It's no fun having a "hole in one."
A hole in your butterfly habitat.
So, here it is September of 2016 and we're at home rearing monarch butterflies as part of our small-scale conservation project to help the declining population.
The project involves growing several species of milkweed in our pollinator garden, and when we see caterpillars, we "bring them in." We fill a broad-based, narrow-necked Patron tequila bottle with water, add milkweed and 'cats, and tuck the bottle inside a zippered, pop-up mesh habitat (some call it a cage) to protect them from predators (like birds) and parasitoids (like tachinid flies). The butterfly habitat occupies a corner of our kitchen counter.
So, one day in September, I think: "Why keep the monarch habitat on our kitchen counter when it's so nice and shady and breezy by the crape myrtle tree in our backyard?"
So, I place the habitat on a wooden bench next to the crape myrtle. Ah. Mother Nature at its finest. Several caterpillars are in the "J" position (their position before they pupate) and several are chrysalids.
All's right with the world, right? Wrong.
The unexpected happens. The caterpillars begin shriveling. The chrysalids turn gooey brown. And right before my eyes--I happened to be in the yard at the time--I see tachinid fly maggots "bungee jumping" from their hosts. The maggots are sliding down their white mucus strings. Gleefully sliding, I think.
Tachinid flies, you see, lay their eggs inside a living host, such as a monarch caterpillar or chrysalis. They eat the host from the inside out, kill the host, and maggots emerge. They're white at first but darken and harden to the color of coffee beans as pupae. The adult flies emerge, all ready to mate and start the life cycle all over again.
But how did they get into the thinly meshed habitat? How?
It is then that I notice a single, tiny, ragged hole in the netting. And oh, look! Another tachinid fly is trying to slip in.
I photograph Exhibit A, B, C and D; clean the cage with bleach and water; and vow that the butterfly habitat is best inside, not outside.
A hole in one is no fun.
Ready for those June weddings?
Coming to an altar near you...a bride and a groom. "When you marry in June, you're a bride all your life."--Anonymous.
"Look happy," say the wedding photographers as they focus on the bridal couple, and then single out the bride who will be a bride all of her life.
But if you engage in insect wedding photography, you'll find that June is a good month for insects, too.
Take those tachinid flies. Have you ever focused on them?
Monarch moms and dads--those who rear and release monarch butterflies--hate tachinid "weddings." They hate the bride, the groom, their families, and all future offspring. It's a hate-hate relationship.
That's because some members of the Tachinidae family are parasitoids, that is, the flies lay their eggs inside a living host (larva). The fly larvae eat the tissue from the inside out, killing the host.
That's good if you're trying to control cabbage white flies, cabbage loopers, alfalfa loopers, fall armyworms, variegated cutworms, codling moths, oriental fruit moths, peach twig borers, obliquebanded leafrollers, omnivorous leafrollers, oriental fruit moths, peach twig borers, pink bollworms and other pests. It's a "natural enemy" thing. See UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.
That's bad if you're trying to rear monarch butterflies. You're appalled when your caterpillar shrivels and dies, and several fly maggots emerge. Or when your brown-stained chrysalis turns to goo, and out pop several maggots. (See tachinid information on Butterfly Fun Facts: Warning, these are not "fun" facts!)
But back to insect wedding photography. We've never managed to catch tachinid flies feeling a little...uh...well...amorous. This amorous feeling is not mutual; to be honest, I still haven't forgiven them for what they did to our small-scale, rear-and-release monarch project last year.
Still, as a insect photographer, I consider myself a guest in their habitat.
So, yes, I walked away. I did. No insects were harmed in the making of these photographs.
Two icons, the American flag and the monarch butterfly, are flying high today.
The American flag, or "Old Glory," symbolizes our democracy. The 13 stripes represent the 13 colonies that declared--and won--independence from Great Britain. The 50 stars in the field of blue denote our 50 states.
The glorious monarch, Danaus plexippus, reigns supreme in the world of butterflies, in that it's the most recognized butterfly and its seasonal migration routes to its overwintering sites in coastal California and central Mexico--and its return every spring--are legendary.
How did it get its name? Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus the father of modern taxonomy, named the butterfly "Danaus," for a great-grandson of the mythical Greek god Zeus, and "Plexippus," reportedly one of the 50 sons of Aegyptus, the twin brother of Danaus.
Fifty states. Fifty sons.
The common name, "monarch," is thought to honor "The Prince of Orange," who later became known as the King William III of England. (The butterfly is predominately orange and black.)
Fortunately, the majestic monarch butterfly isn't known as "The Prince of Orange" (or "The Princess of Orange.")
Yes, they do, says a Texas A&M researcher.
Christine Merlin, an assistant professor in Texas A&M's Department of Biology, 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.
"The eastern North American monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) has emerged as a powerful model system to study animal circadian clocks and their role in an unconventional output, the photoperiod-induced long-distance migration," Merlin writes in her abstract. "Circadian clocks are endogenous 24-hour timekeepers that coordinate nearly all of the animal physiology and behavior to its environment to tune specific activities at the most advantageous time of the day. Monarchs use a circadian clock to navigate to their overwintering sites during their seasonal long-distance migration."
"The clock time-compensates for the movement of the sun across the sky over the course of the day and regulates the sun compass output in the brain. Circadian clocks could also be used to time the monarch seasonal departure from their breeding grounds, and consequently regulate the genetic/epigenetic program controlling migratory physiology and behavior. I will discuss progress that our lab has made in developing reverse-genetics in the monarch butterfly to unlock its potential as a genetic model system to study animal clockwork mechanisms and the involvement of the circadian clock in insect photoperiodic responses."
Merlin will be hosted by molecular geneticist Joanna Chiu, associate professor and vice chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, who is also involved in circadian-clock research. The weekly seminars, chaired by assistant professor Christian Nansen, are open to all interested persons. Plans call for recording the seminar for later posting on UCTV.
A native of France, Merlin received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees majoring in animal biology, invertebrate physiology and insect physiology, respectively, at the University Paris 6 Pierre and Marie Curie in France. She accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Massachusetts in 2007.
From her post at Texas A&M University, located at College Station, 90 miles northwest of Houston, Merlin enjoys a front-row seat for the monarch butterfly migration.
She sees them heading to Mexico to overwinter, and she sees them returning.
But it's the science that drives her.
In a Texas A&M news story, Vimal Patel described her as trying to unravel "the mysteries of the migration and the role of internal clocks in the process."
"It's incredible how such a fragile insect can complete a long-range migration so demanding," Merlin told Patel. "Every piece of it fascinates me, from how it occurs to why they go precisely where they go."
An excerpt from Patel's piece:
"While she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the laboratory of Prof. Steven Reppert, Merlin and colleagues showed that the clocks necessary for flight orientation lie in the creatures' antennae --a departure from the previous conventional wisdom that the brain controlled the mechanism, given that it controls behavioral rhythmicity in virtually every other animal, including humans.
"The conclusion stemmed from Merlin's and her co-workers' collective curiosity concerning a decades-old anecdote. Around 50 years ago, entomologist Fred Urquhart found that Monarchs became disoriented after he clipped off their antennae. Since then, it had remained just a suspicion until the Massachusetts team confirmed it with more rigorous research."
"The team's experiment exploited technology in a way Urquhart, who merely observed the Monarchs in flight, could not at the time. They used a plastic barrel-like device called a Mouritsen-Frost flight simulator in which a butterfly is connected by tungsten wire to an output system that indicates which direction it is flying. The results were clear: The antennae-less Monarchs flew in every which direction, while those with intact antennae flew southwesterly, the migratory direction."
Merlin points out that "Migration begins every year in the fall, when the day lengths change. The shortened day lengths might be a cue for the monarchs to start their migration. And if we can show this is the case and that the circadian clock is involved, we can now start to understand the genetic program that is allowing the migratory behavior."
It is not a good time to be a butterfly.
Especially if you're a monarch butterfly that eclosed on Jan. 5 in cold and rainy Vacaville, Calif. while all--or most--of your counterparts are overwintering along coastal California or in central Mexico. You don't even count; scientists and citizen scientists have already counted the overwintering monarch population and you're not there.
They do not know you exist.
You're nestled inside an indoor meshed butterfly habitat on a kitchen counter. Outside, a storm brews, not unlike the nearby coffee pot gurgling away. Inside, fingers of warmth comfort you. You sip a mixture of honey and water, and then orange juice. You sample the raspberries and blueberries. At night you perch on a rosemary branch. You wake up to the sounds of National Public Radio and the coffee pot gurgling. People come and go and look at you. "What are you doing here?" You ignore them.
You are alone. Your parents met and mated sometime in November. Your 11 siblings and cousins all eclosed on the last of the tropical milkweed, leaving you with basically nothing. You are the last one. A mid-life chrysalis if there ever was one. And now a maverick in the making. It's too cold and rainy to fly.
And then one of those humans comes by with a silkscreened garden flag and lifts you gently out of your zippered habitat. You eagerly investigate your new territory. You see a male monarch and a honey bee looking back at you. Life imitating art, or art imitating life?