Our hearts are with the victims and what we can do to help.
But we briefly stepped out in the backyard yesterday (Oct. 10) in Vacaville to see a sun and sky we did not recognize. Nearby, the brightly colored orange Gulf Fritillary butterlifes (Agraulis vanillae) continued their life cycle on the passionflower vine (Passiflora), their host plant. So unreal to see:
- An egg on the tendrils.
- A caterpillar munching leaves.
- A newly eclosed Gulf Fritillary clinging to its pupal case.
- An adult spreading its wings in the eerie light, ready to start the process all over again.
Mother Nature is not kind. Neither is Father Time./span>
So there they were, the bride and groom, culminating their vows.
We spotted them in Vacaville, Calif., clinging to a passion flower vine (Passiflora), their host plant--just the two of them, the female Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) and the male.
Two's company? Not for long.
Soon other Gulf Frits descended on them.
Two's company, three's a crowd. Where did all those uninvited guests come from? They're everywhere!
All went well, though. The guests fluttered off, leaving the couple alone and allowing the photographer to engage in insect wedding photography.
Gulf Frits are incredibly beautiful, what with their bright orange wings with black markings, and underside, their elongated silver iridescence spots. A touch of the tropics!
Gulf Frits have been around a long time in the Bay Area--more than a century, according to Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis. "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," Shapiro writes on his website. "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!"
Shapiro says that in the Bay Area "this species can be seen flying any day of the year, if it is warm and sunny enough."
Thankfully, that's not all they do.
Coming soon to a passion flower vine near you--eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids, and then those gorgeous butterflies!
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...
When you're capturing images of butterflies, seconds count.
They're unpredictable. They move from fluttering to fleeting. And just when you're focused on where they are, they aren't there anymore. Where'd they go? Oh, over there!
Take the case of the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), aka the passion butterfly. Gulf Frits lay their eggs on their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora). So it makes sense that males will patrol the vine. It's where the girls are.
And where the camera usually isn't.
And if you happen upon a mating pair, and hordes of other Gulf Frit males are disrupting the "passion," they'll take off, intertwined, for another spot. A little seclusion in "the bedroom," please, and then it's off to "the kitchen," where the nectar-producing flowers are.
This pair (below) found one another on the passionflower vine as other males bombarded them. They lumberingly headed for another spot, and the rest is history. Or her-story. Soon the female will be back laying eggs on the Passiflora, and the cycle of egg, caterpillar, chrysalid and adult will begin all over again.
These images were taken with a Nikon D800 equipped with the macro zoom lens, 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6D ED. Settings: ISO 800, f-stop, 13; and shutter speed, 1/640 of a second.
Seconds count. No, not just seconds. Fractions of a second!
Sex. Passion. Passionflower vine.
And by--what else--the "passion butterflies," Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae).
We came across the scenario below by accident. We were watching a Western scrub jay (now known as a California scrub jay, Aphelocoma californica) methodically fly over to the passionflower vine (Passiflora), perch on the fence, and dine on multiple caterpillars. See, the scrub jays are nesting in our cherry laurels, and the Passiflora is their supermarket for "grocery" selection, checkout, and take home.
For the last several weeks, the scrub jays have been pigging out like human celebrants at a Thanksgiving feast. Yes, birds can pig out, too. As predators, the jays have dominated and overpowered the vine and snagged almost all of our caterpillars...caterpillars that were just trying to become butterflies.
Then three things happened: (1) Hawks appeared in the neighborhood (2) Western scrub jays began vanishing and (3) the triple-digit weather set in, with dozens of Gulf Frits gathering on the Passiflora. It became a bedroom and nursery of sorts. The jays' supermarket wasn't so "super" anymore. More hawks. Fewer jays. More eggs, caterpillars and chrysalids.
Like many butterfly aficionados, we welcome the orangish-reddish butterfly with silver-spangled underwings. It is as spectacular as it is showy.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, has been monitoring the Gulf Frits and other butterflies in Central California (see his website) for more than four decades.
The butterfly, found in many parts of the world, was first documented in Southern California in the 1870s, according to Shapiro.
"It first appeared in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” he says. “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.”
The history of the scientific name of the species is fascinating. Vanillae? That was an error traced back to German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). She knew butterflies--she reared them--but she took some artistic liberties.
Merian drew the Gulf Frit on a vanilla orchid, and scientists assumed that this was the host plant. Not so. The host plant is Passiflora. "Johannes Fabricius knew that the bug eats Passiflora and tried to rename it passiflorae," wrote Shapiro in a 2008 edition of the Journal of the Lepitoperists Society. It didn't take.
So Agraulis vanillae it is.