If you engage in a mini-monarch conservation project, you know the joy of watching the egg-caterpillar-chrysalis-adult transformation. It's one of Nature's miracles.
Then when you release the monarchs and watch them soar high, awkwardly fluttering their wings in new-found freedom, that's another high.
But there comes a day when you realize that Nature isn't perfect--not that you ever thought it was or ever will be.
In fact, Nature can be a little cruel.
Take the case of several caterpillars we reared in an enclosed habitat to protect them from predators. The 'cats ate the milkweed, and then, they formed chrysalids, just like they're supposed to do. Perfectly formed green-jade chrysalids dotted in gold.
They all looked normal, except one. Apparently a very hungry caterpillar chomped on one of the chrysalids instead of its milkweed. It knawed and knashed until it cratered it.
"This is it!" we figured. All done. No more left to eclose. But today, a monarch eclosed from the damaged chrysalis. A monarch with a deformed wing.
It was a girl. It still is.
We placed her on a broadleaf milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), where she sunned herself and warmed her flight muscles--flight muscles she'll never use because she cannot fly. She sipped some sugar-water and a chunk of juicy watermelon.
She may even attract a mate and give us the next generation.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Nature is not always nice.
Oh, that cuddly teddy bear.
The male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, also known as "the teddy bear bee," comes around occasionally to nectar our broadleaf milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, in our pollinator garden.
The milkweed is the larval host of the monarch butterfly, but other insects, including the honey bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, and butterflies, stop by to sip some nectar.
The male Valley carpenter bee joined the party, and what a party it was. He bluffed his way past the other insects--boy bees do not sting as they have no stinger, as native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, says.
A monarch fluttered in for a little nectar, too, but the teddy bear bee refused to budge.
When you're big, hungry, and a bluffer, you can do that.
Xena the Warrior Princess, a 16-year-old tuxedo cat that we rescued from the pound, crossed the Rainbow Bridge today in a local veterinarian's office. We had her 16 years, or if cats have staff, we were her staff for 16 years. She allowed us to feed her, pet her, and love her.
A black outline of a butterfly adorned her left hind leg, the mark of a pollinator partner. She followed me from blossom to blossom as I captured images of bees, butterflies, dragonflies, sweat bees, spiders, praying mantids and every other little critter imaginable in our pollinator garden. She'd sit beneath my garden chair, just glad to be there, just glad to be alive.
That's what a Pollinator Partner does.
Xena the Warrior Princess was part warrior and part princess: a cunning predator and a purring princess. A predator that would delight in showing us her trophies, and a princess that loved to snuggle.
Then on Leap Year Day, Feb. 29, 2016, Xena the Warrior Princess suffered a debilitating stroke. Sixteen short years, and she's gone. She didn't want to go and we didn't want her to leave.
Rest in peace, Pollinator Partner.
The more we know about monarch butterflies, the better we can understand them and help conserve them.
Newly published research on California's overwintering monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) confirmed many previous migratory studies, but found some unexpected and surprising patterns of movement, said lead researcher Louie Yang, a community ecologist with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
The study, “Intra-Population Variation in the Natal Origins and Wing Morphology of Overwintering Western Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus)," published in the early online version of the journal Ecography, examined the natal origins, or “birthplaces,” of butterflies at four California overwintering sites.
It will be incorporated into an online issue, perhaps within six months, but it has not yet been assigned to an issue, said journal managing editor Maria Persson.
Natal origins of butterflies collected from the two northern sites--Lighthouse Field State Beach and Moran Lake, both in Santa Cruz County--varied significantly from those collected at the two southern overwintering sites--Pismo State Beach, San Luis Obispo County; and the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, Santa Barbara County, they said.
“We hope that this paper improves our understanding of where monarch butterflies grow up in western North America,” said Yang, an associate professor. “This study uses a naturally occurring continental-scale pattern of hydrogen isotopes in precipitation in order to estimate the natal origins of overwintering butterflies. Building a clearer understanding of where they come from could help us better understand many aspects of their ecology.”
The research is the work of Yang; Dmitry Ostrovsky of the University of Colorado, Denver; and Matthew Rogers and Jeffery Welker of the University of Alaska.
The research team set out to answer two key questions: “How do broad geographic areas of potential natal habitat contribute to the overwintering population of western monarch butterflies in California?” and “How does the individual variation in the wing morphology of overwintering western monarch butterflies correlate with estimated migratory distance from their natal origins?”
They first compared the wings of 114 monarch butterflies collected from the four overwintering sites with a continental-scale monarch butterfly wing isoscape derived from the U.S. Network for Isotypes in Precipitation (USNIP) database. They used spatial analyses of stable isotype ratios and correlations with wing morphology. Then they examined the correlations of monarch butterfly forewing size and shape.
Of the 114 butterflies sampled, they found that 30 percent developed in the southern coastal range; 12 percent in the northern coast and inland range; 16 percent in the central range, and 40 percent developed in the northern inland range.
“Interestingly, the two most northern overwintering sites in the study showed the largest contributions from the southern coastal range (Lighthouse Field, 45 percent; Moran Lake, 37 percent; Pismo Beach, 22 percent; and Coronado Preserve, 24 percent) while the two most southern overwintering sites showed the largest contributions from the northern inland range (Lighthouse Field, 30 percent; Moran Lake, 35 percent; Pismo Beach, 53 percent; and Coronado Reserve, 39 percent),” they wrote.
The researchers randomly collected the monarchs Dec. 4-6, 2009 from aggregations in trees. The collecting resulted in: 19 males and 9 females from Coronado; 22 males and 8 females from Pismo State Beach; 20 males and 10 females from Moran Lake; and 18 males and 8 females from the Lighthouse Field State Beach.
In addition, the male monarch butterflies showed mean total masses that were 5.8 percent larger than those of the females.
The monarch butterfly of North America overwinters along the California coast and in the central mountains of Mexico. Previous studies have indicated that the western monarchs or those from natal habitats west of the Rocky Mountains, overwinter along the California coast. Those that develop east of the Rockies overwinter in central Mexico.
The project was funded in part by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development Program grant awarded to Louie Yang, and a NSF Major Research Instrumentation Program grant awarded to Jeffrey Welker.
It suits them to a "T."
And the "T" is for Tithonia.
Many species of butterflies frequent our Tithonia, also known as Mexican sunflower. Like its name implies, it's a member of the sunflower family, Asteraceae.
On any given Sunday--not to mention the other days of the week--the butterflies descend on the Mexican sunflower for a quick burst of nectar. Some stay longer than others, often depending on whether the territorial male sunflower bees (Melissodes and Svastra) are engaging in target practice.
Meet the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).
Meet the Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon).
Meet the Monarch (Danaus plexippus).
Meet the skipper (family Hesperiidae).
The Tithonia belongs in every bee garden!
For more information about butterflies in California's central valley, be sure to check out the butterfly website of Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis.