- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
"What are YOU doing here?"
It was Saturday morning, Jan. 23, and the monarch caterpillar seemed to be sunning itself on a milkweed leaf in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., a Solano County city situated between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Yes, Saturday, Jan. 23. The dead of winter. A third-star monarch caterpillar.
"Mama Monarch" must have laid the egg in late December, surmised butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has researched butterfly population trends since 1972 and maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World.
"Evidence of inland winter breeding," he commented. "Nothing surprises me any more..."
Interestingly enough, on the same day that we spotted the monarch caterpillar was the same day that naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, photographed a newly eclosed Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, in his yard in Davis.
The temperature on Jan. 23 hovered at 60 degrees. Since then, it's dropped into the 30s, with blustery winds, heavy rain and a strong storm uprooting trees and flash-flooding the LNU Lighting Complex burn scar. And it's c-o-l-d--cold enough to borrow Bernie Sanders' heavy overcoat and mittens, and for good measure, add an Elmer Fudd (trapper) hat, the kind you need in Vermont.
But a monarch caterpillar in January in Solano County?
Last year the monarchs in our garden thrived, as the Danaus plexippus population declined throughout the country, and scientists began talking about extinction. Last year we collected more than 300 monarch eggs or caterpillars in our garden, primarily from two of the three milkweed species. We reared and released them, except for the ones we donated to researchers at the University of California, Davis and the University of Nevada to start their own colonies.
Is the January caterpillar healthy? Will it survive?
Seems so. We moved it inside on Jan. 24 in a Bohart Museum butterfly habitat on our kitchen counter, but only time will tell.
Still, it's like spotting the Easter Bunny handing out candy in December or Santa Claus delivering candy canes on Easter Sunday.