Some people are born good-looking. Some have the gift of gab. And some are lucky enough to be born smarter than the rest of us. Whether we like it or not, Mother Nature does not dole these characteristics out evenly.--Simon Sinek
That applies to butterflies, too. Nobody said Mother Nature is perfect.
If you're rearing butterflies, such as Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), expect to see some defects, deformities and death. That chrysalis you've been watching? A butterfly may never eclose. In the cycle of life, the transformation from egg to larva to pupa to adult may never occur.
Nobody said Mother Nature is perfect.
The chrysalis is a withered grayish-brown, perfectly camouflaged on the butterfly's host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora). Sometimes you see a burst of reddish-orange wings and sliver spangled underwings, the remains of a butterfly that struggled to eclose.
Then you wait for one that will, one that will eclose.
The next one will take your breath away. Mother Nature is like that.
The three "F's" win hands-down: family, friends and food.
But "insects" should definitely added to that list. They are among the tiniest of critters on this planet, but think of their importance in our lives and in our ecosystems.
As British entomologist-zoologist George McGavin, author, academician, explorer and television presenter wrote in an article published in 2004 in The Guardian: "They are the most successful multi-cellular life form on the planet...Insects have endured for hundreds of millions of years. They have survived the numerous global upheavals and catastrophes that spelled the end for much greater and grander creatures and they will continue to be a major part of the Earth's fauna for many more millennia."
McGavin, an honorary research associate at both the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Oxford Department of Zoology, points out that insects are "the food of the world."
"Most of the higher animal species on Earth eat insect--they are the food of the world," he writes in his piece on Why I Love Insects. "All of the blue tit chicks in the British Isles alone consume 35bn caterpillars before they become adult. A single pipistrelle bat, the smallest bat species in the UK, has to eat between 2,000 and 3,000 insects most nights to stay alive."
McGavin also emphasizes the importance of pollinators and recyclers, that "we depend on bees for perhaps as much as a third of the food we eat....As recyclers, flies and beetles devour carcasses and clear prodigious quantities of dung every day."
We met George McGavin in July 2012 at a sunflower field in Winters. He and his crew were there to film a documentary on ultimate swarms, featuring Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. Gary, an author, scientist and now a retired professional bee wrangler, clued him in on bee behavior.
Like many scientists, McGavin loves to share his enthusiasm for insects, something we all need to appreciate more and to support as much as we can. For example, the Entomological Society of America launched a Chrysalis Fund to bring insect education into the classroom. According to the website, it's "supported by donors dedicated to the mission of enhancing insect education for K-12 students. Teachers and educators with creative ideas for insect-themed programs or projects are encouraged to apply for funding." (On a side note, UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal donated his $1000 honorarium from the recent ESA Founders' Memorial Award Lecture to the Chrysalis Fund. See YouTube video.)
So, what are we thankful for? Family, friends and food, for sure.
And the list also includes...insects.
If you're having pumpkin pie or butternut squash this Thanksgiving, thank the squash bee.
Squash bees are specialists (not generalists) that pollinate only the cucurbits or squash family, Cucurbitaceae, which includes pumpkins, squash, gourds, cucumbers and zucchini.
Last summer we saw dozens of Peponapis pruinosa pollinating our squash and cucumbers. Peponapis pruinosa is a species of solitary bee in the tribe Eucerini, the long-horned bees.
"Isn't that a honey bee?" a friend asked.
"No, it's a squash bee; it's smaller than the honey bee."
"Never heard of it."
Other factoids, as shared with us by the late Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis:.
- Both the males and females are golden brown with a fuzzy yellow thorax. The males have a yellow spot on their face.
- Males sleep in the blossoms at night. There they wait for the females to arrive.
- Squash bees are early risers (they rise before the sun does). They begin pollinating the blossoms as soon as they open in the morning. Other bee species, such as honey bees, don't visit the flowers so early. The squash blossoms close after several hours so there's a limited amount of pollination time.
If you're aiming to photograph them, get there early. If you don't, you will find the blossoms closing.
A female and male Gulf Frit find one another.
Near them, Gulf Frit caterpillars hungrily munch the leaves. Soon they will form a chrysalis. From egg to larvae to chrysalis to adult.
If you'd like to learn to rear butterflies, silkworm moths, praying mantids or tarantulas, attend the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology open house on “Arthropod Husbandry: Raising Insects for Research and Fun” from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 16 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane. It's free and family friendly.
UC Davis student Andrew Goffinet, a former UC Davis Bio Boot Camper, will be on hand to talk about rearing butterflies and moths. UC Davis entomology alumnus Lohit Garikipati will discuss praying mantids. Another entomology alumnus Nicole Tam, will talk about rearing insects in the Geoffrey Attardo lab as part of research projects. Doctoral student and Bohart associate Zaid Khouri's topic is how to rear tarantulas and millipedes for fun.
"We also will be discussing Madagascar hissing cockroaches (hissers) as good options for 'starter pets' for kids, and some of the problems with stick insects (walking sticks)," said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator. Visitors are invited to hold the hissers and stick insects and photograph them.
At 3 p.m., silkworm moth expert İsmail Şeker, a Turkish medical doctor who wrote a book about silkworm moths and the cottage silk industry in his home town, will show his newly produced video about the silkworm moth life cycle. Seker, also a talented videographer and a photographer, will answer questions following his 13-minute video presentation.
"This will be a fun open house for anyone considering a pet with an exoskeleton," Yang said."It will be good for educators to learn about classroom 'pets,' including those who do work with silk moths for life cycle lesson plans."
"Also, to kick off the holiday season we will have the unique wire jewelry by former entomology major Ann Kao, so people should be prepared to shop for some unique insect-inspired jewelry." A family craft activity is also planned.
This is the last open house of the year. The next open house will be on Jan. 18 when UC Davis graduate students from many different fields "will be talking/displaying about their cutting edge research with insects," Yang said.
The Bohart Museum houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens. It is also the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity. Noted entomologist Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007) founded the museum. It maintains a live "petting zoo," featuring Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks or stick insects and tarantulas. The museum's gift shop, open year around, is stocked with T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
Director of the museum is Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis. The staff includes Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist; Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator; and Jeff Smith, who curates the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) section.
More information on the Bohart Museum is available on the website at http://bohart.ucdavis.edu or by contacting (530) 752-0493 or email@example.com.
It's Veterans' Day, and after paying tribute to the military veterans (my ancestors have fought in all of our nation's wars, dating back to the American Revolution--and my other half is a U.S. Air Force veteran), I slip out the back door to our pollinator garden to see where the insect action is.
Honey bees and a sole carpenter bee are buzzing on the African blue basil; Gulf Fritillaries are nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); and a cabbage white butterfly is sipping nectar from the Lantana.
But the passionflower vine (Passiflora) steals the show. A Gulf Fritillary has just eclosed from a chrysalis that resembles a thick wad of gum chewed up and spit out and left to mummify; several male Gulf Frits are fluttering around in search of females; and the offspring of previous reunions are crawling on the stems and munching what's left of the leaves.
Overhead, the California scrub jays glance down, as if trying to decide on their luncheon menu: a fat juicy caterpillar or the bird seed scattered in the feeder.
Their choice is clear. They forsake the fat juicy caterpillars for the bird seed. Tomorrow morning, however, there will be several caterpillars missing in action.