Call it serendipity.
Call it a prize from the sky.
Frankly, it's not every day that a newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, lands at your feet. It crawled from its chrysalis, hinged to a eight-foot high tree limb near our passionflower vines (Passiflora), and fell, quite unceremoniously, on a bed of wood chips.
Right where I was standing.
At first I thought a scrub jay or an European paper wasp (which keep an attentive eye on the Gulf Frit population in our yard) had nailed it.
No. This was newly emerged. It looked like a plop of red, orange and silver paint, its body limp, its antennae crumbled, its wings still damp.
I lifted it gingerly and placed it on a Passiflora to dry off. Did it fly off in five minutes? Ten minutes? Half an hour? No, it stayed for two hours. When scores of male adult butterflies ventured down to check its gender and then left, I figured it to be the same gender.
A boy butterfly.
If it were female, a male would have mated with her in minutes as one did several weeks ago when a female emerged from a chrysalis. (That, however, is not the only way you can tell gender! There are abdominal differences and males are more brightly colored, a deeper reddish-orange, than the females.)
Boy Butterfly leaned his head back, opened and stretched his wings, and finally, he took off, touching me on the shoulder as he floated by.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis who monitors the butterfly population in the Central Valley, is glad to see the Gulf Frits making a comeback in this area. He writes on his website:
"this dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century--we don't know how--and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s. It can be quite common in the East and South Bay--particularly in Berkeley--and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions. According to Hal Michael, who grew up in South Sacramento, this species bred there in abundance on garden Passiflora in the early 1960s. It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
As for Boy Butterfly, a loudly buzzing female Valley carpenter bee attempting to forage on a flower near his head, prompted his rather abrupt departure.
As summer nears its end, the honey bees are hungry.
That's why Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology advocates that we plant flowers for late summer and fall to help the bees. Often we think of spring as the season for planting bee plants, but mid- to late summer and fall is when they really need our help.
Malnutrition is one of the factors suspected in colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious malardy in which adult bees abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen bee, immature brood and food stores. Other factors in the declining bee population include pesticides, pests, diseases and stress.
If you look around, you'll see bees foraging in Northern California on blanket flower (Gaillardia), sedum (family Crassulaceae) and late-blooming towers of jewels (Echium wildpretii).
And the lavenders, salvias (sages) and the mints.
Current resources? The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation features plant lists on its site. The UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab maintains a wealth of information about plants and pollinators on its site. There's even a Bee Smart app, offered free by the Pollinator Partnership, that will enable you to browse through about 1000 native plants.
Some of my favorite honey bee plants: the lavenders, the salvias, sunflowers, catmint, sedum, blanket flowers, oregano, artichoke, zinnias, cosmos, borage, bush germander, buckwheat, basil, ceanothus, coneflowers, seaside daisies, red hot poker, and of course, the tower of jewels, which, in height, towers over them all.
Today (Labor Day) began just like any other day.
And it ended just like any other day, except for the Labor Day celebrations that we humans plan.
For Nature's predators and prey that frequent our garden, however, it was an intertwining of life and death.
A western spotted orb weaver, Neoscona oaxacensis, spun a web on our tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, and snagged, killed and wrapped a honey bee. Using the web as its lifeline, it tugged the bee into the shadows to eat it, undisturbed.
The tower of jewels, in bloom now for five months, looks like a tower of bees when the honey bees, syrphid flies, and carpenter bees share it. The plant is looking a little ragged now--it's going to seed--but it's still producing spectacular reddish-pink blossoms.
The spiders know where to spin their webs. They will be back tomorrow, as will the honey bees.
Ever seen honey bees foraging for water on your outdoor clothesline?
When Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis, addresses beekeeping associations, he tells them to "always provide water for your bees on your property. Otherwise, they will visit the neighbor's hanging laundry, bird bath, swamp cooler, dog dish, leaky hose connection, etc."
Bees collect nectar, pollen, propolis (plant resin) and water for their colonies. On very hot days, you'll see scores of bees at a water fountain, bird bath, or pond.
Kim Flottum, editor of the Bee Culture magazine, writes in his book, The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden: "A summer colony needs at least a quart (liter) of water every day, and even more when it's warm."
Flottum points out: "Water is as necessary to your bees as it is to your pets and to you. Whatever watering technique you choose for your bees, the goal is to provide a continuous supply of fresh water. This means while you are on vacation for a couple of weeks, when you get busy and forget to check, and especially when it's really, really hot--bees always need water."
With temperatures soaring to 100 degrees today in Yolo and Solano counties, that's good advice.
Mussen and Flottum acknowledge that bees are industrious and will find water somewhere even if their regular source is unavailable. "Water is used to dissolve crystallized honey, to dilute honey when producing larval food, for evaporation cooling during warm weather, and for a cool drink on a hot day," Flottum writes in his book.
We've watched bees gathering water from our bird bath. We've seen hawks, doves, squirrels, crows, finches and bees sipping water there--as well as our cat, Xena the Warrior Princess. Not all at the same time, though! The Cooper's Hawk reigns supreme.
At the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, bees can sip water from a slanted board propped against a slowly dripping faucet, or from the specially designed watering devices at the nearby Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden that doubles as an educational resource.
Bees know exactly where to return for the same water source. "Foragers seem to seek water sources that are scented," Flottum says.
This could be from a roadside ditch, storm drain, fish pond, dog dish or bird bath.
"Foragers will mark unscented sources of water with their Nasonov pheromone so others can locate the source too," Flottum writes.
Flottum's book is one of the "must-have" books for a beekeeper's library or for anyone wanting to learn more about bees.
You can read more about bees in Mussen's newsletters, from the UC apiaries, posted on his website.
You'll want to join the Butterfly Ecology Talk and Tour presented by naturalist Steve Daubert.
Daubert, a molecular scientist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology, not only writes scientific technical text, but he also writes short stories, illustrated with his own photographs. He blogs at threadsintheweb.com.
The free butterfly tour around campus, sponsored by the UC Arboretum, is set for 11 a.m. to 12:30. He'll discuss the "flowers that sustain our native butterflies and the plants that support these larval stages," according to Arboretum officials.
The participants will meet on the Wyatt Deck at the Arboretum. All ages are welcome. No reservations are required. (See maps)
"I would hope we see at least tiger and pipevine swallowtails, field and duskywing skippers, gray hairstreak, alfalfa sulfur and cabbage white--and when anything else floats by, we will be ready," Daubert told us.
Daubert recently published a 200-page book, The Shark and the Jellyfish: More Stories in Natural History, which a critic says "presents 26 gripping new stories in a sequel to his acclaimed earlier natural history anthology," Threads from the Web of Life: Stories in Natural History.
Daubert "teaches by drawing you into the drama, excitement and beauty of nature," commented Don Glass, host of the National Public Radio-syndicated program, "A Moment of Science." (Vanderbilt University Press, July 2009)
On his website, Daubert writes: "There are countless stories out there in the wild world. They bubble up from the middle of the ocean or from a shady streamside eddy—from anywhere you stop to appreciate the natural out-doors. Those ideas grow and fuse; they evolve when viewed from each other’s perspective. Sometimes they present themselves as narratives that demand to be written down and explored further. Such as the spontaneous inspiration for the tales written on this site.”
Daubert describes himself as a “writer of short stories in ecology, geology, astronomy—topics from the natural world.” Read more about him here.
Meanwhile, check out his stunning photograph of the variable checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas chalcedona). That alone will draw you into his world of "spontaneous inspiration."