It's something you don't see every day.
I'm used to seeing Gulf Fritillary chrysalids hanging from our passionflower vine (Passiflora) but this thing hanging from our African blue basil was not a chrysalid.
"It's a dead caterpillar killed by an infectious virus disease (polyhedrosis)," said butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis.
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas, an associate at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, figured it could be the remains of a noctuid (moth). "It kind of looks like it," he said. "It is definitely dead."
Those who rear butterflies see polyhedrosis quite often, I'm told. All I've reared are a few Gulf Frits. Scientific name, Agraulis vanillae. They're beautiful reddish-orange butterflies with iridescent silver or "spangled" undersides.
"A dead insect like this, hanging from the upper foliage, is very classical of a NPV-infected caterpillar," said researcher Shizuo "George" Kamita of the Bruce Hammock lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. "Nucleopolyhedrovirus (previously called nuclear polyhedrons virus) is a type of baculovirus that is commonly found in the environment. Baculoviruses are used as a biological insecticide against caterpillars. Twenty years ago Bruce's lab was involved in genetically modifying the wild type baculovirus to improve its ability to reduce feeding damage."
Professor Shapiro pointed out that "Polyhedroses are extremely infectious. Dispose of the cadaver and wash off the areas vertically below it with a forceful spray, if you don't mind wasting the water. The dying larva drips infectious liquid. Kind of like Ebola!"
So we bagged the dead caterpillar and turned the hose on the leaves. As we did, we noticed life as usual: honey bees nectaring the African blue basil blossoms, and a tiny white crab spider lurking.
Life and death in the garden...
How can you hate a caterpillar and love a butterfly?
Some gardeners so love their passionflower vine (Passiflora) that they squirm at the thought of a caterpillar munching it down to nothing.
But that's what caterpillars do. The Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) lays its eggs on its host plant, the passionflower vine, the eggs develop into larvae or caterpillars, and the caterpillars into Gulf Frits.
Our passionflower vine--which we planted specifically for the Gulf Frits--is now a skeleton. The caterpillars ate all the leaves, the flowers and the stems. What was once a flourishing green plant looks like a criss-cross of brown sticks.
Comedian George Carlin supposedly said "The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity."
And architect-author-designer-inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller observed: "There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly."
And someone named John Grey offered this poetic comment:
"And what's a butterfly? At best,
He's but a caterpillar, at rest."
So, it is. Take a look at the Gulf Frit caterpillar and then check out the Gulf Frit butterfly.
Yes, a hungry caterpillar turned into a magnificent butterfly.
How can you hate a caterpillar?
Or more precisely, dead fruit flies or carrion on a tarweed plant can benefit the plant in more ways that most people would ever think about, say researchers in the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Just as human tourists can be good for the economy, ‘insect tourists” can be good for a plant.
When the hairs of a “sticky plant” trap small insects or “insect tourists,” the “tourist trap” provides food for other predators, thus becoming a defensive mechanism that spares the plant from increased herbivore damage. Other beneficial results include greater plant fitness and increased fruit production.
“We conducted a large, simple field experiment to test the hypothesis that plant-trapped insects could enhance indirect defense by increasing predator densities,” said ecologist Billy Krimmel, a graduate student in the Jay Rosenheim lab, who worked with fellow ecologist Ian Pearse of the Richard Karban lab. Pearse is now a postdoctoral fellow in Walter Koenig’s laboratory at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
“Sticky plants-- those producing resinous, oily or hooked trichomes (hairs)--often entrap small insects that land on them as they pass by,” Krimmel said. “This insect carrion functions as a type of plant-provided food for defense.”
“This is the first example of such a plant-provided food being captured from the external environment,” Krimmel said. “We coined the term 'tourist trap', referring to the sticky hairs that catch insect passers-by.”
In their research, “Sticky Plant Traps Insects to Enhance Indirect Defence,” published in the journal Ecology Letters, the ecologists revealed that the trapped insect tourists “increased the abundance of a suite of predators, decreased herbivory and increased plant fitness.”
Later the journal Nature focused on the Krimmel-Pearse research in its ecology section: "When Plants Run the Food Chain."
"We have known for a long time that carnivorous plants entrap insects for their own benefit,” Pearse said. “In our current study, we found that the entrapment of insects by plants might be even more important and general than previously thought."
Krimmel and Pearse conducted their research in the Stebbens Cold Canyon Reserve, a UC Davis Nature Reserve located in Solano County, near the outlet of Lake Berryessa. Their sticky plant was tarweed (Madia elegans), an annual flowering California native plant in the family Asteraceae. It generally flowers in mid to late summer, from approximately June through September.
At our study site, tarweed's major herbivore is the specialist caterpillar Heliothodes diminutiva, which feeds largely on plant reproductive organs and can completely sterilise its host plants,” they wrote. The adult owlet moth, Heliothodes diminutive, lays its eggs on the developing buds. The emerging caterpillars can quickly devour all the flowers and buds.
“The suite of predators commonly found on tarweed,” they wrote, “includes the assassin bug Pselliopus spinicollis, two stilt bugs Hoplinus echinatus and Jalysus wickhami, the green lynx spider Peucetia sp. and the crab spider Mecaphesa schlingeri. All can navigate tarweed's sticky surface.”
Krimmel and Pearse chose 82 tarweed plants for their experiment. They placed dead Drosophila fruit flies to half of them, five flies per week through the growing season, and then monitored all the plants throughout the growing season.
“Because tarweed is a small, annual plant, we were able to do full counts of arthropods on all plants each week, and measure lifetime fruit production by the plants, allowing us to relate our experimental treatment to plant lifetime fitness,” the authors wrote.
“The addition of 5 dead fruit flies (carrion) to plants each week over the growing season increased the abundance of all surveyed predatory arthropods associated with M. elegans plants by 76 percent to 450 percent,. For P. spinoicollis, the most abundant predator, this effect was strongest during the early growth season in June and July.”
Specifically, “the addition of carrion (fruit flies) to M. elegans plants produced a 60 percent decrease in bud damage caused by H. diminutiva, the dominant lepidopteran herbivore in this system and increased lifetime fruit production by 10 percent,” the researchers said.
Jay Rosenheim's USDA research grant helped fund the project. Krimmel received two other grants: a National Science Foundation/Graduate Research Fellowship and a Jastro-Shields Research Scholarship.
It's called a complete metamorphosis--from an egg to a larva to a pupa to an adult.
Metamorphosis--Greek for "transformation" or "change in shape" is spectacular.
And it's particularly spectacular when the subject is the Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon).
Adult butterflies recently laid their eggs on anise (Pimpinella anisum), also known as fennel, in a friend's backyard in Fairfield. The eggs transformed into larvae (caterpillars) with coloring reminiscent of the adults.
We didn't see the first stage, the eggs, but did see the second stage, caterpillar and remnants of the third stage, an empty chrysalis.
One more butterfly flying around in Fairfield...
Pity the poor caterpillar. Here you are, minding your own business, and this tachinid fly comes along and lays eggs in your head.
Good day for the tachinid fly. Bad day for the caterpillar.
The tachinid fly, from the family Tachinidae, is frequently seen buzzing around flowers, like this one (below) in the Storer Gardens at the UC Davis Arboretum. The adults feed on nectar.
"They're parasites," said Lynn Kimsey, chair of the Department of Entomology and director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology. "They often parasitize Lepidoptera caterpillars by laying eggs in them."
They also lay their minute eggs on plants, which caterpillars ingest. The eggs hatch inside the caterpillar, killing it.
"Inside the victims, the larvae breathe free air by perforating the body wall of the host or by a connection to its tracheal system," write Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue in their book, California Insects.
It is not a pretty sight. But then again, tachinid flies aren't pretty--unless you're another tachinid fly.