The showy reddish-orange butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) is making a comeback in the Sacramento-Davis area. In the early 1970s, it was considered extinct in that area.
“It first appeared in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” says noted butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the UC Davis Center for Population Biology. “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.”
Shapiro describes the Gulf Fritillary as “one of the most widespread weedy butterflies in the Americas." However, he points out, it has no “native host plant in California."
Those who want to attract the Gulf Frit can do so by planting its host plant, passion flower vine (tropical genus Passiflora). The butterflies lay their eggs on the plant and voila! Leaf-munching caterpillars. Shapiro points out that the Gulf Frit caterpillars "will not eat all of the Passiflora in cultivation in California." They can be particular.
One of the Gulf Frit's favorite nectar sources is lantana (genus Lantana, family Verbenaceae.)
The Gulf Frit "has no diapause and is subject to killing out by hard freezes; in my experience, 22F is completely lethal to all stages," Shapiro says. "It has been bred for release at weddings, garden parties and the like, but there is no direct evidence linking its return in this region to such activities. If gardeners find it a pest on their Passifloras it is easily controlled by hand-picking or BT (Dipel), but it seems, to judge by my email, that most people are thrilled and delighted to have it in the garden."
Shapiro and two co-authors recently published a paper in the Journal of Biogeography (J. Biogeog.39: 382-396, 2012) on the pylogeography (geography of molecular-genetic variation) of widespread Western Hemisphere human-associated butterflies. The reearch is the work of Erik Runquist, UC Davs Department of Evolution and Ecology; Matthew Forister of the Department of Biology, University of Nevada; and Shapiro.
"We had suspected the Gulf Frit might be introduced in the United States but the genetics show not only that it is not, but that it is apparently two species--one entirely South American and one North American--but we have made no move to name anything!"
It's interesting that another host specialist butterfly, Cacyreus marshallili, a native of South Africa, is becoming a pest of garden geraniums (Pelargonium) in Europe, where "there are no native Pelargoniums," Shapiro says. "The butterfly (known as the Geranium Bronze) is becoming a real threat to the tradition of having geraniums in window boxes. Some European butterfly folks like its presence--unless they grow geraniums."
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.
No doubt many of them did.
The award-winning book, published in 1969, traces the complete metamorphosis of a butterfly, from an egg to a larva (caterpillar) to a pupa (chrsyalis) to an adult.
If you've ever seen a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar chowing down on the leaves of a passion flower vine, you've seen The Very Hungry Caterpillar in action.
We planted a passion flower vine two months ago in our yard. The plant hasn't yet bloomed, but the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanilla) found it. Thankfully! We planted it for them.
Within what seemed like a matter of days, the passion flower vine (the host plant of the Gulf Frits), went from no caterpillars--zero, zilch, nada--to five.
We've seen the showy orange-reddish butterflies fluttering around the plant looking for places to lay their eggs, but haven't seen them actually do it.
But the evidence is there!
"As a spiny orange-and-black caterpillar, it feeds only on passion flower leaves, eating many but not all species of the genus Passiflora," says butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis. "There are no native members of this genus in the state of California, but several are widely cultivated in gardens."
The butterfly, he says, can breed where there is a "critical mass" of these plants in a town or neighborhood.
Let there be a critical mass!
Ah, the Gulf Fritillary...
We spotted this orange-reddish butterfly nectaring lantana last Saturday near downtown Vacaville. In fact, the patch of lantana (family Verbenaceae) drew assorted butterflies, including buckeyes, alfalfa, monarchs, and painted ladies. A few honey bees and native bees tried to get their share.
Lantana and Gulf Frits. These multi-colored blossoms and the multi-colored butterfly, both found in the tropics and subtropics, are a study in brilliance.
On his website, butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, says the Gulf Frit (Agraulis vanillae) was introduced into southern California in the 19th century, and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908. Once prevalent in the Sacramento area in the 1960s, it "seems to have died out by the early 1970s," he said.
Then in 2009, it began making a comeback in the Sacramento area.
Now it appears to be thriving in some areas, at least where its adopted host plant, the passion flower vine (genus Passiflora), grows. If you have a passion flower vine in your yard, you may very well see the spiny orange-and-black caterpillars feeding on the leaves. And if you have lantana or Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in your yard, don't be surprised if a few adults drop by for a sip of nectar.
No wonder that commercial companies mass-rear these exotic-looking butterflies for release at weddings, garden parties and other social events.
The Gulf Frit is definitely back.
Back in September of 2009, butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, excitedly announced the re-appearance of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) in the Sacramento metropolitan area after a four-decade absence, and in the Davis area after a 30-year absence.
It's a tropical and subtropical butterfly with a range that extends from the southern United States all the way to central Argentina.
The Gulf Frit is a beautiful butterfly with bright orange-red wings, spangled iridescent silver on the underside, and a four-inch wingspan.
The larvae or caterpillars of the Agraulis vanillae feed on the leaves of the passion flower vine; they eat "many but not all species of the genus Passiflora," Shapiro says. "There are no native members of this genus in the state of California, but several are widely cultivated in gardens."
No one knows exactly when the first Gulf Frit first arrived in California, but "it was already in the San Diego area by about 1875, Shapiro says, and it was first recorded in the San Francisco Bay Area around 1908.
The showy butterfly colonized both south Sacramento and the Winding Way/Auburn Boulevard area in the 1960s but by 1971 "apparently became extinct or nearly so," recalled Shapiro, who moved to the Davis area in 1971.
The butterfly can breed where there is a "critical mass" of these plants in a town or neighborhood," he told us back in 2009.
Well, there's a thriving passion flower vine behind a west Vacaville residence that makes one think: "Critical mass!"
On one recent sunny afternoon, we spotted about 10 to 12 Gulf Frits breeding on the vine. Squadrons of brightly colored orange and black caterpillars munched on the leaves.
Yes, the Gulf Frit is alive and well.
Very alive and very well.
So if you have a passion for the Gulf Frit, plant Passiflora.
Plant it and they may come.