Counting butterflies before they eclose from their chrysalids is sort of like counting chickens before they hatch.
We've done both: raised chickens and reared butterflies.
Fact is, you never know if a butterfly will eclose. The old adage of "Don't count your chickens before they hatch" rings true, as does "Don't count your butterflies before they eclose."
We've reared and released a total of 20 monarch butterflies this year in Vacaville, Calif. It's a small conservation effort, true, but what a difference it's made for those 20 monarchs! Now three chrysalids remain. Unlike the others, all three chrysalids are outdoor chrysalids. Two are hanging in an aquarium setting and look viable. One is tucked inside a zippered mesh laundry hamper and shows no sign of life or pending life.
The "no-sign-of-life" chrysalis turned from jade green to black on Nov. 15. Aha, we thought. We'll get a butterfly within 48 hours. That was the case with our indoor chrysalids once they darkened. (Note that a chrysalis looks like a gold-studded green jewel for about 10 days before it darkens. Then the monarch ecloses and hangs onto the transparent pupal case until it unfolds and dries its wings.)
This time nothing happened. We could clearly see the wing pigment. Hello, you in there! Time's up! Are you coming out or what?
Hmm, we thought. Maybe this is a "what." Cold weather delaying the eclosure? The "P" word--parasitized? The "D" word--diseased or dead?
So we contacted butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He's been monitoring butterfly populations in central California for more than 40 decades (see his website). He's the author of Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions (California Natural History Guides), a book, by the way, that's available in the Bohart Museum of Entomology gift shop on campus as well online.
It's not parasitized, he said, or it would not have developed the wing pigment.
Then Shapiro's keen eyes detected this: "On the dorsal surface there is a kink in the integument and there is a lot of intersegmental membrane showing. I think your beast developed to the pharate adult and died uneclosed--three weeks ago."
He recommends we keep it hanging for a few more days to see what happens. "The integument should fall off and you can inspect the pharate cadaver!"
Well, let's see. One down and two to go and then it's all over until next year.
Oh, wait, don't count your monarchs before they eclose...
If you look closely, you'll not only see the cycle of life in your garden, but art as the center of life.
Take the Gulf Fritillaries. They're a stunning orangish-reddish butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) with silver-spangled underwings. It's a delight seeing them laying eggs on their host plant, Passiflora (passionflower vine), watching an egg develop into caterpillar, a caterpillar form a chrysalis, and an adult eclosing.
If the light is just right, the tiny yellow egg, about the size of a period at the end of this sentence, glows. Then see,,,
- A caterpillar inching along on a passionflower vine
- An empty chrysalis or pupal case hanging like a broken chandelier.
- A male and female becoming one
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, says this is a good year for Guld Frits. He has studied the butterflies of central California for more than four decades. Check out his research website, Art's Butterfly World.
Shapiro says the Gulf Fritillary is a long-time resident of California. It was first documented in Southern California in 1870s. "It first appeared in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” he says. “It spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908. It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro says it “apparently bred in the Sacramento area and possibly in Davis in the 1960s, becoming extinct in the early 1970s, then recolonizing again throughout the area since 2000.”
Thank goodness for Gulf Frits!
Monarch 'cats seem to like to wander--and pupate on the most unlikely of places.
We have two small butterfly habitats on our kitchen counter. We pluck the wild caterpillars from our pollinator garden (before the predators and parasites find them), and take them inside. There they munch on milkweed and become chrysalids, those gold-studded green jewels that are nature's miracles. When the adults eclose (emerge), we release the monarchs back into the garden. It's monarch conservation on a small scale.
However, a couple of weeks ago, one of our caterpillars managed to wander out of its habitat and head for a wall. How it got out we'll never know.
It found a cord connecting a cell phone/tablet to an electrical outlet. There it formed a chrysalis on the dangling cord. We never spotted the chrysalis until we happened to walk by and check the charge. Surprise! A chrysalis on an electrical cord?
Yesterday afternoon, a beautiful monarch eclosed. A female. After she dried her wings, did she stay put? No. She crawled to the top of the cord. Hello, world...
Tomorrow (Saturday) we'll release our little wanderer so she can wing it to an overwintering site with the rest of her buddies. Maybe to Santa Cruz?
Thanks for the memories, Ms. Monarch. We hope you make it. Somehow or another, we think you will...
Call it serendipity.
Call it a prize from the sky.
Frankly, it's not every day that a newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, lands at your feet. It crawled from its chrysalis, hinged to a eight-foot high tree limb near our passionflower vines (Passiflora), and fell, quite unceremoniously, on a bed of wood chips.
Right where I was standing.
At first I thought a scrub jay or an European paper wasp (which keep an attentive eye on the Gulf Frit population in our yard) had nailed it.
No. This was newly emerged. It looked like a plop of red, orange and silver paint, its body limp, its antennae crumbled, its wings still damp.
I lifted it gingerly and placed it on a Passiflora to dry off. Did it fly off in five minutes? Ten minutes? Half an hour? No, it stayed for two hours. When scores of male adult butterflies ventured down to check its gender and then left, I figured it to be the same gender.
A boy butterfly.
If it were female, a male would have mated with her in minutes as one did several weeks ago when a female emerged from a chrysalis. (That, however, is not the only way you can tell gender! There are abdominal differences and males are more brightly colored, a deeper reddish-orange, than the females.)
Boy Butterfly leaned his head back, opened and stretched his wings, and finally, he took off, touching me on the shoulder as he floated by.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis who monitors the butterfly population in the Central Valley, is glad to see the Gulf Frits making a comeback in this area. He writes on his website:
"this dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century--we don't know how--and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s. It can be quite common in the East and South Bay--particularly in Berkeley--and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions. According to Hal Michael, who grew up in South Sacramento, this species bred there in abundance on garden Passiflora in the early 1960s. It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
As for Boy Butterfly, a loudly buzzing female Valley carpenter bee attempting to forage on a flower near his head, prompted his rather abrupt departure.
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...