Step into your garden, walk over to a community park, or hike in the wilderness and see what's out there.
And take along the newly published, newly revised "The Field Guide to California Insects."
It includes more than 600 insect species. Not sure what species of butterfly that is? Want to know if that's a Valley carpenter bee? What's that species of praying mantis you just found? Take a look at the text and photos. Chances are you'll find them in this handy book.
It's a California Natural History Guide and published by the University of California Press. If you're into entomology, you'll probably recognize the names of the four authors:
- Kip Will, entomologist, insect systematist, and former director of the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley
- Joyce Gross, noted insect photographer (she works as a computer programmer with the Berkeley Natural History Museums at UC Berkeley)
- Dan Rubinoff, who grew up chasing insects in California and is now a professor of entomology and director of the University of Hawaii Insect Museum
- Jerry Powell, emeritus professor, UC Berkeley, and former director of the Essig Museum of Entomology
We remember reading the first edition, California Insects, published in September 1980 and authored by Professor Powell and (the late) Charles Hogue.
So this revision is 40 years in the making.
It's billed as the only California-specific, statewide book devoted to all groups of insects:
"Engaging accounts focus on distinguishing features, remarkable aspects of biology, and geographical distribution in the state. An accessible and compact introduction to identifying, understanding, and appreciating these often unfamiliar and fascinating creatures, this guide covers insects that readers are likely to encounter in homes and natural areas, cities and suburbs, rural lands and wilderness. It also addresses exotic and invasive species and their impact on native plants and animals. Field Guide to California Insects remains the definitive portable reference and a captivating read for beginners as well as avid naturalists."
The authors point out that worldwide, there are only a million described insects, and that's "more than five times the number of all animals combined." They also note that "estimates of the number remaining to be described and named vary between three million to 30 million or more."
Thirty million! Can you imagine?
The authors define what makes an insect, expanding on growth and reproduction, breathing and circulation, feeding and stinging. They write about the distribution and diversity of the California insect fauna; how insects are classified, and even how to make an insect collection, something most high schoolers will be asked to do.
The book offers you information on dragonflies and damselflies, mantises, stick insects, beetles, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, earwigs, moths and butterflies, and booklice--and more.
It's a fantastic book--well-researched, well-written, well-illustrated, and an opportunity for you to become not a Big Game Hunter, but a Little Game Hunter.
By the end of the book, you may even decide to study entomology. (And there's plenty of opportunities in California, including at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology)
You may also want to become an insect photographer: plant a pollinator garden and they will come. Below are some of the backyard or household images you can capture.
Those passion flowers (Passiflora) are insect magnets.
One minute you'll see a praying mantis on a blossom. The next minute, a Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae. And the next morning, the blossom is an arthropod magnet--the beginnings of a spider web.
Passiflora is the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary, a spectacular orange butterfly with silver-spangled underwings. The Gulf Frit lays its eggs only on Passiflora.
The Gulf Frits know where the Passiflora is. Their predators know where the butterflies are.
The female mantis, Mantis religiosa (below), didn't snag the butterfly. But it did grab and munch on a few Gulf Frit caterpillars.
Ever critter eats in the garden.
Flies seem to be in the news a lot lately.
But have you ever looking closely at a common green bottle fly Lucilia sericata, also known as a blowfly?
Ever admired their brilliant metallic blue-green coloration? Ever thought about them as pollinators (they are sometimes!) but of course, that's not what they're known for.
They're known for their forensic, veterinary and medical importance. They are nature's recyclers when the females deposit their eggs in carrion.
But they're also beautiful.
We captured these photos of a green bottle fly on a tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in our garden. The red and yellow blossoms contrasted nicely with the stunning fly coloration. Nature's art.
Indeed, flies are an integral part of the annual UC Davis Picnic Day (cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and precautions). What's a picnic without flies?
Forensic entomologist Robert "Bob" Kimsey of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology always staffs a booth at Briggs Hall where he holds forth as "Dr. Death" with his microscope and specimens as he encourages--and fields--questions from the thousands of picnickers. (See Bugs at Briggs)
Also at Briggs Hall during the UC Davis Picnic Day, "Maggot Art," is extremely popular. The artists, mostly children and teens, dip a maggot into water-based, non-toxic paint and drop it onto a white piece of paper and let it crawl. The finished product often finds its way onto a refrigerator, inside a frame, or as as an unexpected gift to grandparents. Certainly it's a conversation piece.
Meanwhile, mark your calendar for April 17, 2021, the scheduled date of the next UC Davis Picnic Day.
Dr. Bob, the flies, and the maggots will be waiting.
"Hey, Buckeye butterfly, you over there with chunks of a wing missing, yeah you, what happened?"
"Well, it was like this. I was just fluttering around, looking for some good nectar, and a predator grabbed me. I don't know what it was. Maybe it was a praying mantis. Maybe it was a bird or a spider. I don't know. It happened so fast. But anyhow, I lost a couple of eyespots. Yes, it got a piece of me. But it didn't get all of me. I'm still here!"
It's the eyespots--or the missing eyespots--you notice first about the Buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia.
The eyespots are thought to offer some kind of protection from predators.
"Predators think the eyespot is an eye on the head of its prey," according to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida website. "If the predator attacks the eyespot, it might chew off part of the butterfly's wing, but the butterfly's vital organs escape damage."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has studied the butterfly populations of the Central Valley since 1972, writes about the Buckeye on his website, Art's Butterfly World:
"The Buckeye breeds on plants containing bitter iridoid glycosides, including plantains (Plantago, especially P. lanceolata), various Scrophulariaceae (especially Fluellin, Kickxia), and Lippia (Lippia or Phyla nodiflora). The spiny, black-and-white caterpillar has a bright orange head. Its behavior suggests its diet makes it virtually immune to vertebrate predation, but the pupa and adult are quite edible.
"Male Buckeyes are territorial perchers, usually on bare ground. Both sexes visit a great variety of flowers, from Heliotrope and Lippia to California Buckeye and Rabbitbrush! They often swarm over Coyotebrush (Baccharis) in autumn, especially the male plants.
And always, always, the Buckeyes need to keep an eye out for their predators.
Will a praying mantis eat a caterpillar?
Short answer: Yes.
For several days, we've been watching a resident praying mantis, a female Mantis religiosa, hanging out in our patch of Passiflora (passionflower), the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae.
We grow Passiflora to attract these spectacular orange butterflies with the silver-spangled underwings. They sip nectar, court, mate and lay their eggs. The eggs hatch into hungry caterpillars and skeletonize our plants, which make us look like "bad gardeners" but the scenario makes for a "great butterfly habitat."
This year there's no "bad-gardener" look.
The caterpillars haven't skeletonized our plants.
Then we see Mrs. Religiosa. She does not look gravid, unlike the other mantids in our garden. She is string-bean thin. Praying mantis expert and UC Davis alumnus Lohit Garikipati figures she has already deposited her egg case, or ootheca, and she'll live another month or two.
Last year the Gulf Frits graced us with so many caterpillars that they were the zucchinis of the garden. Too many, too soon. We donated dozens of the 'cats to the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, for its open house, and to youngsters engaged in science projects.
But this year, where are all the caterpillars?
In any pollinator garden, you must expect the pollinators, predators and the prey. Lady beetles and soldier beetles gobble up the butterfly eggs, while birds, spiders and wasps prey on the caterpillars.
We've never seen a praying mantis grab a caterpillar, though. Until now.
Oh, look! A butterfly ballet ever so graceful over the head of string-bean thin Mrs. Religiosa.
She ignores them. Then she spots a caterpillar. Easy catch, right?
Yes, a praying mantis will eat a caterpillar.