Some people are born good-looking. Some have the gift of gab. And some are lucky enough to be born smarter than the rest of us. Whether we like it or not, Mother Nature does not dole these characteristics out evenly.--Simon Sinek
That applies to butterflies, too. Nobody said Mother Nature is perfect.
If you're rearing butterflies, such as Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), expect to see some defects, deformities and death. That chrysalis you've been watching? A butterfly may never eclose. In the cycle of life, the transformation from egg to larva to pupa to adult may never occur.
Nobody said Mother Nature is perfect.
The chrysalis is a withered grayish-brown, perfectly camouflaged on the butterfly's host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora). Sometimes you see a burst of reddish-orange wings and sliver spangled underwings, the remains of a butterfly that struggled to eclose.
Then you wait for one that will, one that will eclose.
The next one will take your breath away. Mother Nature is like that.
It's Veterans' Day, and after paying tribute to the military veterans (my ancestors have fought in all of our nation's wars, dating back to the American Revolution--and my other half is a U.S. Air Force veteran), I slip out the back door to our pollinator garden to see where the insect action is.
Honey bees and a sole carpenter bee are buzzing on the African blue basil; Gulf Fritillaries are nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); and a cabbage white butterfly is sipping nectar from the Lantana.
But the passionflower vine (Passiflora) steals the show. A Gulf Fritillary has just eclosed from a chrysalis that resembles a thick wad of gum chewed up and spit out and left to mummify; several male Gulf Frits are fluttering around in search of females; and the offspring of previous reunions are crawling on the stems and munching what's left of the leaves.
Overhead, the California scrub jays glance down, as if trying to decide on their luncheon menu: a fat juicy caterpillar or the bird seed scattered in the feeder.
Their choice is clear. They forsake the fat juicy caterpillars for the bird seed. Tomorrow morning, however, there will be several caterpillars missing in action.
Yes, they're still there.
More today than yesterday. That's how it goes in the Magical World of Butterflies.
The Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are keeping busy, and so is this insect wedding photographer trying to capture their images.
There! A Gulf Fritillary has just emerged from her chrysalis on the passionflower vine, and a suitor descends within minutes. He doesn't use any pick-up lines. He doesn't have to. In seconds, there's a twosome on the passionflower vine, something apparently rarely seen. (The Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, answers telephone calls from folks who excitedly proclaim they've found a "two-headed butterfly.")
Soon another suitor appears...three heads...a three-headed butterfly?...and flutters away.
Meanwhile, other brides and grooms meet and greet. It's like being on the Las Vegas strip with all the wedding chapels occupied.
Just another day in the Magical World of Butterflies.
Love is like a butterfly
A rare and gentle thing
--Love Is Like a Butterfly, Dolly Parton
When Dolly Parton penned her song, "Love Is Like a Butterfly," she probably wasn't thinking of passion butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries.
And when she sings that popular song, neither she nor her audience are thinking of Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), getting together on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia.
But Lepidopterists, entomologists, horticulturists and insect photographers are.
It's autumn, approaching Halloween, and the Gulf Fritillaries are doing what comes naturally on their host plant, the passionflower vine. But sometimes you'll find them on the fence line, on the ground, or on a neighboring flower.
Then you make a beeline for your camera. It's insect wedding photography. The bride and the groom and the photographer. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers are producing nectar, the bees are buzzing, the crickets are chirping, and all's right with the world.
Love is indeed like a butterfly, "a rare and gentle thing."
It's commonly called a "passion butterfly," but we call it a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillaea) or Gulf Frit.
A sure sign of autumn:
- A skeletonized passionflower vine (Passiflora)
- A Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) eclosing
- A ravenous caterpillar crawling along a stem, and
- A caterpillar J'ing, about to form a chrysalis.
The orange-reddish butterfly, with its silver-spangled underwings, is a glorious butterfly.
How's the population doing this year?
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly populations of central California for more than four decades and posts his research on Art's Butterfly World, says this year the Gulf Frit population is "spotty; locally abundant but less generally distributed than in recent years."
His 10 field sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin.
We notice the ups and downs of the Gulf Frit population every year in Vacaville. This spring they were slow to start, Western scrub jays and European paper wasps grabbed what few caterpillars there were. In the summer, the population speeded up. And now caterpillars and chrysalids cover two of our three vines--or what's left of our three vines.
Shaprio says the Gulf Frit was introduced into southern California in the 19th century, in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s. It was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908. "It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since." Once prevalent in the Sacramento area in the 1960s, it "seems to have died out by the early 1970s," he said. Then in 2009, it began making a comeback in the Sacramento area.
Meanwhile, the passionflower vine climbs our fences with reckless abandon, only to be skeletonized by the growing population of Gulf Frits. They eat the leaves, the flowers, the fruit, and then start in on the bark.
More Gulf Frits mate. More eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids and adults appear. The cycle continues until the first frost. The plants die back, and will recover in the spring. A few chrysalids will remain, clinging to the vines like leftover Christmas tree ornaments,
Surprises occur. Several years ago, we saw a Gulf Frit laying an egg on Christmas Day.