No, the stuffed turkey didn't slip out of the oven and fall on the floor. Nor did the pumpkin pie turn another shade of orange.
Some unexpected guests arrived--four to be exact.
That's the number of monarch caterpillars we found on our tropical milkweed (Asclepia curassavida) in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
Between Nov. 15 and Nov. 24, we've discovered 12 caterpillars on our tropical milkweed, a non-native perennial. (Three other species of milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepias speciosa, and Asclepias fascicularis, also thrive in our pollinator garden.)
Just when we thought our small-scale conservation project of rearing and releasing monarchs is all over 'til next year, it's not. Our season total of 54 monarchs is likely to increase.
"This is really far inland for such late breeding," said butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology who has been studying Central California butterflies for more than four decades and maintains a website on his work and monitoring observations. "Winter breeding has been occurring near the coast for some years now, but I recall no records this late east of the East Bay. October, yes. November? We really need to understand the physiology and genetics of non-repro-diapausing winter monarchs!"
"We've been seeing evidence of a significant fall window of opportunity for larval monarch development for a few years now, which seems different than the historical pattern," noted Louie Yang, associate professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. "I've wondered if these are returning migrants that are breaking reproductive diapause when they encounter warm conditions in the Valley. I've mostly seen them on late season native milkweeds, but of course the tropical milkweeds are even more persistent."
Meanwhile, the 12 monarchs are the center of attention--well, at least a corner of attention--on our kitchen counter. Our setup: two mesh, zippered containers from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis; and four narrow-necked, flat-bottomed bottles filled with water and milkweed stems.
The monarch caterpillars are doing what monarch caterpillars do best--and what folks around the Thanksgiving dinner table do best. Eat.
They didn't get the memo.
Summer is over. Fall is underway. Winter is coming (Dec. 21).
But the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are still laying eggs on the passionflower vine here in Vacaville, Calif. The eggs are hatching. The caterpillars are eating. The 'cats are pupating. And the adults are eclosing from the chrysalids.
And then the cycle of life begins all over again: from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult.
Actually, we've seen Gulf Frits here year around--even photographed them laying eggs on Christmas Day. Gulf Frits don't go through diapause here. They mate year around.
Of course, the survival rate is low. An estimated 95 percent of all butterflies don't make it from egg to adult, scientists say.
We've seen why. Spiders, praying mantids, yellowjackets, European paper wasps, birds, diseases, and such parasitoids as tachinid flies and wasps that lay their eggs in the caterpillars or bore into the chrysalids.
If you look closely, you can sometimes see the parasitoid evidence (hole), such as the one below. Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology and an expert on butterflies, says that judging by the size of this hole, it was a large parasitoid--probably a big tachinid fly or an ichneumonid (wasp).
Just part of the cycle of life...
This just in for Halloween!
Ever seen a false black widow spider?
Commonly known as the cupboard spider, it's a semi-cosmopolitan spider that's often confused with the "real" black widow spider, known for its powerful venom.
Adrienne Shapiro of Davis took this photo (below) of a spider on the Shapiro property (photographed and released). Her husband, Art, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, identified it as a female false black widow, Steatoda grossa.
"The overall appearance is very similar to the real thing, except it lacks the red spot on the belly and usually--but not always--has some yellow patterning on the dorsal abdomen: a crescent-like line at the anterior end and a row of triangular spots down the midline, visible here," Shapiro commented.
"But a few may be all black, or the yellow is barely visible," he noted. "This is a semi-cosmopolitan species usually found in or around buildings. It's originally from the Mediterranean region and in the United States and is mostly urban-bicoastal, absent from the heartland. Its habits are nearly identical to the black widow. It's not very common and I personally have never seen it in Davis before. The bite of the female IS venomous, but not to the degree a true black widow bite is. The symptoms are usually local pain, redness and blistering, but some people report generalized malaise for up to a couple of days. I am unaware of any deaths or serious sequelae."
Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, says he gets a few calls about the false black widow. "Steatoda mostly lives under things on the ground," he said, "while the black widows live a little bit off the ground."
We've never seen the false black widow, but have seen numerous black widows (genus Latrodectus.) One black widow homesteaded on the rim of our swimming pool several years ago and we managed to photograph Mama straddling her egg cases. The familiar red hourglass was definitely visible!
The black widow's bite, particularly harmful to people, contains neurotoxin latrotoxin, which causes the condition latrodectism, both named for the genus. Only the female bite is harmful. But the bite is rarely fatal to humans.
We watched Mama scurry around, seemingly trying to protect both egg cases simultaneously from the long-lensed camera.
She was like a Mama Grizzly protecting her cubs.
We've seen monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Western tiger swallowtails, buckeyes, and fiery skippers nectaring on our Mexican sunflowers. But nary a common checkered skipper.
Where, we wondered, are the common checkered skippers?
Just as we were thinking that the common checkered skipper (Pyrgus communis) is not all that common and is not living up to its name, it appeared. Right on cue.
It nectared on the Tithonia and then fluttered away.
It will be back, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, and Bohart Museum of Entomology associate Greg Kareofelas.
Its host plant is mallow and last spring we planted several tree mallows, Lavatera maritima--those drop-dead gorgeous plants with purple-throated pale lavender flowers. A bonus: unlike we Californians, the mallow loves the drought. It does not get thirsty. Plus, it attracts a variety of insects, and blooms much of the year.
Shapiro, who has monitored the Central California population of butterflies for more than four decades and maintains a website, Art's Butterfly World, says this about Pyrgus communis on his educational website:
"This familiar insect appears to be found from sea level to tree line-but things are more complicated than that. At the molecular-genetic level, the populations along our transect are apparently two different species. One is multiple-brooded and occurs as high as Lang Crossing (5000') on the Sierran West slope, and then again in Sierra Valley at 5000' on the East slope. These populations today breed largely on introduced weeds of the genus Malva (in the Sacramento Valley also on the native Alkali Mallow, Malvella leprosa, and on the now rare Checkerblooms, genus Sidalcea, in tule marshes). The other is single-brooded, occurs above 6000' (including Donner and Castle Peak) and breeds only on native Sidalcea. There are very slight 'statistical' differences in pattern, but the genitalia are the same. There seem to be occasional strays of the lowland animal picked up at Donner, mainly late in the season. In southern California occurs a morphospecies, P. albescens, which differs from communis in genitalia and is, like it, multiple-brooded. This animal, however, is molecularly indistinguishable from the univoltine Sierran (genitalic) communis!
"The lowland animal occurs anywhere in the open where hosts are nearby, including urban vacant lots and around ranch buildings and corrals. The montane animal occurs in open coniferous forest with Sidalcea in the understory, and along wood roads and paths. Both visit a great variety of flowers avidly. The flight seasons are March-November in the Central Valley, June-August in montane sites, and late March/April-October at Sierra Valley. (At Sierra Valley the univoltine animal is as close as the top of Yuba Pass.)
"Males are perchers, generally well off the ground, and extremely energetic fliers. They often appear blue in flight (females, lacking the silky hairs, do not)."
Plant mallow and they will come!/span>
So here's this praying mantis perched on top of a prickly pear cactus.
It's early morning and she's hungry.
A cabbage white butterfly, looking like a white-gowned princess in a medieval palace, flutters by and pauses on the prickly pear to seek some sunshine.
Oops! Fatal mistake. When you're seeking sun, do not do that in front of a predator.
Breakfast? Yes, that's what happened.
Before you feel sorry for the cabbage white butterfly, consider this: farmers who grow cole crops, such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, would probably let out a shout of approval. That's because the cabbage white is considered a major pest of commercial cole crops. The butterfly lays her eggs--which are pale yellow to orange--in cole crops. The larvae, known as "green worms" or "green caterpillars," can cause major economic losses.
The cabbageworms have voracious appetites. They chew "large, irregular holes in leaves, born into heads, and drop greenish brown fecal pellets onto edible portions of the leaf," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program's Pest Management Guidelines on "Imported Cabbageworm" (Pieris rapae).
In home gardens, the cabbage white is considered a minor pest, although gardeners aren't fond of cutting open a broccoli head only to see that cabbageworms got there first.
At UC Davis, the common cabbage white butterfly assumes a more scientific role. Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, hosts an annual "Butterfly for a Beer" contest. The first person in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Solano who brings in the first cabbage white of the year wins a pitcher of beer. It's all in the interest of science.
Shapiro, who does long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate, says the cabbage white is “typically one of the first butterflies to emerge in late winter. “Since 1972, the first flight has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20.”
The 2016 winner was UC Davis graduate student Jacob Montgomery, who caught the cabbage white outside his home in West Davis.
Shapiro, who has monitored the Central California population of butterflies for more than four decades, says the cabbage white is now emerging a week or so earlier on average than it did 30 years ago here.
As for the praying mantis, the cabbage white butterfly was just...breakfast.