"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
That's the line that came to me Saturday when I released a week-old Gulf Fritillary butterfly I'd reared in our home.
Kris Kristofferson penned that line in his hit song, "Me and Bobby McGee," popularized by Janis Joplin. Kristofferson most definitely was NOT thinking of Agraulis vanillae when he wrote that. According to performingsongwriter.com, he was thinking of a time-tested movie plot. You know, boy loves girl, boy leaves girl, boy cannot forget girl.
Calling freedom a "two-edged sword," Kristofferson explained that the boy "was free when he left the girl, but it destroyed him. That’s where the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ came from."
Fact is, my little ol' December butterfly picked a terrible time to emerge in the habitat I purchased last summer at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis. With outside temperatures dipping to 22 degrees, I didn't have the heart to make this a nothing-left-to-lose day. Not yet. So I fed it sugar water and waited for a better-chance-to-make-it day.
When the temperature hit 55, I released it on a passionflower vine in our yard. My boy butterfly quickly fluttered away, on the wings of freedom, only to return a few minutes later and touch down on a clump of pampas grass.
I'm sure it never found a mate. In fact, between hungry predators and the just-chillin' weather, it probably ended up as a one-day butterfly.
However, there's always the promise of more butterflies. A quick peek beneath the burlap-covered passionflower vine revealed several caterpillars and chrysalids.
University of Minnesota honey bee researcher Marla Spivak, in her TED talk on honey bee health, referred to bees as "flower feeders."
That they are. Flower feeders.
As are other pollinators from butterflies to beetles to bats.
But it's a special treat to see butterflies, honey bees and carpenter bees sharing blossoms of the same plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
Several years ago a UC Davis professor planted a fenceline of passionflower vines at her residence off east Covell Boulevard, Davis. This year she is reaping her reward: Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), honey bees and Valley carpenter bees are all over it. Why Gulf Frits? The passionflower vine is their host plant. You can see the entire life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult in her yard.
The Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) are frequent foragers, too. The females frighten many people because of their size and loud buzz. They're a solid black, in sharp contrast to the males, which are golden with green eyes.
We didn't see one predator Thursday in her Davis yard.
In our yard, we have scores of predators on our passionflower vines: scrub jays, European paper wasps, jumping spiders, ladybugs, assassin bugs and an occasional praying mantis. Although the jays pick off the caterpillars from our passionflower vines, they don't seem to go for the adults.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, points to research published in a 2007 edition of the Journal of Chemical Ecology that indicates that the Gulf Fritillary adults are poisonous to birds. A team of scientists from Maryland, Virginia and Georgia wrote in the abstract of their article, “Novel Chemistry of Abdominal Defensive Glands of Nymphalid Butterfly (Agraulis vanillae): “Abdominal defensive glands of both sexes of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly, emit a pronounced odor when disturbed…we suggest that the constituents in the glands may play a defensive role against potential avian predators.”
The article relates that Linnaeus (1758) first described the tropical butterfly and noted that its brilliant coloration of the reddish-orange butterfly makes it conspicuous.
Valley carpenter bees are passionate about passionflower vines (Passiflora).
You see these black bees foraging on the blossoms. Tiny grains of golden pollen, looking like gold dust, dot the thorax.
Their loud buzz frightens many a person, but wait, they're pollinators.
Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) are found in the Central Valley and southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southward through Mexico, according to native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis.
These carpenter bees are large (about the size of a queen bumble bee). The females are solid black, while the males are golden/buff-colored with green eyes.
We receive scores of calls about "golden bumble bees." They're the male Valley carpenter bees, sometimes nicknamed "Teddy bears."
The females are the only ones we've seen in the passionflower vines, though.
The males? They must be cruising somewhere else, patrolling for females.
Most of the time we see female Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) laying their eggs on the leaves, and male Gulf Frits searching for females.
First the lantana, and then the passion flower vine.
The Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) flutter daily around our backyard. They stop for a little nectar from lantana (family Verbenaceae), and then head over to the passion flower vines (genus Passiflora) to breed or lay their eggs.
You can't miss them. The Gulf Frit is a showy, reddish-orange butterfly. Its underside absolutely sparkles in a spangled iridescent silver.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, and who maintains the website, Art's Butterfly World, says the Gulf Frit was introduced into southern California in the 19th century and first recorded in the Bay Area "before 1908."
It was once prevalent in the Sacramento area in the 1960s, but seemed to have died out by the early 1970s.
Then in 2009, it began making a comeback in the Sacramento area.
It's definitely making a comeback. A beautiful comeback.
It was a perfect St. Patrick's Day--not just for the wearing of the green, but for the wearing of the orange.
The Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) arrived in our yard Sunday afternoon, March 16 and deposited an egg, just like E. Bunny will do soon.
The Gulf Frit's host plant is the Passiflora or passion flower vine. Last winter Jack Frost nipped at the leaves and nearly killed one of our two plants but they're both springing back.
The butterfly first touched down on an Amaryllis (Amaryllis belladonna) before she located the two passion flower vines. Her battle-scarred wings related the story of a close encounter with a bird or other predator.
Once quite common in the Sacramento area in the 1950s and 1960s, the Gulf Fritillary vanished for about 40 years and is now making a comeback. It's a brightly colored orange butterfly with black markings and silvery spangled hindwings.
It's good to see it again!