Ever seen a Gulf Fritillary butterfly laying an egg?
The Gulf Frit (Agraulis vanillae), an orangish-reddish butterfly of the family Nymphalidae, lays its eggs on its host plant, Passiflora.
When you see its silver-spangled underwings, you may think there are two different butterflies. In the photo below, it's laying eggs on the tendrils of the passionflower vine.
It first appeared in California in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s, according to noted butterfly researcher Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He's been monitoring the butterflies of central California for four decades and provides information on his website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu.
From San Diego, “it spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908," says Shapiro. "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.”
We never tire of seeing them. Especially the silver-spangled underwings!
One of the joys of planting a pollinator garden is watching majestic butterflies flutter in and sip a little nectar.
Today a Western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) took a liking to a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) in our Vacaville garden.
The "very gravid" female (as identified by Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis) also nectared on Verbena before departing--probably to lay her eggs on a favorite host plant, liquidambar (sweet gum) or the nearby sycamore.
During her 10-minute visit that graced our garden, the brilliantly colored yellow-and-black butterfly, with a wingspan of three to four inches, managed to evade the California scrub jays looking for a quick meal.
A meal for the butterfly, none for the bird.
And she's beautiful!
It all began with finding two anise swallowtail chrysalids clinging last July to the fennel stems in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
To protect them from predators and the elements, we tucked them inside a zippered net butterfly habitat and placed “the prized package” in the corner of a laundry room to await the spring of 2018--and eclosure.
The first day of spring, March 20, came and went. Then 288 days slipped by. The chrysalids remained intact. Were they viable?
We showed images of the chrysalids to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who's been researching the butterfly population of central California for more than four decades.
“They both look OK—the intersegmental membranes are not showing,” he said. “Stick them in the refrigerator for a month and try again. If they are a coast range population, some may diapause up to 5 years. If a valley population, multiyear diapause is very unusual.”
Shapiro advised that we “put them in a lidded container” to prevent their drying out. “Diapausing pupae only breathe once or twice a day.”
So, on June 5, in the refrigerator they went, joining assorted cups of yogurt, bags of fruits and vegetables, jars of peanut butter, cartons of fat-free milk and what-have-you.
What a life!
Then on July 4, Independence Day (but with no fanfare, ceremony or celebration) out they came. (The yogurt, fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, milk and what-have-you stayed behind.)
We placed the (probably) thoroughly confused chrysalids back in the butterfly habitat, but this time, outdoors, and right next to their host plant, fennel. Daytime temperatures climbed to 100 degrees and night temperatures dropped into the 50s.
Nothing happened. Nothing.
Just as we were wondering if they were still viable, we saw a winged burst of yellow, black and blue on Sunday night, July 14. A long-awaited eclosure!
It's a girl! (as identified by Professor Shapiro). (Read more about the anise swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon, on his website.)
Early Monday morning, we dipped a fennel blossom into a mixture of 10 parts water and one part honey. Food! She drank heartily. Then we placed her atop the towering fennel so she could warm her flight muscles.
Two hours later, Ms. Anise Swallowtail became part of the Wonderful World of Butterflies. She circled the house, returned to nectar on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), and left. No fanfare, no ceremony, no celebration. This is her world now.
The other chrysalis? It remains intact. Fingers crossed that it, too, will survive.
It doesn't get much better than this--in a world where kindness matters. It always has.
It's a bird! It's a plane! Is it Superman?
No, it's a bird dropping.
If you're growing sweet fennel (anise), you may have noticed what appear to be two species of swallowtail butterflies populating your plant.
You'll see larvae (caterpillars) that are pale green with black bands containing orange spots. But look more closely and you'll see the smaller larvae or early instars. They look like bird droppings. A gift from above?
Those are both the immature stages of the anise swallowtail, Papillo zelicaon, (Check out the beautiful images of the butterfly and its immature stages on the Natural History of Orange County website.)
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, says the anise swallowtails have several generations (late February or March-October) "and breed very largely on sweet fennel (anise), Foeniculum vulgare and in the first half of the season, poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)."
These are naturalized European weeds, he says on his website. "We believe this ecotype originally lived in the tule marshes and bred on water hemlock (Cicuta) and another Apiaceous plant named Oenanthe. These are still used but only rarely in comparison ot he weeds; they are the only native hosts available in the Mediterranean summer that could have sustained repeated breeding."
Colors of the iconic anise swallowtail caterpillars also differ. "In hot, dry sites there is more green and less black, while under cool, humid conditions, the green may even disappear!" Shapiro says. And the pupae (chrysalids) may be brown or green.
Meanwhile, our caterpillars are feasting on the fennel and shedding their protective, camouflaged "bird dropping" skin. The California scrubjays that dine on the Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on the nearby passionflower vine (Passilfora) don't seem to notice.
Here's hoping they won't touch the anise swallowtails. Why would they want to eat something that looks like bird poo?
A flash of orange.
Usually we see assorted orange butterflies--Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) or Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) or Monarchs (Danaus plexippus)--on our butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).
This time the flash of orange proved to be a California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica).
Its wings are pumpkin orange with huge black spots while the underwings are dullish brown and gray, resembling a dead leaf. What a perfect camouflage!
This particular Cal Tortie is probably a female, according to Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He has monitored the Central Valley butterfly population since 1972 and maintains a research website.
"Along with the Painted Lady, this is a mass migrant that makes news at irregular intervals by tying up traffic!" Shapiro says on his website. "The 'Tortie' overwinters as an adult and can sometimes be seen sunning itself in midwinter on mild days. It is generally common in foothill canyons in late winter, ovipositing on the young, tender growth of various species of Wild Lilac (Ceanothus)."
And just as the Gulf Frits can defoliate its host plant, the passionflower vine, so, too, can the Tortie defoliate its host plant.
"The spiny, black-marked-with-yellow larvae feed gregariously, without a web, and in big years can defoliate whole stands of the plants," Shapiro notes on his website. "They often pupate on the bare, leafless stems en masse, the grayish-violet pupae looking like some strange kind of leaf and twitching in unison when disturbed. Adults emerge in late May to early June and almost immediately emigrate, going north or east and upslope."
They're often misidentified as monarchs, Shapiro told the recent Butterfly Summit at Annie's Annuals and Perennials, Richmond. He also mentions this on his website.
"Breeding localities in summer vary widely from year to year - sometimes in the high southern Sierra, sometimes in the Cascades... sometimes only in far northeastern California or even farther north," according to Shapiro's website. "The migrant females lay on the tender growth of high-altitude Ceanothus such as Tobaccobrush and Snowbrush, which again may be defoliated. Adults emerge in late July and migrate to estivating grounds, generally above tree-line. These are often in the high country of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but can even be in the Trinity Alps, South Cascades, or (as in 2005) on Mount Rose! Estivating Torties do little but 'hang out,' and many high-altitude hikers have described their encounters with millions of them in mystical terms (they often identify them as Monarchs!). In late September these butterflies scatter downslope to hibernate in the foothills--they are the late-winter butterflies of the new year. Estivators-hibernators thus may live 9 or 10 months as adults." (See more about this amazing butterfly on his website.)
Naturalist and insect photographer Greg Kareofelas, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, says there are a lot of Cal Torties around now. And when they disperse, "they can end up anywhere, including the valley. So not often seen in the valley, but not all that unusual."
This butterfly ended up on its namesake, the butterfly bush in our Vacaville pollinator garden.