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!
At last! From an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a butterfly.
And it's a girl!
For several days we've been protecting a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) chryalis on our passionflower vine (Passiflora) from predators.
It works like this: Adult female butterflies lay their eggs on the plant, and predators prey upon the eggs, caterpillars and chrysalides. Result: eggs gone, caterpillars gone, and chrysalides smashed open and the contents (our future butterflies) removed.
So we clipped a white cotton dishtowel around the chrysalis to prevent predation from jumping spiders, orb weavers, ants, praying mantids, European paper wasps and assorted scrub jays.
Sunday morning it happened.
A female butterfly emerged from a chrysalis. She remained close to the chrysalis before moving outside the apiary wire (the wire is stapled to a fence to support the clingy passionflower vine).
Not two minutes later, as "our girl" was drying her wings, getting ready for her first flight, a suitor approached her.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And more Gulf Fritillary butterflies.
Honey bees are passionate about passion flowers (Passiflora).
The intricate tropical flower is their private merry-go-round, their favorite hide 'n seek place, their gathering spot.
If you've been around passion flower vines, you know they attract honey bees, carpenter bees and Gulf Fritillary butterflies.
It's a showy flower to be studied, to be admired, to be photographed.
Especially with honey bees circling it.
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!
Let's talk butterfly eggs. Have you ever seen a Gulf Fritillary butterfly laying an egg in the wild?
The Gulf Frit (Agraulis vanillae), one of the showiest of all butterflies, is a flash of orange-red as it flutters toward its host plant (genus Passiflora) to lay its eggs. If you're lucky--that is, if you're in the right spot at the right time--you may actually see it laying an egg.
Our story began two months ago when we planted a passion flower vine in our yard to attract Gulf Frits. The vine, about two feet tall, was a thin, scraggly little thing yet to bloom. It still hasn't.
Well, about two weeks ago, the Gulf Frit butterflies discovered it and began laying eggs on the leaves. Soon, bristly-looking red, orange and black caterpillars appeared.
That's exactly what we wanted. Caterpillars. Lots of 'em. However, these little critters were not only hungry, they were famished! In a matter of a day or so, they denuded it.
The result: a pathetic-looking Passiflora that reminded us of Charlie Brown's scraggly little Christmas tree, a tree that nobody wanted and everyone ridiculed. In fact, when I showed a cell-phone photo of the sticklike plant to scientists at the UC Davis Department of Entomology, they laughed. Uproariously.
"THAT is a plant?"
What to do? Find another passion flower vine. A quick trip last Saturday morning to a Sacramento nursery yielded a five-gallon Passiflora manicata, variety Linda Escobar, hailing from Ecuador.
We temporarily placed Linda Escobar right next to Charlie Brown. That very day, both the caterpillars and adults gravitated toward Linda. Sorry, Charlie.
On Sunday I captured several images of a Gulf Frit laying a egg on Linda.
What does an egg look like? It's about the size of a pin head and emerges the color of pure gold (it will darken later).
Does life get any better than this?
Not in the butterfly world.