The Frit and the fly...or the butterfly and the fly...
That would be the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) and the syrphid fly (family Syrphidae), aka flower fly or hover fly.
They meet on a beautiful autumn day on an equally beautiful Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). The season is winding down.
"I was here first!" the Gulf Frit proclaims.
"I was here second!" the fly says.
The yellow-and-black striped fly, masquerading as a bee, is determined to sip some nectar. It edges closer and closer.
The newly eclosed butterfly simply wants to dry its wings before taking off.
The fly is more persistent. And more hungry.
The fly brushes the butterfly. The butterfly takes flight.
Score: Fly: 1; Butterfly, 0.
It starts out slow.
Beginning in the spring (and sometimes year-around in some locales) Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) lay their eggs on their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
They deposit their eggs on the tendrils, on the leaves, and sometimes on the fence, wall or door where the passionflower vine climbs.
When fall approaches and the Gulf Frits are still laying eggs, you won't recognize your vine. It is skeletonized. The caterpillars, incredible shredding machines, have devoured all the leaves, leaving nothing but scarred sticks. And the 'cats are now gobbling up the remaining fruit. Hungry, hungry caterpillars!
Your plant, now incognito, looks like it should be in the Federal Witness Protection Program--and you have to defend yourself for "being a bad gardener."
But that's why we plant the Passiflora: for the Gulf Frits.
"No plant wants to be eaten," wisely observes Bruce Hammock, a UC Davis distinguished professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. "They all have defenses. They do not like insects, fungi, cows or even vegetarians that eat them."
At the time, Professor Hammock was talking to a reporter about toxic plants, and how we have bred many poisons out of plants or learned to not eat the most toxic parts. "In some cases, we like the taste of the poisons: cinnamon, potato, parsley, and mustard," Hammock told him.
In the case of the passionflower vine, aka Scraped Skinny Stick, it probably wishes (if plants could wish) and wonders (if plants could wonder) "Why am I so attractive?" and "Where are all the birds, wasps and other predators of caterpillars when I need them?"
That's what we've been told for years. We hear that butterflies don't like the red ones, and that they may, in fact, be poisonous to them.
We've grown both in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Both flourished. However, we removed the red passionflower vine, P. jamesonii, because the Gulf Frits avoided it. They lay their eggs--and quite profusely, too--on our lavender passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), also called "Maypop." (In fact, every year they skeletonize them. Hungry, hungry caterpillars!)
Which brings us to the question from a reader: "I have the Maypop and Purple Passionvine, which is working well as a host plant for the Gulf Frit. I recently bought a Red Passionvine and then read it is poisonous to the Gulf Frit. Is it true?"
We asked butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California for more than four decades and publishes his research and observations on his website.
"They don't use some of the red-flowered species," Shapiro says. "I don't know if they're actually poisonous. I've never found the bug on P. jamesonii around Ohlone Park in Berkeley, where there's tons of it. There's a large plant at the northwest corner of 3rd and B in Davis that may be this species, and they don't use it, either."
P. jamesoni, also known as "Coral Seas," (one of some 500 varieties in the world, see Wikipedia for the full list) is indeed striking with its brilliant red flowers.
As an aside, P. jamesoni is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That would be the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which describes itself "an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resource an international organization."
Justification for Being on the Red List:
"Passiflora jamesonii is endemic to the Ecuadorean Andes, where it is known from five subpopulations on both sides of the range. Only one subpopulation is inside Ecuador's protected areas network. The species seems to prefer untouched areas, so fires are a severe threat," according to the IUCN Red List.
Talk about "crafty"--as in cunning or sneaky--insects.
Ever seen a praying mantis ambushing a cabbage white butterfly?
Or an assassin bug targeting a spotted cucumber beetle?
Or European paper wasps attacking a Gulf Fritillary butterfly?
And, how about the other kind of "crafty" insects--like honey bees and European paper wasps creating those intricate nests?
"Crafty Insects" will set the theme for the Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on the UC Davis campus. The event is free and family friendly.
“We are hoping to have two parallel exhibits--one where we show crafty insects and then one where we are asking people to bring insect-themed crafts from their home--a plate with a cicada on it, or mug shaped like a wasp or we have a bee-shaped stapler for example,” said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator. “We'll have a place for them to display their crafts.”
“Crafty insects can be interpreted in two ways,” Yang commented. "‘Crafty' can be makers such as caddis fly larvae, case bearer moths, and potter wasps. The other crafty interpretation is sneaky, so our live orchid mantid, the dead leaf butterfly like Kallima inachus will be on display.” Activities are to include “spot the flower fly versus bee activity” and “spot the assassin fly versus bumble bee activity.”
For the family crafts, visitors will be painting rocks that can be hidden on campus or elsewhere. The Bohart Museum officials were inspired by Yolo Rocks and Solano Rocks, but a similar organization on campus, UC Davis Rocks, launched a similar activity last spring. It is the brainchild of Kim Pearson and Martha Garrison, who work in the arts administrative group in the College of Letters and Science.
Saturday, Sept. 22 is also move-in weekend for UC Davis students, so the Bohart Museum expects a lot of new people exploring the campus.
Bohart associates Jeff Smith, curator of the butterfly and moth exhibit and naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas will be on hand to shows the collection.
The Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens. It is also the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity. In addition to the petting zoo, the museum features a year-around gift shop, which is stocked with T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
Judge: "Will the defendant please rise?"
The defendant, a praying mantis--a male Stragmomantis limbata--rises solemnly, stretching his spiked forelegs.
Judge: "Do you have anything to say for yourself about how this dismembered Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, happened to be in the very same passionflower vine that you were occupying--at the very same time, 4 p.m., Sept. 12, 2018 in Vacaville, Calif.? Do you have anything to say for yourself, Mr. Mantis?"
Defendant: "Yes, sir! I do, sir. I was hungry. But I ate only the abdomen, thorax and head. I left the pretty parts, the wings, behind, for everyone to enjoy."
Mystery solved. Everybody eats in the pollinator garden!
The male Stagmomomantis limbata, as identified by mantis expert and Bohart Museum of Entomology associate Lohit Garikipati, a UC Davis entomology major who rears mantids, proved difficult to see amid the green passionflower vine (Passiflora). A perfect camouflage!
It's a male Stagmomomantis limbata and not a male Mantis religiosa? "Note the bicolored pronotum (first thoracic segment) that is an easy distinguishing tool!" Garikipata said. "Mantis religiosa also have a band around the head!"
S. limbata, commonly called a "bordered mantis," is native to North America. It is green or beige and can reach three inches in length.
"Males are slender, long-winged, and variable in color, but most often green and brown with the sides of the folded tegmina green and top brownish (may be solid gray, brown, green, or any combination of these)," according to Wikipedia. "Abdomen without prominent dark spots on top. The wings are transparent, usually with cloudy brownish spots on outer half."
Garikipata described it as a "super cool find, adult males are superb fliers!"
This one didn't fly. At least then.
Neither did his prey, the hapless Gulf Fritillary.
(Editor's Note: The Bohart Museum of Entomology, directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, will host an open house, "Crafty Insects," from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus. The public event--free and family friendly--will focus on "crafty" or "sneaky" insects. Visitors are invited to bring insect crafts that they have made. They will be displayed next to "crafty" or "sneaky" insects.)