No wall can separate a Gulf Fritillary from its host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
The Gulf Frit Agraulis vanillae), an orangish-reddish butterfly of the family Nymphalidae, fluttered over our six-foot fence, heading straight for the passionflower vine. What's a little height when there are eggs to lay?
The showy butterfly's silver-spangled underwings glowed in the sunlight.
Its history glows, too. It first appeared in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s, according to noted butterfly researcher Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He's been monitoring the butterflies of central California for four decades and maintains this website.
From San Diego, “it spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908," says Shapiro. "It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
We remember hearing about the butterfly in the Sacramento/Davis area in the 1960s. Shapiro says it “apparently bred in the Sacramento area and possibly in Davis in the 1960s, becoming extinct in the early 1970s, then recolonizing again throughout the area since 2000.”
Last year, at our home in Vacaville, the caterpillars were so thick on the vine that they skeletonized it. Killed it, they did. Deader than the proverbial doornail or a nail hammered into the fence. But not to worry--we have more plants this year for them.
Watching them flutter over the wall and lay their eggs on the Passiflora is a good thing. Soon we'll see males chasing them like winged ballet dancers, eventually providing us with even more Gulf Frits. You can never have too much of a good thing. Not ever.
Ever seen this mottled brownish/blackish/grayish moth around lately? The alfalfa looper moth, Autographa californica?
We spotted this moth, as identified by Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, and Bohart Museum of Entomology associate Greg Kareofelas, a naturalist and photographer, nectaring on mustard blossoms last weekend in Vacaville, Calif.
It was flying during the day. "They are semi- to quite diurnal," says Shapiro, who has been seeing "a lot of them" lately, including at his research field site in Gates Canyon, Vacaville. "The caterpillars are semiloopers and feed a great variety of herbaceous plants."
A moth of the Noctuidae family, it's found from Southern British Columbia to Baja California and to Manitoba, South Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico, according to Wikipedia.
The caterpillars can be troublesome, according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. The 'cats feed on the leaves of many plants, including agricultural crops such as dry beans, lettuce, artichoke, cotton, and tomatoes. They are often mistaken for their fellow leaf eaters, the cabbage looper, Trichoplusia ni.
"Alfalfa and cabbage loopers are quite similar in appearance," UC IPM says on its website. "The greenish larvae crawl by arching their bodies and are 1 to 1.5 inches long when mature. Looper eggs are similar to those of the bollworm in that they are spherical with vertical ridges from top to bottom. However, looper eggs are more flattened and have finer ridges. Alfalfa looper is usually found in May and early June while cabbage looper appears in late June through September."
The adult Autographa californica stopped by for about five minutes for a little food, and then it was off, flying awkwardly. It would have been easy prey for a hungry bird. Or a not-so-hungry bird.
And the winner is…drumroll…Art Shapiro. Yes, he's won again!
We're not sure how many folks were out searching in the three-county area of Sacramento, Solano and Yolo, but the first butterfly of the year is now history.
Shapiro collected the cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, at 11:23 a.m. Friday, Jan. 19 in one of his frequented sites—a mustard patch by railroad tracks in West Sacramento, Yolo County. He caught it with his hands--no net--no small feat.
Since 1972, the first flight has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20. Shapiro acknowledged that he didn't think he'd find it Jan. 19 as the weather forecast included cloudy skies and a chance of rain.
“I spotted the male butterfly dorsal basking (sunbathing) on low vegetation shortly after the first cumulous formed at 11 a.m.,” the professor said. “As I approached to collect it, a small cumulus occluded the sun and it closed its wings over its back--allowing me to just pick it up without using my net at all, and drop it into a glassine envelope. It turned out that that was the ONLY cloud that crossed the sun in the next two and a half hours! It got up to about 60 degrees and was a gorgeous day with a trace of a west wind.”
He described the butterfly as quite yellow instead of white. “Cold weather promotes sepiapterin formation, so early ones are often quite yellow.”
Apparently the newly emerged butterfly had not yet flown. When Shapiro placed it in the glassine envelope, “it voided meconium, metabolic wastes of metamorphosis, normally ejected before the first flight.” (Note that in its immature form, the cabbageworm is a pest. See UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website.)
His former graduate student, Matt Forester, now a professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a research collaborator with Shapiro, accurately predicted the first butterfly would be found on Jan. 19.
This is the seventh year the winning butterfly has been collected in Yolo County. Last year Shapiro found the winner on the UC Davis campus; in 2016, graduate student Jacob Montgomery netted the winner outside his home in west Davis, and Shapiro collected all five winners from 2012 to 2015 in West Sacramento.
Shapiro mused that the 2018 winner "probably emerged an hour or so before I got there so this really is the start of the season! Let the rites of spring begin!”
How many days 'til spring? Check out this handy "Days Left to Spring" website for the days, hours and minutes./span>
If you've been looking for that cabbage white butterfly in the three-area county of Sacramento, Yolo and Solano to win UC Davis Professor Art Shapiro's "Beer for a Butterfly" contest, there's still hope.
Shapiro hasn't found it, either.
Butterflies aren't flying due to the elements: the rain, the cold and the fog.
Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology launched the "Beer for a Butterfly" contest back in 1972 as part of his scientific research. If you collect the first cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) of the year, you can trade "the bug for suds."
Shapiro is offering a pitcher of beer (or its equivalent) for the first cabbage white butterfly collected in 2018 in any one of the three counties. “Since 1972, the first flight has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20,” he says.
The butterfly inhabits vacant lots, fields and gardens where its host plants, weedy mustards, grow. What does it look like? It's a white butterfly with black dots on the upperside (which may be faint or not visible in the early season). It inhabits vacant lots, fields and gardens where its host plants, weedy mustards, grow. The male is white. The female is often slightly buffy; the "underside of the hindwing and apex of the forewing may be distinctly yellow and normally have a gray cast,” Shapiro said. “The black dots and apical spot on the upperside tend to be faint or even to disappear really early in the season.”
In its caterpillar stage, Pieris rapae is a pest. (See cabbageworm on the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website.)
Meanwhile, the contest rules include:
- It must be an adult (no caterpillars or pupae) and be captured outdoors.
- It must be brought in alive to the department office, 2320 Storer Hall, UC Davis, during work hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with the full data (exact time, date and location of the capture) and your name, address, phone number and/or e-mail. The receptionist will certify that it is alive and refrigerate it. (If you collect it on a weekend or holiday, keep it in a refrigerator; do not freeze. A few days in the fridge will not harm it.)
- Shapiro is the sole judge.
Shapiro, who is in the field more than 200 days of the year, monitoring butterflies of central California (see his website), knows where to find the cabbage whites and usually wins the contest. He has been defeated only four times since 1972--and all by UC Davis graduate students.
The professor collects many of the winners in mustard patches near railroad tracks in West Sacramento, Yolo County. Over the last eight years, five came from West Sacramento; two in Davis, Yolo County; and one in Suisun, Solano County.
The dates and locations:
- 2017: Jan. 19: Art Shapiro collected the winner on the UC Davis campus
- 2016: Jan. 16: Jacob Montgomery, UC Davis graduate student, collected the winner in west Davis
- 2015: Jan. 26: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2014: Jan. 14: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2013: Jan. 21: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2012: Jan. 8: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2011: Jan. 31: Shapiro collected the winner in Suisun, Solano County
- 2010: Jan. 27: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
The search continues!
Ready? Set? Go?
The search party is almost ready to start. If you're lucky, you'll net the prize before Art Shapiro does.
Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, has announced his annual “Butterfly for a Beer" contest: the person who collects the first cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapae) of the year in one of three counties—Sacramento, Yolo and Solano—will receive a pitcher of beer or its equivalent. The butterfly must be collected outdoors and delivered live to the Department of Evolution and Ecology, Room 2320 of Storer Hall. (See rules)
As you may remember, Shapiro launched the contest in 1972 as part of his scientific research. Since 1972, the first flight of the cabbage white butterfly has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20. He predicts that the first butterfly of 2018 may be collected as soon as Jan. 5 or 6, “depending on the weather.”
He's usually the winner; he's been defeated only four times, and then by UC Davis graduate students.
And yes, he's had some humorous moments.
Some folks contact him way way way after it's all over and done (like in the spring!) with a collected specimen and ask him if they've won.
We thought about declaring ourselves the winner to the good professor after photographing dozens of them all spring and into summer and late fall and encountering hundreds more.
Meanwhile, starting Jan. 1, the cabbage white will be the most sought-after insect in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Solano.
They're not easy to find in January. Neither are they always easy to photograph seasonally. They seem to flutter out of your viewfinder just as you're about to focus on them. Wait, wait, come back! I'm not through yet!
Other times, they photobomb your long-awaited image, like last summer when I was zeroing in on a solo bee on a bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis).
Webster defines photobombing this way: "to spoil a photograph of by unexpectedly appearing in the camera's field of view as the picture is taken, typically as a prank or practical joke."
In this case, they both wanted the same nectar. The photo amounted to a "two-fer"--two insects for the price (prize?) of one.
And then the determined cabbage white butterfly circled the hapless honey bee for another photobomb opportunity. Aren't you done, yet?