In his fascinating book, "Life on a Little-Known Planet: A Biologist's View of Insects and Their World," Connecticut-born biologist/entomologist Howard Ensign Evans (1919-2002) asks "What good is a butterfly?"
"To the farmer, it is an adult cabbage worm or carrot caterpillar, and better off dead. To the entomologist, it is a member of a group of diurnal lepidopterans possessing knobbed antennae, a group containing a few pest species but mainly of interest to hobbyists and dabblers. To the romantic poet, it is a stray piece of some forgotten rainbow, a vagrant wisp of eternity---but there are no longer any romantic poets to speak of. To the man of the world, the pillar of society, a butterfly is simply nothing at all."
Oh, but they bring waves of joy to gardeners. And they are pollinators!
Take the Gulf Fritillaries or passion butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) that breed on our passionflower vine (Passiflora), sip nectar from a zinnia, and flutter around the garden as if they own it. They do. It is their real estate.
Sometimes the Gulf Frits encounter a bird, a praying mantis or a spider, and sometimes they live to bring us another wave of joy. Maybe a ripple, maybe a swell, maybe a surge...but it's a wave of joy.
Thank you, Gulf Frits!
And thank you, Howard Ensign Evans, for describing them as "a stray piece of some forgotten rainbow, a wisp of eternity."
Because they are.
It's Friday Fly Day and time to post a syrphid fly with a butterfly.
The occasion: a syrphid fly and the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) or passion butterfly are sharing a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola, and neither seems bothered that the other is there.
Holes in the petals indicate that another insect, perhaps a spotted cucumber beetle, had been there.
The Mexican sunflower is like a giant floral billboard in a pollinator garden.
"Hey, insects, here I am. Come visit me. I have pollen and nectar for you. I just ask for your pollination services. I can't give you a hug or a certificate of appreciation or even a participation trophy, but I can give you a thank you in the form of free pollen and nectar. That's your reward. And tell all your friends that I am here. I am the billboard in the pollinator garden."
Happy Friday Fly Day.
When you're in your garden, look up.
Sometimes you'll see a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar outlined against the sky, munching away on its host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
The bright orange caterpillars can be as striking as the adults (Agraulis vanillae).
This caterpillar, however, is not the only critter hungry in the Passiflora. We saw evidence that a praying mantis also calls this home. One wing of a Gulf Frit here. One wing of a Gulf Frit there.
Everything eats in the garden.
In a previous Bug Squad, we mentioned that the Gulf Frits are found in many parts of the world and arrived in California (San Diego) in the 1870s, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. They spread through Southern California in urban settings and were first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908, Shapiro says. They "became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro says the Gulf Frits “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.”
Yes, they're back and a joy to see.
So here's this Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, nectaring on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola.
It's National Pollinator Week. All's right with the world. The butterfly had visited a passionflower vine, Passiflora, its host plant.
Now for a little fuel. The nectar is enticing. The Gulf Frit flutters from flower to flower.
And then...it's targeted.
Get off my flower, that's mine! A very territorial male long-horned bee, Melissodes agilis, buzzes past, trying to dislodge the butterfly. Then another male appears. And another.
What's going on? Like frenzied kamikaze pilots, the males patrol the flowers, dive-bombing and dislodging any temporary tenants, in hopes of saving the nectar for the females of their species. And to mate with them.
After four attacks, the Gulf Frit decides the nectar is not worth it.
One point about insect wedding photography is that you don't need an invitation to attend. You just have to keep your distance and not disturb the bridal couple. No sudden movements. No stressful impatience. And no camera flash, please.
It helps, though, if you grow the host plant so a bride and a groom will show up. In this case, we grew passionflower vine (Passiflora), the host plant of the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae).
One morning we saw a butterfly eclose from her chrysalis. Wedding Day! Within minutes, a male suitor arrived.
They became a couple.
Then unexpected guests arrived...a hungry caterpillar munching on the leaves and a second prospective suitor (PS) (rejected) and a third PS (rejected) and a fourth PS (rejected).
PS, leave them alone!
When the "ceremony" ended, the couple simply left. One sipped nectar from the nearby Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola. The other flew over the fence.
Soon we'll have more eggs, more caterpillars, more chrysalids, and more adults.
Life is like that when you're growing Passiflora and hoping for a Wedding Day.