There she was--a gorgeous orange-and-black butterfly sipping nectar from a rosemary bush near the Glen Cove Marina, Vallejo.
She seemed so out of place and out of season. It was Sunday morning, Feb. 11, and we were east of the Carquinez Bridge, with the temperature pushing 70 degrees after a raucous winter storm.
The butterfly? A West Coast Lady, Vanessa annabella (as identified by Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. It's often confused with Vanessa cardui, commonly known as "Painted Lady."
"Adults 'hibernate,' but near sea level can be seen sunbathing and being territorial on sunny, mild days all winter long," he writes on his website. "There is probably some altitudinal migration, but no evidence of latitudinal migration as in V. cardui."
"Host plants are herbaceous Mallows, including Cheeseweed (Malva), Alkali Mallow (Malvella), and Hollyhock (Alcea); not recorded locally on Velvet Leaf (Abutilon theophrasti). The species also uses Urticaceae. Several broods, the entire season at any given location."
Shapiro describes the West Coast Lady as "an earnest and generalist flower visitor. In winter often seen on flowers of Rosemary, Escallonia (an evergreen shrub or hedge) and Salpichroa (nightshade family) in gardens."
Our West Coast Lady soaked up a little sunshine and a little nectar and off she fluttered.
She's only eight years old, but already she's interested in butterflies.
Itzel Martinez of the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, entered her display on "How to Create a Butterfly Garden" at the recent Solano County 4-H Project Skills Day, where youths share what they've learned in their projects and gain experience in honing their presentation skills.
"Would you like to add some excitement to your garden?" she asked. "How about butterflies? Butterflies are attracted to specific plants."
Itzel went on to list the steps involved in butterfly gardening, including (1) doing research, (2) choosing host plants (3) choosing nectar plants (4) purchasing plants, (5) planting them and (6) enjoying them.
Who knows? She may turn out to be another butterfly guru like Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis who has studied butterflies for more than four decades and maintains a website on his research.
Meanwhile, if you're interested in gardening for butterflies, mark your calendar. The Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis has scheduled an open house for Sunday, March 19 on “Eggs to Wings: Backyard Butterfly Gardening.” The event, free and open to the public, will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. in the museum, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane.
We're in the throes of winter, but spring is rapidly approaching: March 20.
Arthur Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, annually sponsors the "Beer for a Butterfly" contest, offering a pitcher of beer for the first cabbage white butterfly (Pierae rapae) of the year found in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Sacramento. He launched the contest in 1972 as part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate. This year he again won the contest; he collected a newly eclosed butterfly at 1:56 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 near the Solano Park Apartments on the UC Davis campus.
But where's the first bumble bee of the year in the Yolo county area?
At 2:02 today (Friday, Jan. 27) naturalist and insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis alerted us: "Two Bombus melanopygus on manzanita just east of the redwood grove (UC Davis Arboretum)."
And then he found another melanopygus. It was a three-in-one day.
The story behind the story: five years ago, a small group of keen-eyed bumble bee aficionados (Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis and co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide; and three naturalists and insect photographers Gary Zamzow and Allan Jones of Davis, and yours truly of UC Davis) launched our own contest.
In an unusual twist, Jones found both genders at the same time. After finding and photographing two males just east of the Arboretum's redwood grove, he spotted and photographed a female just west of it.
"Surprising to see males this early in the season," noted Thorp, who co-authored the book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. "Unusual to see males before any workers are on site. Could be from a gyne that overwintered but was not mated before she went into hibernation; or maybe the sperm she received were not viable; or maybe she was unable to release sperm from her spermatheca to some eggs as they passed through her reproductive tract."
"At any rate," Thorp told Jones, in congratulating him, "you got two firsts for the season at one time."
Great job, Allan Jones! And the bumble bee season begins...
Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, figured it was too rainy and too cold to head over to West Sacramento to look for the first cabbage white butterfly of the year, so he walked around campus Thursday.
And he found it.
Shapiro nabbed the cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, at 1:56 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 19 in the student gardens near the Solano Park Apartments.
He again won the annual Butterfly-for-a-Beer contest, which he launched in 1972 as part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate.
The contest rules indicate that the first person who finds the first cabbage white butterfly of the year in the three-county area of Yolo, Solano and Sacramento receives a pitcher of beer or its equivalent.
Shapiro, who has been defeated only four times in the contest (and all by UC Davis graduate students) said this was the first find on the campus.
“Earlier today I was asked when P. rapae would come out, given the very wet January this year. I replied that when it stopped raining. we'd probably get into tule fog…and that would take us into February for any decent butterfly weather.”
Jan. 19 dawned with a “a cold, unstable air mass overhead,” Shapiro recalled, describing it as “an ideal convective day, with showers and thundershowers popping up.”
With the ground and the vegetation sopping wet, he figured this would not a “potential rapae day.”
“When I got out of class at noon it was bright and sunny, clear overhead but with cumulus building to the west over the Coast Range. It felt warm and I might have gone to West Sacramento, but decided by the time I got there it would have clouded over and perhaps even be raining. So I got lunch and then walked over to the student gardens near the Solano Park Apartments just to gather host plant for my rapae culture--yes, I'm mass-rearing the bugs for photoperiod studies, and have some 100 live ones in a refrigerator."
“It remained sunny and got quite warm—55 or 56, I'd say," Shapiro related. "The vegetation was indeed sopping wet. At 12:59 I saw—a rapae. It was sitting quietly, wings folded, on a cultivated Brassica. It had not opened its wings to body-bask, that is, warm the body by exposure to incoming solar radiation. If it had, it almost certainly would have flown and, being netless, I would have lost it. Instead it just sat there as I picked it off the plant. I always carry one glasseine envelope in my eyeglass case. Into the envelope it went. It's a winter-phenotype male and, I imagine, had just emerged this morning and not yet flown.”
“This is the second year in a row that the first rapae was found in a garden rather than one of the conventional ‘warm pockets,' Shapiro noted. “What does it all mean?”
Davis resident Cindy McReynolds, program manager of the Bruce Hammock lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, spotted some cabbage white butterfly chrysalids in her garden two weeks ago. "They were on the cabbage when I was removing the vegetation."
Colleague/collaborator Matthew Forister, McMinn professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno (his major professor was Shapiro), said that Shapiro's find was right on time. "You couldn't have hit closer to the trend line if you'd tried," he told him, sending him the illustration below. "This year in red," he pointed out, noting that "the slope has not changed from last year."
The cabbage white was not the only butterfly Shapiro found on Jan. 19. He also noticed a “fresh-looking female West Coast Lady, Vanessa annabella, nectaring at a crucifer in the same garden—first one of those this year too, but it's a hibernator.”
Shapiro launched the "Beer-for-a-Butterfly" contest in 1972 to draw attention to Pieris rapae and its first flight. “Since 1972, the first flight has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20.” The butterfly is emerging earlier and earlier as the regional climate has warmed, said Shapiro, who researches biological responses to climate change. "The cabbage white is now emerging a week or so earlier on average than it did 30 years ago here."
The professor, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Entomological Society and the California Academy of Sciences, said the cabbage white butterfly inhabits vacant lots, fields and gardens where its host plants, weedy mustards, grow.
Shapiro teaches his students well. The other winners were his own graduate students: Adam Porter defeated him in 1983; and Sherri Graves and Rick VanBuskirk each won in the late 1990s.
Shapiro, who is in the field more than 200 days of the year, monitoring butterflies of central California, knows where to find the cabbage whites. He has collected many of his winners in mustard patches near railroad tracks in West Sacramento, Yolo County. Over the last seven years, five of the winners came from West Sacramento; one in Davis, Yolo County; and one in Suisun, Solano County.
Coincidentally, Shapiro caught the 2013 and 2009 winners on President Obama's Inauguration Day. This year he missed President Trump's Inauguration Day by a day.
Shapiro maintains a research website on butterflies, where he records the population trends. He and artist Tim Manolis co-authored A Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions, published in 2007 by the University of California Press.
The colorful butterfly seemed to flutter from a blanket that Solano County 4-H'er Erica Lull was sewing last Saturday, Jan. 14, at a “Cuddle Me Close” community service project.
Erica, 14, a junior leader in the Tremont Countywide 4-H Service Learning Project, has made 700 blankets for new nursing mothers. The soft, flannel blankets or "cover-ups" provide privacy to breast-feeding mothers and their newborns.
Audrey Ritchey, an x-ray technician at the North Bay Medical Center, Fairfield, who triples as president of the Solano County 4-H Leaders' Council, leader of "Cuddle Me Close," and as a co-community leader of the Tremont 4-H Club, Dixon, launched the service project in 2013.
Erica took to it like a needle to thread.
“Erica has made about 60 percent of the blankets,” Ritchey said. “She's amazing.”
Ritchey, a nine-year 4-H adult volunteer (firstname.lastname@example.org) says the six youngsters in her community-service project not only learn how to sew, but learn how to connect with one another and how to budget while fulfilling a public service need. The project, Ritchey said, “promotes mother-baby bonding through skin-to-skin contact, supports positive and physical and mental development, is healthier for mother and child and is inexpensive in comparison to formula."
Studies show that breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight off viruses and bacteria and lowers the risk of allergies, ear infections, respiratory illnesses and bouts of diarrhea, said Ritchey, adding that breastfed babies also have a lower risk of childhood obesity.
Last Saturday Erica was sewing blankets during the Solano County 4-H Project Skills Day, held at the Community Presbyterian Church, Vallejo. Earlier she delivered a presentation on “The Digestive System of Chickens”--and judges awarded her a showmanship pin, signifying excellence. Then she headed upstairs to the "Cuddle Me Close" demonstrations, to sew and to teach other 4-H'ers how to sew.
Does she like butterflies? Insects? She does. “When I was a little girl, I used to be obsessed with bugs,” she acknowledged.
Odds are that the butterfly blankets she's making—the patterns also depict colorful flowers and cuddly animals—will be treasured by the new moms. “I was told that one mom started to cry when she got the cover-up,” Ritchey said. “She stated that it was the only thing she had for her baby.”
But back to the butterflies. They glowed red and green. Is this butterfly "real," that is, does it have a counterpart in nature? Could Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, identify it? Shapiro, who has studied the butterflies of central California for more than four decades, maintains a website on butterflies at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/, where he records population trends. A noted Lepitopderist, he authored A Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions, illustrated by Tim Manolis, and published in 2007 by the University of California Press. The book covers more than 130 species.
Shapiro checked out the red and green butterfly. "Nobody I know," he said. "(It's) one God hasn't gotten around to creating yet!"
Or, one Shapiro hasn't discovered yet...