They didn't get the memo.
Summer is over. Fall is underway. Winter is coming (Dec. 21).
But the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are still laying eggs on the passionflower vine here in Vacaville, Calif. The eggs are hatching. The caterpillars are eating. The 'cats are pupating. And the adults are eclosing from the chrysalids.
And then the cycle of life begins all over again: from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult.
Actually, we've seen Gulf Frits here year around--even photographed them laying eggs on Christmas Day. Gulf Frits don't go through diapause here. They mate year around.
Of course, the survival rate is low. An estimated 95 percent of all butterflies don't make it from egg to adult, scientists say.
We've seen why. Spiders, praying mantids, yellowjackets, European paper wasps, birds, diseases, and such parasitoids as tachinid flies and wasps that lay their eggs in the caterpillars or bore into the chrysalids.
If you look closely, you can sometimes see the parasitoid evidence (hole), such as the one below. Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology and an expert on butterflies, says that judging by the size of this hole, it was a large parasitoid--probably a big tachinid fly or an ichneumonid (wasp).
Just part of the cycle of life...
If you look closely, you'll not only see the cycle of life in your garden, but art as the center of life.
Take the Gulf Fritillaries. They're a stunning orangish-reddish butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) with silver-spangled underwings. It's a delight seeing them laying eggs on their host plant, Passiflora (passionflower vine), watching an egg develop into caterpillar, a caterpillar form a chrysalis, and an adult eclosing.
If the light is just right, the tiny yellow egg, about the size of a period at the end of this sentence, glows. Then see,,,
- A caterpillar inching along on a passionflower vine
- An empty chrysalis or pupal case hanging like a broken chandelier.
- A male and female becoming one
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, says this is a good year for Guld Frits. He has studied the butterflies of central California for more than four decades. Check out his research website, Art's Butterfly World.
Shapiro says the Gulf Fritillary is a long-time resident of California. It was first documented in Southern California in 1870s. "It first appeared in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” he says. “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.”
Thank goodness for Gulf Frits!
For a couple of months now, we've been watching the monarch caterpillars slowly disappearing from our milkweed plants. We'd see fifth instar 'cats one day, and the next day, they'd be gone. Then we'd see the Western scrub jays flying through the yard and landing near the plants. Culprits!
Okay, we thought, we'll get some bird netting to circle the milkweeds. The net kept the birds out but not the 'cats. They crawled out of the bird netting right into the beaks of the birds.
Okay, we thought, how about some tulle or wedding veil-type fabric or those zippered hampers to pop over the plants? Those worked better. Not as many escapees.
But what really worked was bringing the caterpillars into the house and placing them into the butterfly habitat containers (from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis). Daily we'd feed the 'cats bouquets of fresh milkweed tucked into a narrow-throated, flat/wide-bottomed bottle. I think that in its other life, it was a tequila bottle. It went from borrowed tequila bottle to butterfly bottle.
The first one to eclose was a male. The second one, a female. Releasing them was pure joy.
Then today, two more eclosures. First, a male. Then a female. As soon as their wings dried, we released them. The male fluttered rather clumsily (okay, it was his first flight). The female preferred to soak up some sunshine as she clung tightly to a butterfly bush.
If we hadn't brought the caterpillars into the house, would they have reached the adult stage? Probably not. Scientists say that only 10 percent make it from egg to adult in the wild.
Watching the transformation from egg, to caterpillar, to a gold-studded jade-green jewel (chrysalis) to an adult is just plain exhilaration and jubilation. Such bliss. No wonder monarch conservations are addicted. It's like watching the miracle of life unfold.
Hollywood actors and actresses who deliver their acceptance speeches at the Academy Award ceremonies have nothing on us.
We Monarch Moms and Dads can deliver A-'Cat-emy Award presentations, too. (Of course, we have butterflies in our stomachs because we're not used to being on stage.)
"First we'd like to thank the nursery for providing these narrow-leafed milkweeds. Then we'd like to thank the Good Earth for providing such a healthy environment to allow the growth of these plants. Then we'd like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Monarch for..um...getting together, and Mrs. Monarch for kindly laying her eggs on these plants. Mrs. Monarch, that was really very nice of you! Thank you so much!"
"And finally, we are here to tell you that change is good. It can transform you. You say you don't believe that a leaf-munching caterpillar can become a glorious butterfly? Let us tell you what the word, metamorphosis, means to us. Met-a-more-for-us. More for us. More for the world. (Applause, standing ovation) Thank you, thank you! Monarchs rule!"
Have you ever seen a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) lay an egg on her host plant, the milkweed?
Have you ever seen a close-up of the egg? The larva or caterpillar? The chrysalis? The eclosure (when the adult emerges from the chrysalis)?
It's a fascinating sight.
Not all eggs will make it. Predators, such as lady beetles and their larvae, gobble up monarch eggs along with those tasty aphids. Birds, such as scrub jays, swoop down and make off with an occasional caterpillar. Then when the fifth instar finally starts to form a chrysalis, there's always the question of whether it will do so. Some are deformed and turn out to be half chrysalis and half caterpillar.
But once you've watched a complete metamorphosis, you'll never underappreciate monarchs again. In fact, you'll probably start rearing them every year. We just reared our first two this month.
It's easy to see why teachers and their students get so excited. We remember writing about Sal (Sally) Levinson's newly published book, Butterfly Papercrafts, which contains 21 indoor projects for outdoor learning. Levinson, who studied entomology at the graduate level at UC Riverside and UC Berkeley, wants to inspire youngsters to learn about our amazing world of butterflies through art and a little science.
It's intended for youngsters ages 5-12, but really, it's also a beginner's book for all ages and a teacher's treasure. And it's priced right--under $10 ($9.99). Readers can learn about the life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult; and craft a butterfly paper airplane, a caterpillar flip book, and a monarch finger puppet.
Meanwhile, North America's monarchs are heading for their overwintering sites in two main areas: the mountains of central Mexico, and choice spots along the California coast, including Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.
"The annual migration of North America's monarch butterfly is a unique and amazing phenomenon," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service website. "The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. Unlike other butterflies that can overwinter as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates. Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter. Monarchs use a combination of air currents and thermals to travel long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home."
Not to worry. Put it all in perspective by thinking about the larvae of the honey bee.
Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, likes to talk about the massive weight gain that occurs during the larval stage of the honey bee. He speaks at scores of beekeeping functions throughout the year and what he says about the larval weight gain always draws a "Wow!" or "Incredible!" or "Amazing!"
"A honey bee egg weighs about 0.1 mg," Mussen says. "The first stage larva weighs the same. Over the next six days of larval life the larva goes from 0.1 mg to around 120 mg. It defecates once, just before pupating, and the resulting adult bee weighs around 110 mg. Thus, the new bee weighs about 1,000 times the weight of the one-day-old larva."
Now get this:
"If a human baby, weighing eight pounds at birth, were to grow at the same rate, the baby would weigh 8,000 pounds, or 4 tons, at the end of six days."
Four tons in six days? Fortunately, what goes on with Apis mellifera does not apply to Homo sapiens.
Now go get that second helping of pumpkin pie.
As for Mussen, he quips: "I only feel that heavy some days!"