It's Friday Fly Day--and time to post images of a syrphid fly.
Syrphid flies, often mistaken for honey bees, are pollinators, too.
Also known as flower flies and hover flies, syrphids hover over a flower before touching down. "Most species are predaceous, most commonly on aphids or mealybugs," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. "Some syrphids prey on ants, caterpillars, froghoppers, psyllids, scales, other insects, or mites. About 100 to 400 aphids can be fed upon by each aphid-feeding larva before it pupates, but this varies by the mature size of the syrphid relative to the aphids' size."
They are easily distinguished from honey bees because (1) bees don't hover, and (2) syrphids have only one pair of wings, while bees have two. "Their large eyes and short antenna also give them away, notes Kelly Rourke in a U.S. Forest Service article on "Syrphid Fly (Sphaerophoria philanthus). The absence of pollinium, or pollen sacs, is more difficult to see, but is another difference from a bee. Of the nearly 900 species of flower flies (family Syrphidae) in North America, most have yellow and black stripes."
Several years ago we captured images of a syrphid fly and an Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) on a rose bush in our Vacaville pollinator garden.
The scenario: Aphids were sucking plant juice on one end and secreting honey dew on the other end. The lady beetle was feasting on the aphids and getting sticky from all that honey dew.
Then along came a syrphid, a female Scaeva pyrastri, as identified by senior insect biosystematist Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostic Branch, California Department of Food and Agriculture. It hovered over the lady beetle and then dropped down to lick the honey dew from the beetle's head.
'Twas a happy day for the lady beetle and the syrphid fly, but not so much for the aphids.
But he'll have a beer anyway!
UC Davis distinguished professor Art Shapiro, Department of Evolution and Ecology, didn't sponsor his annual public "Beer for a Butterfly" contest this year but he recorded his first-of-the-year sighting of a cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, at 1:25 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 19 in West Sacramento near a railroad embankment.
"Pop Goes the Pieris!" Shapiro emailed to his colleagues.
And it was exactly the day that his colleague-collaborator Matt Forister, the Trevor McMinn Endowed Professor in Biology, Foundation Professor, at the University of Nevada, calculated it would be sighted.
Forister, who received his doctorate in ecology in 2004 at UC Davis, studying with Shapiro, crafts "The First Flight Date" graphics, using Shapiro's statistics. "And.... as if we had coordinated efforts (which we didn't), here's the graph!" Forister wrote in an email. "Art, you nailed it right on the regression line this time, you deserve an extra beer."
Shapiro, who maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.
For scientific purposes, Shapiro seeks the first cabbage-white-butterfly-of-the year in the three-county area of Yolo, Sacramento and Solano. The contest is also known as "Suds for Bugs." The traditional rules: Catch a live cabbage white butterfly in the wild in one of those three counties, deliver it live to his department in Storer Hall, UC Davis (with the full data, exact time, date and location of the capture) and if it's the first of the year, the winner receives a pitcher of beer or its equivalent.
Due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions, however, Shapiro hasn't sponsored the contest for two years. But he's recorded the first ones he's seen.
In his Jan. 19th email documenting the sighting, Shapiro wrote:
"Today was a gorgeous day in West Sacramento--no high or middle clouds for the first time in seemingly forever. The site has the heaviest midwinter Crucifer bloom in many years. In order of abundance: Brassica kaber (wild mustard), Raphanus (wild radish), and B. campestris (field mustard). Also in bloom: Amsinckia (fiddlenecks) and a few Erodium (filaree) and (Lamium amplexicaule) giraffe heads. It looks like late February or even March. The twigs on almond are coloring up. No other tree action noted yet! 61F, N wind 5-10 mph but blocked by the RR embankment. It felt quite warm on the sheltered lee side, but in the open, exposed to the wind, it didn't.
"At 1:25 p.m., I encountered a male rapae dorsal-basking; it took flight at once. Since there is no contest again this year I had no net and there is no specimen. But there we are..." (He also saw a Vanessa atalanta or red admiral butterfly, "so 2 species, 2 bugs," he wrote.)
P. rapae inhabits vacant lots, fields and gardens where its host plants, weedy mustards, grow. The male is white. The female is often slightly buffy; the "underside of the hindwing and apex of the forewing may be distinctly yellow and normally have a gray cast,” Shapiro says. “The black dots and apical spot on the upperside tend to be faint or even to disappear really early in the season.”
Shapiro usually wins his own contest as he knows where to find them. Over the last five years, the contest statistics include:
- 2022, Jan. 19: Art Shapiro collected his first of the year at 1:25 p.m. in West Sacramento (no contest held due to COVID precautions)
- 2021, Jan. 16: Shapiro collected his first of the year at 1:55 p.m. Jan. 16 on the UC Davis campus, Yolo County (no contest held, due to COVID precautions)
- 2020, Jan. 30: Shapiro recorded his first of the year at 11:16 a.m. on Jan. 30 in Winters (he didn't net the butterfly so he said "no winner")
- 2019, Jan. 25: Shapiro collected the winner at 1:12 p.m., Jan. 25 near the Suisun Yacht Club, Solano County.
- 2018, Jan. 19: Shapiro collected the winner at 11:23 a.m. Friday, Jan. 19 West Sacramento, Yolo County
Since 2010, most of the winning butterflies were collected in West Sacramento:
- 2017: Jan. 19: Shapiro collected the winner on the UC Davis campus
- 2016: Jan. 16: Jacob Montgomery, UC Davis graduate student, collected the winner in west Davis
- 2015: Jan. 26: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2014: Jan. 14: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2013: Jan. 21: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2012: Jan. 8: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
- 2011: Jan. 31: Shapiro collected the winner in Suisun
- 2010: Jan. 27: Shapiro collected the winner in West Sacramento
The butterfly is emerging earlier and earlier as the regional climate has warmed, says Shapiro, whose researches involves 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."
Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends on transects across central California since 1972 and records the information on his research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/. His 10 sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin. The largest and oldest database in North America, it was recently cited by British conservation biologist Chris Thomas in a worldwide study of insect biomass.
In its larval form, the cabbage white butterfly, known as "the imported cabbageworm," is a pest of cole crops. "Cabbageworm larvae chew large, irregular holes in leaves, bore into heads, and drop greenish brown fecal pellets that may contaminate the marketed product," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. "Seedlings may be damaged, but most losses are due to damage to marketed parts of the plant."
Odds are you've never seen the dogface butterfly, Zerene eurydice, and its host plant, false indigo, Amorpha californica, in Vacaville's Gates Canyon, located in Solano County, Calif.
And you may never see them there.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly populations of Central California since 1972 and maintains a research website at https://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/ fears that the dogface butterfly and its host plant will never reappear there or never reappear in his lifetime--no thanks to the destructive wildfire that swept through the canyon on Aug. 19, 2020.
In an article titled The Fire This Time, the Coast Range Burning, published in the winter 2021 edition of the Lepidopterists' Society newsletter, Shapiro documents flora and fauna destruction. He posted an earlier piece on The Loss of Gates Canyon on his website at https://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/news/loss-gates-canyon.
"How quickly can the Gates Canyon fauna recover?" Shapiro asks in his newsletter article. "Our June trip (2021) showed that many of the species seemingly extirpated in the canyon are still within relatively short dispersal distances to it, and hence able to recolonize if host plants are available...The only species that is almost certainly lost to the fauna is the California Dog-Face, Zerene eurydice, which to our knowledge, bred only in a small tributary canyon with a stand of the host, Amorpha californica. This plant has no known fire resistance. It does not stump-sprout and the whole stand burned."
On his website, Shapiro posted this on June 14, 2021: "At Gates, I would hazard a guess that it will take 20 to possibly 50 years to restore a semblance of the prior fauna. Perhaps half of the fauna might be back within a decade. Very local things like the California Dogface (Zerene eurydice) will probably never come back, at least in my lifetime; its host (Amorpha) does not appear to regenerate after fire and its known breeding site in a side canyon was completely charred."
The California dogface butterfly is found only in California. It thrives especially in the 40-acre Shutamul Bear River Preserve near Auburn, Placer County. The preserve, part of the Placer Land Trust, is closed to the public except for specially arranged tours.
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas of Davis, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, and a veteran docent for the Placer Land Trust butterfly site, said he hopes the plant will take hold again in Gates Canyon. "I've seen a Yolo (County) population of the plant come back after a fire. If the plant comes back, chances are, that a female will find the plant and recolonize it, or at least that is my hope."
The dogface butterfly, adopted as the official state insect on July 28, 1972, is so named because the wings of the male appear to be a silhouette of a poodle. It is also known as "the flying pansy." (Read more on how the butterfly became the state insect.)
The Bohart Museum poster of the male and female dogface butterfly is the work of Kareofelas and Fran Keller, then a graduate student at UC Davis and now a professor at Folsom Lake College. In 2013, Keller authored a 35-page children's book, The Story of the Dogface Butterfly, with photographs by Kareofelas and Keller, and illustrations by former UC Davis student Laine Bauer. The trio visited the Auburn site for their research, and Kareofelas also reared a dogface butterfly at his home in Davis and photographed the life cycle. Both the book and the poster are available online from the the Bohart Museum of Entomology gift shop. (The facility is closed to the public due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions.)
A winter pollinator garden does not buzz with bees; it crawls with earwigs, ants, roly-polys, and other insects.
Turn over a rock, a pot, or a garden sculpture and there they are.
Well, there one was.
An earwig looked up as we lifted a garden sculpture. (Initially identified later as a European earwig, Forficula auricularia, order Dermaptera but it may be another species.)
"Yecch!" you say? Not so fast. Their role in the ecosystem includes eating aphids. They join such aphid eaters as lady beetles (aka ladybugs), soldier beetles, collups beetles, long-legged flies, big-eyed bugs, lacewings, damsel flies, minute pirate bugs and syrphid flies.
European earwigs are invasive. Look at the damage they do to citrus. You've also probably found them in an ear of corn, a nectarine or a pomegranate.
"Although this is the most abundant earwig in California, it was not known to the state until 1923," according to the book, California Insects, co-authored by Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue. "The immatures and adults feed on a wide variety of substances, from flowers and green foliage near the ground to living and dead insects, including aphids."
Earwigs are readily recognizable by their cerci or pincers. They look like nature's forceps or pliers.
Or as the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program says: "The adult earwig is readily identified by a pair of prominent appendages that resemble forceps at the tail end of its body. Used for defense, the forceps are somewhat curved in the male but straighter in the female. Although earwigs can devastate seedling vegetables or annual flowers and often seriously damage maturing soft fruit or corn silks, they also have a beneficial role in the landscape and have been shown to be important predators of aphids."
UC IPM goes on to say: "European earwigs feed on a variety of dead and living organisms, including insects, mites, and growing shoots of plants. They are voracious feeders on soft-bodied insects such as aphids and insect eggs and can exert significant biological control under some circumstances. In yards that are planted to turf and contain mature ornamental plants, damage by earwigs is unlikely to be of concern."
"European earwigs can cause substantial damage to seedling plants and soft fruit as well as to sweet corn. Damaged seedlings may be missing all or parts of their leaves and stem. Leaves on older plants, including fruit trees, have numerous irregular holes or are chewed around the edges. This damage may resemble that caused by caterpillars. Look for webbing, frass (excrement), or pupae that would indicate the presence of caterpillars."
"Earwigs may attack soft fruit such as apricots, strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries but don't harm hard fruit such as apples. On stone fruit, look for shallow gouges or holes that extend deeply into the fruit. On strawberries, distinguish earwig damage from that of snails and slugs by checking for the slime trails snails and slugs leave behind. On corn, earwigs feed on silks and prevent pollination, causing poor kernel development. Earwigs may also seriously damage flowers including zinnias, marigolds, and dahlias. To confirm that earwigs are causing the damage, go out at night with a flashlight to observe the pests in action."
In her newly published book, Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds and Other Animals That Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving, author Frédérique Lavoipierre acknowledges their presence as "ominivores, detritivores and predators." In large numbers, however, they can be pests. "A neighbor uses empty cat-food cans baited with a dab of soy sauce and some cooking oil; they come for the soy sauce and get mired in the oil."
UC IPM points out that bacon grease or fish oil will attract them and vegetable oil will trap them.
- Trap earwigs with rolled newspaper, bamboo tubes, or short pieces of hose. Place these traps on the soil near plants just before dark, and shake accumulated earwigs into a pail of soapy water in the morning.
- Fill a low-sided can with vegetable oil and a drop of bacon grease or fish oil to attract and trap earwigs.
- Daily trapping will reduce earwig populations to tolerable levels.
But back to my sole earwig. What, no image of a bee? No butterfly? No dragonfly? Sorry, it's winter. I must be desperate for insect activity in the winter to stop, look, and photograph an earwig! Plus, nobody I know "takes portraits" of them.
Maybe it's the "yecch" factor as to why we rarely see photographers capturing images of these insects. The old wives' tail of associating earwigs with finding shelter in human ears still lurks. Also, there's that "movement factor": slow-moving photographers vs. fast-moving earwigs. Earwigs don't move at a snail's pace because they are not snails!
Remember George's grandmother in Roald Dahl's children's book, George's Marvellous Medicine? Grandma urges Boy George to eat unwashed celery, complete with earwigs:
"A big fat earwig is very tasty,' Grandma said, licking her lips. 'But you've got to be very quick, my dear, when you put one of those in your mouth. It has a pair of sharp nippers on its back end and if it grabs your tongue with those, it never lets go. So you've got to bite the earwig first, chop chop, before it bites you."
It "bites" you? Pinches!
Erdosh, 21, an undergraduate entomology major and president of the UC Davis Entomology Club, is passionate about bugs. Well, make that passionate about arthropods. Well, make that passionate about "all arthropods on the planet."
Part One of the two-segment interview is at https://cbsloc.al/3G81QaT.
Billed as "bringing bugs to the masses," the program explored critters such as a Madagascar hissing cockroach, an Atlas moth caterpillar, an Australian stick insect, and a rain forest mantis.
More than 22,000 fans follow her Instagram account, @gwentomologist, where she uploads educational and entertaining posts, illustrated with her incredible macro images.
"The main point of my page is to raise awareness for conservation of insects," Erdosh told Williams. Second point: to help folks overcome their fear of bugs by seeing their beauty and peculiarities.
Erdosh showed insects from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, as well as insects being reared by her friends.
Holding an Atlas caterpillar, Erdosh told the Good Day Sacramento reporter: "This is going to become the largest moth in the world."
Erdosh then showed Williams the massive frass (feces), the size of a raisin.
In a classic quote of the day,Williams deadpanned: "It has no problem with bowel movements."
That prompted one of the Good Day Sacramento anchors to quip: "When I woke up this morning I would have bet big money I was not going to see caterpillar poop here today but here we are."
Erdosh is an invited member of the UC Davis Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIB), and a researcher in the laboratory of community ecologist Louie Yang, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. She recently received a UC Davis Provost's Undergraduate Research Fellowship to study whether ambient smoke from California's wildfires hinders an insect's ability to locate food.
Gwen knew at age 12 that she wanted to become an entomologist. Her career plan: to receive a doctorate in entomology and join academia as a professor and researcher. She's off to a great start! At age 16, she interned in the lab of Jason Dombroskie at Cornell University.
And quite appropriately, Gwen Erdosh sports a collection of insect-themed T-shirts. The one she wore on the Good Day Sacramento program: a T-shirt lettered with "Wait, I See a Bug!"
(See "The Amazing World of 'Gwentomologist' Gwen Erdosh" on the Dec. 23, 2021 Bug Squad blog.)