It's rather troubling trying to rear subtropical butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), in late autumn.
The string of warm sunny days in late November meant plenty of days for Gulf Frits to mate and reproduce. From eggs to larvae to chrysalids to adults--we watched the life cycle unfold on our passion flower vines (Passiflora).
Now it's freezing cold, with morning temperature dipping below 23 degrees.
No Gulf Frits flying outside.
But there is one Gulf Frit flying inside. It emerged from its chrysalis Friday. It is the sole occupant of our butterfly habitat.
"That butterfly could not have picked a worse time to come out," commented naturalist Greg Kareofelas, a Bohart Museum of Entomology volunteer who rears butterflies, including Gulf Frits.
He's so right. Freezing cold and pouring rain are not conducive to releasing butterflies back into the wild--the wild meaning the Passiflora.
On Sunday afternoon as the mercury rose a bit, I contemplated releasing my Gulf Frit. I asked Siri "How COLD is it in Vacaville, California?"
She answered "It is 49 degrees in Vacaville and I don't find that particularly cold."
What? So, now we're getting editorial comment when we ask a question about the weather?
Siri, as you know, is that "intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator" (thanks, Wikipedia) that responds to questions you ask on your iphone. Siri is Norwegian for "beautiful woman who leads you to victory."
Beautiful woman or not, Siri is neither leading ME to victory nor my boy butterfly.
Yes, my Gulf Frit is a male, according to butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis.
Like many other lepidopterists, Shapiro is concerned about the high pressure from the Arctic, resulting in freezing temperatures here. "The low temperatures we have experienced may be enough to extirpate the Gulf Fritillary butterfly regionally," he said. "This subtropical invader has become very popular with local residents (Yolo, Sacrameno and Solano counties, for instance), and if it is indeed wiped out, many will be sad to see it go."
Today Shapiro visited some of the warm pockets on the UC Davis campus but saw no "Leps" (Lepidoptera) of any kind.
There is, however, one restless male Lep in my butterfly habitat. His release date depends on the outside temperatures.
It does not depend on what Siri says.
There's an old saying that "good things come in threes."
Well, they also come in twos.
When insect photographers manage to get two insects in the same photo, it's a "two-for."
Autumn is in full swing now, and the colder weather is settling in, but insects continue to provide a variety of diverse photo opportunities.
Two of a kind: a pair of mating Gulf Fritillary butterflies on a passionflower vine, two female sweat bees on goldenrod, and two female Valley carpenter bees on a passion flower.
Gulf Fritillary butterflies: Agraulis vanillae.
Sweat bees: Halictus ligatus.
Valley carpenter bees: Xylocopa varipuncta.
But if you look closely, there are three insects in the Valley carpenter bee photo. The other is a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar.
Good things come in threes, too.
NIMBY--"Not in My Back Yard"--is a term used to target unwanted development projects in a neighborhood. Irate residents ban together and tell a governmental agency, such as a city council: "Not in My Back Yard!" For example, they don't want that chemical plant, prison, toxic waste dump, strip club or casino next to them.
But if you have butterflies in your back yard, NIMBY doesn't apply.
We planted seven passionflower vines (Passiflora) to attract the tropical Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), the brightly colored orange-reddish buterflies belonging to the family Nymphalidae and subfamily Heliconiinae.
It's a joy to see them fluttering around the yard--the females laying eggs and the males cruising for a "date." From the eggs to the caterpillars to the chrysalids to the adults--the Gulf Frit population keeps expanding.
Then, surprisingly, we spotted an unfamiliar-looking caterpillar among all the rest.
"What is this?" we asked noted butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, who monitors the butterfly population in the Central Valley and maintains a butterfly site.
"It's the melanic phase of the Gulf Frit larva, well-known in the southeast United States and in South America, but I've never seen one in California," Shapiro said. "Presumably genetic, but the genetics have not been worked out. See if you can breed from it!"
Well, what to do? We popped the VIP (or rather VIC for "Very Important Caterpillar") in our butterfly habitat container, newly purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
The container is now home to a dozen caterpillars, six chrysalids, and one VIC.
But breeding the butterfly? First, the caterpillar would have to form a chrysalis. Then, if and when the butterfly emerges, we'll have to determine the gender, provide a mate, and see if anything happens.
Your mother laid an egg, you hatched into a caterpillar, and you're eating as much as you can before you spin into a chrysalis and then emerge, as a butterfly, ready to start the life cycle over again.
You are not aware of the European paper wasp, its long legs dangling, moving through the leaves and eating the newly laid eggs around you. The wasp lurks in the deep, dark shadows as you finish one bite and reach for another.
Then you see the predator coming after you.
It does not end well for you. You have become protein for the wasp to feed its young.
For several weeks now, the European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) have wreaked havoc on the Gulf Frit population on our Passiflora. Sometimes they pair up in twos, sometimes in threes and fours, and once a horde of five descended
They follow the fluttering butterflies as they touch down on a leaf to lay an egg. Then they eat the eggs, kill the caterpillars, and tear apart the chrysalids.
European paper wasps are relatively new invaders from Europe; they were first spotted in the United States in 1981 in Massachusetts. They are now colonizing the entire country, taking over the native wasps' territory.
There's good news and then there's bad news. If you like having European paper wasps around to prey on the larvae of hornworms, cabbageworms and tent caterpillars, then you may consider them beneficial insects. But if you're trying to rear a few butterflies, such as the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), then they're Public Enemy No. 1.
Studies show that they can also be cunning.
According to an article out of Michigan State University: "A Cornell University researcher has found that certain female wasps, without nests of their own, 'sit and wait' for an opportunity to adopt an orphaned nest or hijack a nest from another queen. These sit-and-wait female wasps prefer to adopt the most mature nests, probably because these nests will produce workers the soonest, and colonies with workers are very likely to survive. Once a queen adopts a nest she will eat the former queen's eggs and young larvae and replace them with her own eggs. The older larvae and pupae, which belonged to the former queen, are allowed to complete development and may eventually help rear the adopting female's offspring. Ferocious hunters, paper wasps feast on caterpillars."
"The nests are usually founded by a single Queen or Foundress, who starts her nest in May having hibernated as a mated queen throughout the winter often in the company of all the other mated females from their parental nest."
See photos of European paper wasps on BugGuide.net.
Meanwhile, we figure that only about 10 percent of the Gulf Frit eggs will ever make it into butterflies--no thanks to assorted predators.
But a few will make it, and what spectacular butterflies they will be!
It's sort of like watching the grass grow, or the paint dry, but there's much more drama.
These, as children's book author Eric Carle writes in the children's book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillars," are very hungry caterpillars.
They're famished. They're ravenous. They could eat a horse (except they don't eat horses). And that's a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.
If they're allowed to, these caterpillars will decimate the leaves, spin cocoons and eventually turn into spectacular reddish-orange butterflies (Agraulis vanillae).
So, you're sitting there watching the caterpillars eat. And out of the shadows, something else appears.
You think you're the only ones watching them eat? Think again.