In real life, insects "get" milkweed.
We all know it's the only host plant of the monarch butterfly--where monarchs lay their eggs--but it's also a a great source of nectar for butterflies and other insects.
Take the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. Native to California, it is found throughout North America, including in our little pollinator garden!
Speciosa nectar is sweet, tantalizing and irresistible.
Recently we've been watching the diversity of insects gathering on our milkweed. Sometimes it's a pushing/shoving match or I'll-fly-away-but-I'll-be-back-as-soon-as-you-leave vow.
Have you ever seen a male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, nectaring on milkweed? The male, a green-eyed blond about the size of a queen bumble bee, can't sting. Or as native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis says--"Boy bees can't sting." He calls it "the teddy bear bee." What could be more cuddly than this little fellow?
So here's this teddy bear bee trying to grab some nectar while honey bees are buzzing around him trying to get their share. He's bigger; they're louder.
And then, the female of this Valley carpenter bee species (she's solid black--the two represent a clear case of sexual dimorphism) comes along and the bees scatter. Our boy bee does, too.
The bees will be back. The nectar is sweet, tantalizing and irresistible.
What a delight to see.
We strolled through milkweed patches in the UC Davis Arboretum Thursday noon and saw them.
The monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are returning from their coastal California overwintering sites. And we're getting new generations.
The UC Davis campus, including the 100-acre UC Davis Arboretum is home to much celebrated flora and fauna, including milkweed and monarchs.
After overwintering along the California coast and in central Mexico, the butterflies flutter north into the United States and Canada in the spring and summer.
However, scientists report that the monarch population in central Mexico declined from 100 million last year to 78 million this year, due to late winter storms, coupled with cold and wet weather, and deforestration.
It's a sure sign of spring, through, when the monarchs return. It's a cause for celebration. Welcome back!
Meanwhile, we're anticipating the arrival of Christine Merlin, assistant professor in Texas A&M's Department of Biology, who will discuss her research on "The Monarch Butterfly Circadian Clock: from Clockwork Mechanisms to Control of Seasonal Migration" when she presents a seminar on Wednesday afternoon, May 31 at the University of California, Davis. The seminar is set from 4:10 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Room 122 of Briggs Hall. Host is molecular geneticist Joanna Chiu, associate professor and vice chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
All summer and into fall, we spotted the familiar reddish, black and white bugs scurrying around on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
Showy bugs on showy milkweed.
The ones we saw: the Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii. Like its name implies, it's small, about half an inch long.
They're primarily seed eaters, but they're opportunistic and generalists, says insect migration biologist Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, author of the popular textbook, Animal Migration: the Biology of Life on the Move. "They'll get protein from wherever they can find it," he said. Dingle, whose research includes migratory monarchs, said the milkweed bugs not only eat seeds, but they also eat monarch eggs and larvae and the immature stages of other butterflies. Forever the opportunists, they eat other small bugs as well--if the opportunity arises. And they feed on nectar, too.
Some scientists have seen them feeding on insects trapped in the sticky pollen of the showy milkweed.
The bugs, it seem, have few predators. They feed on the toxic milkweed, which makes them distasteful to predators, prey to avoid. Their warning colors (red and black) strike home that fact.
In the fall, as the seed pods burst open, it's a horticulture/culinary war between the milkweed growers and the milkweed bugs. Both want the seeds: the humans to plant them and the bugs to eat them.
(Note: Research shows that the milkweed bug also feeds on other plants. Read about the opportunist Small Milkweed Bug in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.)
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.
If you're looking for plants to attract pollinators, including bees and butterflies, then the UC Davis Arboretum's Plant Sale on Saturday, Oct. 22 is the place to "bee."
A public fall clearance sale will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery on Garrod Drive, UC Davis campus. It will feature a "wide selection of Arboretum All-Stars, California natives, and gorgeous drought-tolerant plants," officials said. Members (new members can join at the door) save 10 percent and also reap other benefits.
The sale will include more than 16,500 plants and more than 450 varieties.
Will they have milkweed? Yes.
"It looks like we'll have plenty of milkweed, two varieties--Kotolo (Asclepias eriocarpa) and showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)," said Katie Hetrick, director of communications.
Will they have butterfly bush (Buddleia)? Yes.
"We have a ton of Buddleia," said Hetrick, mentioning just a few: Magenta Munchkin, Dark Dynasty, Buzz, Orchid Annie, Purple Haze, Lavender Cupcake--and "The Chips": Lilac Chip, Pink Micro Chip, and Blue Chip Jr.
"And let's not forget all the Salvias!" Hetrick said. "Those are a nectar fave with pollinators including butterflies, bees and hummingbirds!" Among the Salvias on sale: Bee's Bliss, Pacific Blue, Marine Blue, Pozo Blue, Debbie's Rose, Little Kiss, Red Swing, Violet Riot, Royal Bumble, Hot Lips, and Scott's Red.
Taylor Lewis, UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden Nursery Manager, related that pipevine, the host plant of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor), will be available.
Ellen Zagory, director of horticulture, listed some of her favorite sunflower family plants that attendees can buy:
- Aster 'Monch'
- Coreopsis, 'Little Penny'
- Coreopsis, 'Enchanted Eve'
- Coreopsis, 'Red Elf'
- Echibeckia, 'Summerina Brown'
- And lots of Echinacea (cone flowers)
For a full list of the plants available, download the PDF.
And, it's interesting to see what folks in the area have planted instead of lawns. The Aboretum's web page offers great ideas.
Do you know how much acres in the United States are planted in lawn? Huffington Post reports in a 2015 news story: "According to a new study from NASA scientists in collaboration with researchers in the Mountain West, there is now an estimated total of 163,812 square kilometers, or more than 63,000 square miles, of lawn in America — about the size of Texas."
All that manicuring, all that water, all that work. And little or no food or shelter for the pollinators.
Every well-manicured lawn "uses up to 900 liters of water per person per day and reduces sequestration effectiveness by up to 35 percent by adding emissions from fertilization and the operation of mowing equipment," Huffington Post says.
Indeed, lawn is our nation's single largest "crop."
But it doesn't have to be. There IS life after lawn. And there is MORE life after lawn.