If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), it carries "the torch of life" throughout spring, summer and autumn, but it's especially important in autumn when few plants offer sustenance to insects, especially to migrating monarchs. The colorful annual has been blooming in our yard since April, reaching 10-to 15-foot heights (thanks, drip irrigation).
What loves this delightful orange blossom, besides the human beings who grow it?
Over a weeklong period, we photographed dozens of autumn critters, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, hover flies, honey bees and crab spiders.
Every bee garden needs an "Autumn Majesty" and the Mexican sunflower fills the bill. When it goes to seed, finches and other birds will take what's left.
Dear Crab Spider,
Please don't eat the pollinators. You may help yourself to a mosquito, a crane fly, a lygus bug, an aphid, and a katydid, not necessarily in that order. And more than one if you like. In fact, how about an all-you-can-eat buffet of luscious lygus bugs? So good! Yes, you may tell all your arachnid friends about the nutritious, high-protein meals available just for the taking. Please do. Just don't eat the pollinators.
Crab spiders do not listen. They will eat what they want and when they want it. And they will gorge themselves. They are not interested in joining Weight Watchers. They are Wait Watchers.
For the past several months, crab spiders have been lurking on our blanket flower (Gaillardia). Most of the time, they just sit there, waiting patiently for dinner to arrive. Sometimes it's a long wait--longer than it takes for a waiter to return to your table during a rush-hour holiday lunch.
So, Ms. or Mr. Crab Spider--not sure of the gender, but "Predator" will do--dined recently on a sweat bee, a female Halictus tripartitus. We watched Predator lunge at a honey bee (missed!) and pursue at a male long-horned bee, probably Melissodes agilis.
Our cunning little arachnid no doubt nailed a few others--the "waistline" is a dead giveaway.
A sure-fire way to frighten arachnophobics is the very mention of "spiders"--especially on Halloween.
Spiders aren't insects but arthropods, order Araneae. They have eight legs, which according to some, are seven legs too many. They are also distinguished by their chelicerae with fangs that inject venom.
You've seen them. Black widow spiders. Jumping spiders. Crab spiders. Garden spiders.
If you fear them, there's a name for that fear: Arachnophobia. Wikipedia says that "People with arachnophobia tend to feel uneasy in any area they believe could harbor spiders or that has visible signs of their presence, such as webs. If arachnophobics see a spider, they may not enter the general vicinity until they have overcome the panic attack that is often associated with their phobia. Some people scream, cry, have trouble breathing, have excessive sweating or even heart trouble when they come in contact with an area near spiders or their webs. In some extreme cases, even a picture or a realistic drawing of a spider can also trigger fear."
The general fallacies, as listed by Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids:
- Spiders are insects.
- "Arachnid" is just a fancy name for spider.
- You can always tell a spider because it has eight legs.
- All spiders make webs.
- The orb web (round or "geometric" web) is a "normal" spider web.
- A "daddy-longlegs" is a kind of spider.
- Most spiders could not bite humans because their fangs are too small.
- Any spider species can be found anywhere.
- All spiders are male.
- Spiders are most numerous in late summer.
- You are never more than three feet from a spider.
- Spiders "suck the juices" of their prey, and do not literally eat it.
- Spiders don't stick to their own webs because their feet are oily.
Meanwhile, over at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis, plans are underway for an open house themed "Insect Myths." They will focus on spider myths, too.
The event, free and open to the public, is set for Sunday, Nov. 23 from 1 to 4 p.m. in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, off LaRue Road. Directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, the museum houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens and is the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity. The museum is open to the public four days a week, Monday through Thursday (9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m.) but it sponsors special weekend open houses as well.
The remaining schedule:
- Sunday, Nov. 23: “Insect Myths,” 1 to 4 p.m.
- Saturday, Dec. 20: “Insects and Art,” 1 to 4 p.m.
- Sunday, Jan. 11: “Parasitoid Palooza,” 1 to 4 p.m.
- Sunday, Feb. 8: “Biodiversity Museum Day,” noon to 4 p.m.
- Saturday, March 14: “Pollination Nation,” 1 to 4 p.m.
- Saturday, April 18: UC Davis Picnic Day, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- Sunday, May 17: “Name That Bug! How About Bob?” 1 to 4 p.m.
- Saturday, July 18: “Moth Night,” 8 to 11 p.m.
When you attend the Bohart Museum open houses, you'll probably have the opportunity to hold and/or photograph "Rosie," a 24-year-old tarantula. It's one of the critters in the live "petting zoo," which also includes Madagascar hissing cockroaches, millipedes and walking sticks./h3>/span>
They're ambush predators.
Here you are, a bee, touching down on a flower and little do you know there's a patient and persistent crab spider lying in wait.
Sometimes they're camouflaged, matching the color of a blossom, like a yellow crab spider on a gold coin, or a pinkish-white crab spider on sedum.
But there was no missing this white crab spider on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) last weekend. It stood out like a snowy owl perched on a crate of crimson pomegranates.
Crab spiders belong to the family Thomisidae and are often called "flower crab spiders." They're not web weavers or jumping spiders. They're ambush specialists that trap unsuspecting prey.
If you're wondering why some honey bees, leafcutter bees, blue orchard bees or sweat bees don't go home at night, the crab spider is one of the reasons.
It was a bad day for a butterfly.
We stopped by the Ruth Risdon Storer Garden, part of the UC Davis Arboretum, at noon today as triple-digit temperatures climbed to a scorching 103.
We spotted a few cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) nectaring the Verbena (Verbena bonariensis), and a few honey bees on the gaura (Onagraceae).
The cabbage whites seemed to like the Verbena. They fluttered around the blossoms gracefully, touching down like snowy princesses in winged gowns and spiked heels, belying the fact that their caterpillars are pests of cabbage, kale, radish and broccoli, mustard and other members of the family Brassicaceae.
One cabbage white, however, wasn't so lucky.
As we rounded a corner of the garden, we noticed it wasn't fluttering. It wasn't moving. It wasn't doing anything.
There was a good reason why it wasn't going anywhere.
A hungry crab spider.