passionflower vine (yes, we planted the vine for the butterflies), I wonder what the plant is sensing with all that crunching, munching and chomping going on. Sometimes a scrub jay will swoop down and grab a beakful of caterpillars. Sometimes a praying mantis or European paper wasp will target the 'cats. Sometimes I feel sorry for the passionflower vine--especially after the 'cats have defoliated it, leaving only scarred stems.
It's a battlefield out there, and so fascinating.
So we asked Karban "What are 10 things to know about plant sensing and communication?"
Here's the list:
- Plants sense their environments and respond.
- Although they lack central nervous systems, they process information and appear to "behave intelligently."
- They sense the position of competitors and "forage" for light.
- They sense the availability of water and nutrients in the soil and "forage" for these resources.
- Their decisions are influenced by past experiences, akin to memory.
- The respond to reliable cues that predict future events, allowing them to "anticipate."
- Plants respond differently to cues that they themselves produce, allowing them to distinguish self from non-self.
- They respond differently to close relatives and strangers.
- Plants that are prevented from sensing or responding experience reduced fitness.
- By understanding the "language" of plant responses, we can grow healthier and more productive plants.
The 240-page book is a “landmark in its field,” said Graeme Ruxton of the University of St. Andrews, UK, co-author of Experimental Design for the Life Sciences and Plant-Animal Communication.
“Karban seeks to argue that plants behave—that they sense their environment, detect and communicate with an array of different organisms, and respond to their sense of the environment and communication,” Ruxton said. ”He is very successful in this, demonstrating that plant sensing and communication is a vibrant area of current research with still plenty more to discover.”
The book is “the first comprehensive overview of what is known about how plants perceive their environments, communicate those perceptions, and learn,” according to the publisher. “Facing many of the same challenges as animals, plants have developed many similar capabilities: they sense light, chemicals, mechanical stimulation, temperature, electricity, and sound. Moreover, prior experiences have lasting impacts on sensitivity and response to cues; plants, in essence, have memory."
Karban has researched plant communication in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) on the east side of the Sierra since 1995. His groundbreaking research on plant communication among kin, published in February 2013 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, drew international attention. In that study, Karban and his co-researchers found that kin have distinct advantages when it comes to plant communication, just as “the ability of many animals to recognize kin has allowed them to evolve diverse cooperative behaviors.”
“Plants responded more effectively to volatile cues from close relatives than from distant relatives in all four experiments and communication reduced levels of leaf damage experienced over the three growing seasons,” they wrote.
In other words, if you're a sagebrush and your nearby kin is being eaten by a grasshopper, deer, jackrabbit, caterpillar or other predator, communication is more effective if you're closely related. Through volatile cues, your kin will inform you of the danger so you can adjust your defenses.
Karban likened this kind of plant communication to eavesdropping.” Plants “hear” the volatile cues of their neighbors as predators damage them.
Karban is featured in the Dec. 23-30, 2013 edition of The New Yorker in Michael Pollan's piece, “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Plants."