That includes crab spiders that sprawl atop a flower, flatten themselves, and wait, oh, so patiently, for dinner.
We've seen them nab green bottle flies, sweat bees and honey bees.
They pounce, inject a killer venom, and dinner is served.
Often the crab spider's catch results in uninvited guests for dinner. "Freeloader flies"-- family Milichiidae--come out of nowhere and share in the bounty. Let's eat! No reservations, no check, no tip.
Spiders are fascinating critters. We all know that spiders are arachnids, not insects. Spiders have eight legs, while insects have six. Spiders are found on every continent except Antarctica. And they've been around a long, long time. Wikipedia says: "True spiders have been found in Carboniferous rocks from 318 to 299 million years ago, and are very similar to the most primitive surviving suborder, the Mesothelae. The main groups of modern spiders, Mygalomorphae and Araneomorphae, first appeared in the Triassic period, before 200 million years ago."
What's really interesting about crab spiders is that they can change colors to camouflage themselves. I've seen yellow spiders on Gold Coin (Asteriscus maritimus), and multi-colored (pink and white) crab spiders on Sedum.
Floral visitors beware!
People with an abnormal fear of spiders--arachnophobia--shouldn't fear crab spiders. They're not aggressive toward humans. Their bite is venomous to their prey, but not harmful to us.
Watching them eat, however, can be a little disturbing....especially when they're eating a honey bee. Please don't eat the pollinators!
Let's celebrate the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).
If you have a passionflower vine (Passiflora) in your yard, you've probably seen these spectacular orangish-reddish butterflies with silver-spangled underwings fluttering around--the males patrolling for females, the mating, the females laying eggs, the caterpillars hatching from the eggs, and the caterpillars munching and crunching until their last instar. Then you'll see them forming chrysalids, and butterflies eclosing.
The unseen world of Gulf Frits. The miraculous unseen world of Gulf Frits. Because it is.
That came to mind the other day when two passersby saw a dozen or so Gulf Frits heading into our yard.
"Look at all the butterflies!" one exclaimed. "I wonder what's attracting them."
"I don't know," the other said. "They must have a butterfly bush, maybe?"
"Oh, that's probably it. A butterfly bush."
Well, what's attracting them is the Passiflora, the host plant of the Gulf Frits. It's a congregation without a church. It's a gathering without a sermon. It's Nature at its finest. The Gulf Frits, aka "passion butterflies," lay their eggs only on the passionflower vine--mostly on the tendrils or leaves. The caterpillars will eat only Passiflora. The adults? They'll nectar on such plants as the butterfly bush, Mexican sunflower and lantana but will stay close to the Passiflora for mating and egg-laying.
If you're lucky, you'll see the entire life cycle--from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult.
If you're really lucky, you'll see the tiny yellow eggs, which are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The yellow eggs turn from orange to rust, the color of the caterpillar inside.
The butterfly, found in many parts of the world, is a relatively newcomer to California. It was documented in Southern California, in the San Diego area, in the 1870s, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis. “It spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908. It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
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.”
Today I explored the unseen and intricate world of Gulf Frits in our Vacaville (Solano County) backyard, managing to capture a few images. Then the unexpected happened. For the first time in the five years we've been rearing Gulf Frits, one landed on me! Apparently mistaking me for a plant, she touched down on my green t-shirt (which probably carried the scent of the passionflower vine). She was all set to lay an egg until....two males approached. Startled and a bit rattled--hey, I'm laying an egg here, leave me alone!--off she flew.
This time she vanished inside the depths of the passionflower vine.
With any luck, she'll do just fine in this congregation without a church, in this gathering without a sermon. She'll provide another generation that resembles the striking colors of those stained glass windows in a religious sanctuary.
It's one of the most recognizable of all insects--if you can find it.
Ever had someone poke you and point toward a plant: "Look, there's a praying mantis?"
"Right there. See it?"
"No. Where is it?
"Right there. It's right there. Can't you see it?"
People aren't the only ones who can't see it. Neither can their prey, including honey bees, bumble bees, sweat bees, long-horned bees and assorted butterflies. Praying mantids are so camouflaged that they look like part of the plant.
We recently spotted a praying mantis clinging to our broad-leafed milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. The milkweed is meant for monarchs, their host plant, but it's also occupied by many guests, including lady beetles (aka ladybugs), lacewings, aphids, carpenter bees, honey bees, milkweed bugs, moths and spiders.
The praying mantis checked out the milkweed as people would a restaurant menu. It crawled along in the shadows, emerged into the sunshine, and crawled back into the shadows again, before summitting the plant.
It caught no prey. But it did look. A monarch circled the milkweed and fluttered off, heading toward a narrow-leafed milkweed. A lady beetle scurried down a leaf. A milkweed bug slipped behind a leaf.
And the aphids, well, they kept on eating.
The ever-patient praying mantis, with its elongated body, spiked forelegs, long antennae, and triangular head, complete with bulging compound eyes, is like no other insect. It's an ambush predator, totally equipped to be a predator and snag prey in a split second. Thankfully, it's not interested in us!
Splat! Splat! Splat! What was that?
A squadron of flying insects? No, more like multiple squadrons of flying insects.
There's a major outbreak in the area of alfalfa butterflies, also known as sulphur butterflies, Colias eurytheme.
Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology who has monitored butterflies in Central California for more than 40 years and posts information on his website, says he's been receiving lots of inquiries about the sulphur butterfly outbreak. Their caterpillars are major pests of alfalfa. The 'cats can consume an entire alfalfa leaf, including the midrib.
"Outbreaks like this used to be commonplace in late summer and fall in the Valley," Shapiro says, "but they disappeared during the drought: from 2012 through 2015 there were hardly any Colias, and I even contacted ranchers and farm advisers to find out if they were using any new pesticides or had altered alfalfa culture in some way that might account for the situation." The answer: No.
"The last big outbreak around here (Davis) was in October 2012," the professor noted. "Long-time residents can recall killing multitudes of them when driving near alfalfa fields in the Valley back in the 'old days.' Now it's happening again! Mass dispersal, like we're seeing now--when they blanket urban flower gardens and mowed lawns--typically occurs when the alfalfa is cut. Females are laying eggs on clover in lawns. One is, of course, tempted to say it must somehow be related to the weather--but we really don't know."
Encounters with cars and people and--yes, predators--continue. We just noticed an alfalfa butterfly trapped in a spider web in our yard.
There will be more.
UC Statewide Integrated Pest Program: Alfalfa Butterfly
You gotta love those 'cats.
Gulf Fritillary caterpillars (Agraulis vanillae) are always hungry. They're as hungry as teenagers returning home from a marathon swimming meet or from a double-overtime basketball game. As soon as they step in the front door, it's off to the refrigerator. What's to eat? I'm starving! When's dinner?
Gulf Frit caterpillars are like starving teens. The 'cats will eat everything in sight--the leaves, buds, flowers and stems of their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora). "Host plant" is a good word--you be the host, Passiflora, and we, the Gulf Frits, will eat it all. Everything.
In fact, Gulf Frit caterpillars will compete for food and knock one another around. When food is scare, they'll engage in a little cannibalism.
If you have a healthy passionflower vine and a good supply of Gulf Frits, chances are your plant will be skeletonized by the end of the season. The 'cats will eat heartily, form a "J," spin into a chrysalis, and voila! An adult butterfly will eclose. That's what butterflies do.
In a previous Bug Squad, we mentioned that the Gulf Frits are found in many parts of the world and arrived in California (San Diego) in the 1870s, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. They spread through Southern California in urban settings and were first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908, Shapiro says. They "became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro says the Gulf Frits “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.”
Some folks don't like Gulf Frits skeletonizing their passionflower vines. They grow them for the passion fruit and for their floral beauty. And when the Gulf Frits take over and decimate the plants? "We look like bad gardeners," lamented one UC Master Gardener.
Bad gardeners? Well, no. Good butterfly conservationists? Yes!