It's a strikingly beautiful insect.
But in its larval stage, the alfalfa butterfly, Colias eurytheme--also known as the orange sulphur butterfly--is a pest.
If you grow alfalfa, you're not a fan of this butterfly, and rightfully so.
"Alfalfa caterpillars can consume entire leaves," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website. "The larger larvae are most destructive."
The butterfly lays its eggs "on the new growth of alfalfa that is less than 6 inches tall," UC IPM says. "Eggs hatch into green caterpillars in 3 to 7 days. Full-grown caterpillars are about 1.5 inches long and are distinguished from other caterpillars on alfalfa by their velvety green bodies with white lines along their sides."
"Caterpillar populations usually result from a flight of butterflies into the field when the alfalfa is less than 6 inches tall. Extremely large numbers of adults migrating between fields are often present from June to September in the Central Valley and from May to October in the southern desert."
We've been seeing lots of alfalfa butterflies sipping nectar on our African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal').
Sometimes they don't notice you and you can edge toward them, camera in hand.
Sometimes they don't even notice that a honey bee is shadowing them. Honey bees are also quite fond of African blue basil.
Butterfly meet bee. Bee meet butterfly.
In the insect photography world, that's called a "two-fer"--a bonus of two insects in one photo.
Take the immature form (caterpillar) of the moth, Schizura concinna, family Notodontidae. We first spotted this caterpillar on our Western redbud tree (Cercis occidentalis) in September 2010.
It has a red hump. The common name: The redhumped caterpillar.
Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, told us that the red hump contains a defensive formic acid gland. "They hold their anal prolegs, which are not useful for walking, in the air and thrash their rear ends in unison when disturbed. This is the ONLY defoliator of redbud around here, and is very common. It also attacks walnut and a variety of other chemically-distinctive trees that other things don't eat, as a rule."
We wondered if these little thrashing visitors should concern us. "The damage is minor, and I strongly advise against spraying; hand-picking can be used if control is deemed necessary, but they feed so late in the season that there is no actual harm to the tree," he told us. "The moth is very nondescript. It holds its wings wrapped around the body cylindrically and looks remarkably like a cigarette butt, though it is probably 'imitating' a broken-off twig. Despite authoritative commentary to the contrary, they have two broods a year here but are usually seen in fall. The species is native on both coasts and oddly absent in most of the mid-continent."
We thought we might see redhumped caterpillars on our liquidambar (sweet gum) trees that we planted more than two decades ago. We never have.
What we did see this week is that the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) has revised its Pest Notes: Redhumped Caterpillar. A recent UC IPM blog described the caterpillar as a "familiar pest on fruit and nut trees such as plum, almond, cherry, and apple, as well as on ornamental trees like liquidambar and birch. It can reach high populations in California's Central Valley, sometimes defoliating entire trees."
The Pest Note, co-authored by entomologists Emily Symmes, UC IPM and UC Cooperative Extension, Sacramento Valley, and Steve Dreistadt, UC IPM, describes the pest, its life cycle, and the damage rendered. You can read about a variety of management techniques.
Ah, the redhumped caterpillar...
And if you're curious about common names and scientific names of insects, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) maintains a Common Name Database, "an essential reference for anyone who works with insects. It includes more than 2,000 common names and is searchable by common name, scientific name, author, order, family, genus, and species."
Have a suggestion for a common name? You can propose it on the ESA form. Names are reviewed by the Committee on the Common Names of Insects and voted on by the ESA Governing Board.
It's probably unlikely, however, that redhumped caterpillar, will undergo a name change any time soon. That red hump is so descriptive!
It's not a question of whether katydid did or didn't.
In answer to what-are-we-going-to-see-next-in-insect-sightings-today-in-our-weird-climate-changing patterns, a katydid appeared on our yellow rose bush on Nov. 21 in Vacaville, Calif.
And stayed for several days.
Usually, they are difficult to see in green vegetation, what with their green bodies and detailed venation. It's not good camouflage to hang out on a yellow rose.
"Katydids resemble grasshoppers but have long antennae," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) in its pest management website on Scudderia furcata. "Female katydids lay their gray, oval 1/8- to 1/4-inch long eggs in two overlapping rows on twigs and leaves or into the edges of their chewing damage. Nymphs appear in April and May and require 2 to 3 months to mature. Katydids produce one generation a year."
They do like fruit, including peach, nectarine, apricot, and pear. "Katydids may feed on leaves or fruit. Katydids do not eat the whole fruit. They often take a bite and move on, allowing the feeding site to become covered with grayish scar tissue and the expanding fruit to become misshapen. Most damage is done by nymphs."
Last summer we saw them feeding on our nectarines, and later we noticed them hanging out on our Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). Usually they're gone by October.
Not this katydid.
Fly away home.
Your house is on fire
And your children are gone.
How many times have you heard that nursery rhyme?
Better yet, how many times have you seen a lady beetle (because they're beetles, not bugs) take off?
Look closely for lady beetles in aphid-infested milkweed plants and you might see this phenomenon. The lady beetle opens its elytra (a modified hardened protective wing case) and out pop the wings.
This lady beetle (below) was munching and crunching aphids on a tropical milkweed this afternoon in Vacaville, Calif., and then opted to take flight. Just another beneficial insect eating soft-bodied pests and then heading off to another "restaurant" that features its prey.
Goes to prove that lady beetles are garden heroes. And when they take flight, they look like super heroes: the superman/superwoman of the garden.
You can learn more about lady beetles from the Natural Enemies Gallery, part of the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) website. "Although they are extremely important natural enemies of aphids, their propensity to disperse makes it difficult for them to be used in inoculative or inundative biological control programs," UC IPM points out.
Tell that to the children chanting the nursery rhyme and they'll probably grow up wanting to learn more about these amazing insects and it's not about their house being on fire: "Their propensity to disperse makes it difficult for them to be used in inoculative or inundative biological control programs."
This is an insect that looks as if it were assembled by a dysfunctional committee: long angular legs, long antennae, and beady eyes on a thin green body.
All hail the katydid.
It's usually camouflaged, disguised as a leaf in the vegetation--Nature's gift.
But in our pollinator garden, we see them. Two of them. One is tucked beneath red rose petals, and another is nestled inside a white cosmos.
Katydids feed on leaves, flowers, fruit and plant seeds, and often will take just a bite of fruit, such as apricot, pear, peach, plum, blueberry and citrus, but enough to cause considerable damage. If they're agricultural pests, check out the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website and learn how to manage them.
These katydids proved to be photogenic.