Today was a Monarch Kind of Day...in Vacaville.
When Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, searched for butterfly species today at one of his field sites--Gates Canyon in Vacaville--he spotted not one, but two monarchs.
He spotted them separately, both near the bottom of the Brazelton property, and recorded "Two Danaus plexippus: one large, fresh-looking male; one small, unfresh-looking female."
Shapiro, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World (he's monitored the butterfly population in central California since 1972), knows just how scarce monarchs are this year.
Yes, they are. In the fall of 2016, we'd see seven or eight monarchs at a time flutter in for nectar or lay eggs on our milkweed in our Vacaville pollinator garden. This year they're as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. However, over the last two weeks, they're starting to appear, one sighting at a time, one monarch a day. They are mostly huge, fresh-looking males seeking nectar from our patch of Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). A few are females that head over to the tropical milkweed or Tithonia. Solo sightings.
But today was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Around noon, two monarchs arrived at the same time and they both sipped nectar from the Tithonia at the same time. In tandem. Inches away.
It was a Monarch Kind of Day.
What are the odds?
Here you are, standing in the garden section of a home improvement store, and you select a tropical milkweed to purchase. You place it on the ground and admire the brilliant yellow blossoms and luxurious green foliage. It's the best of the best. Just as you're about to pick it up and place it in a cart, a monarch lands on it and begins laying eggs.
What are the odds?
That happened to us around Wednesday noon, Sept. 4 in Vacaville as we were purchasing an end-of-the-season Asclepias curassavica.
Most likely, the plant had been in the nursery since last spring, as it was root-bound. We took it home, replanted it in a larger pot, and set it in the sun. Milkweeds like full sun. And monarchs go where their host plant is, whether it be in the wild, in your backyard, in your city park, or in a garden section of your local home improvement store.
Hopefully, the monarch eggs will hatch and this tropical milkweed will yield some caterpillars, chrysalids and adults.
Ironically, we found a monarch laying eggs in the garden section of a home improvement store!
Said entomologist David James of Washington State University, Pullman, who researches migratory monarchs: "That's an amazing story...selecting your milkweed and then having a female come over and deposit a few eggs for you!"
As an aside, as we were purchasing the milkweed, I casually asked the clerk at the check-out line "Have you seen any monarchs here?"
"Not in HERE," she said, surprised I would ask such a question. She tallied up the sale as "Mama Monarch" fluttered around her nursery, unnoticed, laying the next generation.
Curiously enough, a family member recorded a monarch laying eggs in the garden section of that same store the day before. About the same time. Maybe the same monarch. (See YouTube video)
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored all butterfly populations in the central valley for more than four decades and publishes his research on a website, says that “this is the biggest milkweed year in northern and central California in living memory. Speciosa is up to 5' tall and some fascicularis almost as big, and both are covered with both genera of Lygaeids (milkweed bugs), plus both oleander and gray aphids. But Monarchs only showed up here about two weeks ago! Lots of milkweed, no Monarchs to use it. I have seen 10 Monarchs in 2019 and have not seen a wild larva since 2017, and I am afield 260 days a year.”
Sometimes life just isn't fair. Entomologist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, commented “Weirder and weirder. They still haven't found MY milkweed.”
If you've ever reared a butterfly--from an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult--you know what it feels like.
Like a miracle, to see life unfolding.
Our friend, Marilyn Sexton, aka "Anise Swallowtail Butterfly Mama," showed us her Bohart Museum of Entomology habitat that housed two remaining adult butterflies ready to be freed.
It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, as Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers, 1928-2003) sang.
Two glorious butterflies, Papilio zelicaon, burst out of their habitat and headed straight for some rich floral nectar.
It's a common swallowtail butterfly of western North America, and often confused with the Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, also in the same range.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California since 1972, says on his website:
"The anise swallowtail is a complex set of ecological races, or 'ecotypes,' whose seasonality has been adjusted by natural selection to match that of their host plants. Selection for adaptive life-history traits seems to have proceeded much faster than evolution at the level of neutral molecular loci.
"At sea level our populations are strongly multivoltine, with only weak, facultative pupal diapause. They 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. Both of these are naturalized European weeds."
Weeds or not, butterflies or not, anise swallowtails are spectacular.
Yes, 'twas a beautiful day in the neighborhood...
We never thought we'd see one this year.
And then it arrived.
The first monarch sighting of the year.
A Danaus plexippus majestically touched down on our Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) around 5 this afternoon in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, circled the milkweed plants about 10 times, and then fluttered over the roof and vanished.
Meanwhile, we managed to grab a couple of photos of the iconic butterfly.
Fellow monarch enthusiasts report the scarcity of monarchs.
"Haven't see any this year," said one.
"Me, either," said another.
"No, not a single one," said yet another. "I'm looking."
Rita LeRoy has seen two at the Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo.
"Send some over to us," we said.
We remember butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, commenting at a meeting hosted at UC Davis Feb. 28, 2019 by the Environmental Defense Fund, that "monarchs are on life support." The attendees--some scientists, some citizen scientists--were there to discuss "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
The organizers related that "The latest population surveys indicate that monarchs overwintering on the central coast have declined 86% since last winter and now total 0.5% of their historical average. Population declines have spurred greater scientific study, funding, and coordination around the western monarch. California legislators appropriated $3 million in funding to the CA Wildlife Conservation Board to establish the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program."
"Additionally," they said, "the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released a Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan calling for an additional 50,000 acres of monarch-friendly habitat in the California Central Valley and adjacent foothills by 2029. Join Environmental Defense Fund along with farmers, restoration practitioners, and scientists for an invitation-only workshop to share expert knowledge and identify strategic opportunities for restoring monarch butterfly habitat across the Central Valley. We will discuss important topics including opportunities for monarch habitat in the food production landscape, incentivizing monarch habitat restoration using limited resources, production and distribution of native plants, and other subjects that will put the western monarch butterfly population on the path to recovery. We will use the results of the workshop to inform conservation initiatives and effectively and efficiently allocate funds and resources for optimal conservation outcomes."
Shapiro was one of the five speakers in the "State of the Science" workshop section. He has been monitoring Central Valley's butterfly population since 1972 and maintains a website on his research.
In his presentation, Shapiro declared that "monarchs are on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos."
"Consider a doctor faced with a patient in rapid decline," Shapiro told the group. "All tests have failed to identify the cause. What is the doctor to do? You can't prescribe treatment for an undiagnosed illness, can you? You can make a wild stab at a prescription on the basis that the patient is going to die anyway, and MAYBE, just maybe, this drug will do some good. Or you can prescribe a placebo, just to reassure the patient that you are doing something. That's where things get interesting. Occasionally a patient improves drastically on a placebo. Maybe he would have improved anyway; there's no way of knowing. Suppose our patient has a complete remission despite having received only a placebo. Does our doctor convince himself the placebo cured him? As of right now, the Monarch is on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos. If our patient comes back from the brink—as history suggests it may well—will we convince ourselves that our placebos worked? Probably. And that's not how to do science. That's what philosophers call the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. We can do can do better than that!" (Read his presentation on a Bug Squad blog.)
Meanwhile, we know there's at least one monarch in Vacaville...Maybe it's a female and will return to lay eggs on our milkweed. We can only hope.
Where are you, Gulf Fritillaries?
The Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) population seems to be diminishing this year around Solano and Yolo counties.
A few here, a few there, but not in the large numbers of last year.
Last summer the Gulf Frits overwhelmed our passionflower vine (Passiflora), their host plant, and skeletonized it.
Which is what we want them to do. We plant Passiflora for them, not for the fruit or the blossoms. On a good year, they eat it all--blossoms, fruit, leaves and stems--and look for more.
The history of the butterfly in California is as striking as its silver-spangled, reddish-orange coloring.
“It first appeared in California in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” says noted butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. “It spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908. It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro, who has monitored butterflies in central California since 1972 and maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu, says the Gulf Frit “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.”
It's making a comeback, but this year it doesn't seem to be "coming back" so much.
Want to attract the Gulf Frit? Plant its host plant and some of its favorite nectar plants. In our pollinator garden in Vacaville, their favorite nectar sources include the butterfly bush (Buddleia), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lantana (genus Lantana.)
Plant them and they will come--if they're around!