The "Tiger King" has nothing on the Western Tiger Swallowtail.
The colorful yellow and black butterfly, Papilio rutulus, reigns supreme. We saw this one last week at the Ruth Storer Garden in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.
"The Western Tiger Swallowtail is basically a species of riparian forest, where it glides majestically back and forth along the watercourse," writes butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, on his website. "It has expanded into older urban neighborhoods where several of its host genera are grown as shade trees, and behaves as if the street were a watercourse. In the high country and on the Sierran east slope its usual host is Aspen."
We've seen it glide majestically and forage on everything from Verbena to lilacs (Syringa) to the butterfly bush (Buddleja). What a treat--especially during the coronavirus pandemic! When you visit the Arboretum, keep your social distance and wear facial masks, per the Yolo County Health Department's current precautions.)
Meet the real Tiger King: the Western Tiger Swallowtail./span>
Yes, they do, and yes, she did.
Painted lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, do lay their eggs on Echium wildpretii, commonly known as "the tower of jewels."
However, this little lady (below) persistently returned a few times to find a bee-free spot. She finally claimed a chunk of space near the top of the 8-foot plant.
Temporarily. Until the bees reclaimed it.
"Echium is a borage," says butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. "Boraginaceae are one of the favored host families, so I'm not surprised."
"They routinely breed on fiddleneck and popcorn flower," Shapiro says. "in 2015 they completely destroyed the borage crop at an herb farm in Solano County!" He recently saw them lay eggs on Helianthus, Cardooon (artichoke thistle) and Lupinus succulentus.
"It's been a pretty good cardui year but not as big as last year," said Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly population in Central California since 1972 and publishes his research on his website. "They've been coming in waves for several weeks and there are still some, mostly old females ovipositing."
Said Bohart Museum of Entomology associate Greg Kareofelas, a naturalist and insect photographer: "Vanessa cardui probably has the greatest range of host plants as any butterfly. My question always is: What plant, won't it lay eggs on?"
Have you ever seen a plume moth?
Or has a plume moth ever seen you?
We spotted a pterophorid plume moth (family Pterophoridae) yesterday on our back door in Vacaville, Calif. The t-shaped moth stayed in the same spot the entire day, from dawn to dusk, even when we entered and exited the door multiple times.
Its shape is what makes it unusual. Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, told us awhile back that the "T-square shape is classic."
In some respects, the pterophorid plume moth is fit to a "T."
At rest, the plume moth holds its slender wings at right angles to body, giving it a T-shaped profile.
In his book, California Insects, UC Berkeley entomologist Jerry Powell (now emeritus) explains why they're called plume moths..."because the forewings are deeply notched and the hindwings are divided into three linear parts, each with long scale fringes. When perched, the insects roll the forewings around the folded hindwing plumes, resulting in peculiar sticklike or craneflylike appearance, unlike any other moth."
Most are nocturnal and are attracted to lights, Powell adds. (Like porch lights!)
Its ancestors lived millions of years ago. Wikipedia tells us that a fossil species from the extant genus Merrifieldia originates from the Oligocene of France. The Oligocene, a geologic epoch of the Paleogene Period, occurred 33.9 million to 23 million years ago. Today some 160 species of plume moths live in North America.
So why did the plume moth visit us? Well, it's a common moth. The adults feed on nectar and pollen (plenty of that in our pollinator garden) and caterpillars of some of the species chew the leaves of garden plants, including geraniums and snapdragons (we have both).
We also have artichokes, and the larvae of one species, the artichoke plume moth, can be a pest when the vegetable is grown as a perennial, according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website.
One thing is for sure: once you see the plume moth, you'll always recognize it.
Meanwhile, in between social distancing, what's happening in the world of insects?
We were surprised to see a skipper butterfly today (March 25) foraging in our bed of mustard in Vacaville, Calif.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, identified it as an "Umber Skipper, Poanes melane, a riparian species I haven't seen at any of my sites yet! It typically flies first in early to mid-April."
With thoughts of Shapiro's Beer-for-a-Butterfly Contest (first person who collects the first-of-the-year cabbage white butterfly in the three-county area of Sacramento, Solano and Yolo wins a pitcher of beer or its equivalent), I mentioned that I finally beat him!
"I'd say go get a beer, but the bars are closed," Shapiro quipped. "Last year's first records of melane were very late (first iv.24) , as were 2018 (first v.10!). In the East Bay it usually comes out around now. Are you sure you weren't in North Berkeley? At Gates Canyon (Vacaville), my earliest is iii.26.88, which is my earliest anywhere on my transect! During the drought it was fairly early--iv.15.14 and iv.10.15."
Shapiro writes on his website: "Although common in parts of the Bay Area where it is an urban 'lawn skipper,' on our transect this is entirely a species of riparian forest and is generally uncommon or even rare. It perches in dappled light and shade along streamsides, generally well off the ground. Its upper limit of residency at the latitude of I-80 seems to be about 3000'. There is no evident variation. Two to three broods in our area, April-October; flight season longer in Bay Area. Host plants presumably native riparian grasses, but not identified. In Berkeley, it breeds happily on Bermuda Grass, which seems to have not discovered farther inland. Adults visit Yerba Santa, Dogbane, Milkweed, Thistles, Yellow Star Thistle, California Buckeye, Coyote Brush, etc., etc."
Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California since 1972 and maintains a research website. The 10 sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin. The largest and oldest database in North America, it was recently cited by British conservation biologist Chris Thomas in a worldwide study of insect biomass.
And then another surprise! My photographer-naturalist friend, Allan Jones of Davis, captured some images of an Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) Saturday, March 21 in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee garden on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. Jones also saw a bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus (female), and a first-of-the-season Eucera frater (male) in the haven.
Said Shapiro: "Zelicaon has been rare hereabouts for about 20 years. It is not unusual to see it the 3rd week of February in dry years. It's been earlier than average this year: Suisun Marsh, iii.26; Old Davis Road (near Low-Water Bridge) ii.28; Gates Canyon (near Vacaville) ii.29, North Sacramento iii.3, Rancho Cordova iii.4."
Meanwhile, back to social distancing!
We spotted this Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) sunning itself on a carpet of red-purple ice plant (Delosperma cooperi) in west Vacaville on March 20, "the day after the first day of spring."
Each competed for photographic attention: the soothing autumn colors of the butterfly and the brilliance of the spring ice plant.
V. cardui is a migratory butterfly that travels across the deserts of Southern California, up into our area, and then to the Pacific Northwest. Last year, 2019, was a great migratory year for the Painted Ladies, as was 2005.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology who has studied the Central California population of butterflies since 1972, writes on his butterfly website:
"This mass-migrant occurs in much of the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently the entire North American population winters near the US-Mexico border, breeding in the desert after the winter rains generate a crop of annual Malvaceous, Boraginaceous and Asteraceous hosts. The resulting butterflies migrate north. In good years (lots of desert rain) they may do so by billions, interfering with traffic and attracting the attention of the media. 2005 was one of the biggest Painted Lady years in history--perhaps the biggest, but how can we know?
"At Sacramento at the height of the migration butterflies were passing in one's field of vision at the rate of about 3 per second! 2006, by contrast, was a La Nina year with very little rain in the desert. The butterflies apparently gave up trying to breed there and flew north in February. They tried to breed but mostly were unsuccessful due to bad weather, resulting in only very sporadic individual sightings of their progeny in May. Northward-migrating Painted Ladies are provisioned with yellow fat and are reproductively immature. They do not stop to feed or have sex until they have burned up their reserves, carried over from the caterpillar stage. They fly in a straight line from SE to NW, like "bats out of Hell," and go over obstacles rather than trying to go around them. (On certain days there may be concerted local movements in the wrong direction. We do not understand these.) Painted Ladies tend to fly parallel to the Sierra Nevada, not across it. They enter the Central Valley through the Inyo-Kern lowland or by crossing the Transverse Ranges. They can apparently make it from Bishop to Davis in three days. In some years the migration is heavier in the Great Basin and on the East slope of the Sierra than farther west."
And as Shapiro will tell you, the Painted Lady is commonly mistaken for the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus). Last year social media enthusiasts mistakenly acclaimed they'd seen "hundreds and hundreds" of monarchs passing by them.
BugGuide.net says V. cardui, which inhabits every continent except Antarctica and South America, is "commonly and easily raised especially in elementary school classrooms."
But life as we know it, has changed. California closed its classrooms in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. "Social distancing" and "self-quarantining" are holding our vocabulary hostage. Social butterflies? Not in this environment. But sometimes, you happen upon a serene social scene--an autumn-colored butterfly tucked in a bed of spring ice plant--that takes your breath away.