The monarch caterpillar feasting on the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in Vacaville, Calif., kept doing what monarch 'cats do best--eat.
She insisted on devouring the leaves as if there were no tomorrow--and today would end soon.
How did we know her gender? Our Danaus plexippus pupated, formed a chrysalis, and emerged. Oh, you beautiful gal!
Folks who comment that someone is "eating like a pig" or "eating like a horse" or "wolfing it down," have probably never seen a monarch caterpillar chow down, scarf it up or shovel it in.
One minute our little 'cat is stretched out on a leaf, binge eating. The next minute the leaf is gone and she's porking out on a second leaf. And scouting for a third.
Eric Carle titled his classic children's book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," quite well. His little 'cat ate everything in sight: gobbling, guzzling, gorging and gulping down everything from fruits and vegetables to junk food.
Remember the story? First, the little 'cat ate an apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, and five oranges but was still hungry. Famished, really. So he ate a piece of chocolate cake, a lollipop, a piece of cherry pie and a cupcake...and more...and he wasn't little anymore.
Many folks sheltering at home during the COVID-19 crisis can certainly identify with the snatch-and-grab menu of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
Did someone say "chocolate cake?"
Picture this during National Pollinator Week: five monarch caterpillars and assorted honey bees sharing tropical milkweed.
It was love at first bite. Or love at first sip.
The 'cats kept munching and the bees kept foraging. Neither species seemed interested in the other.
But the adult monarchs definitely showed more interest in the tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), a non-native, than the other two species, both natives, that we planted: the narrow leaf (A. fascicularis) and showy milkweed (A. speciosa).
They laid eggs only on the tropical milkweed, and so far, have produced five caterpillars.
The score to date:
Tropical milkweed: 5 caterpillars
Narrow leaf milkweed: 0
Showy milkweed: 0
Reminder: Folks planting the tropical milkweed in temperate zones (like here in Vacaville,Calif.) must remove or cut back the tropical milkweed by winter. "A protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE for short, can travel with monarchs visiting the plants and become deposited on leaves," explains the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Yes, indeed. But meanwhile, we're witnessing untold sharing on the wildly popular tropical milkweed by not only monarch caterpillars but honey bees, syrphid flies, bumble bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and sweat bees.
We gardeners and photographers are also drawn to the spectacular red, orange and yellow flowers that add both beauty and color to a cherished pollinator patch in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic...and National Pollinator Week.
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.”
You could call it a slacker, a deadbeat, a moocher, a sponger, or a loafer.
Or you could call it a cuckoo bee.
Take the cuckoo bee, Xeromelecta californica, a parasite of the digger bee, Anthophora.
When the female Anthophora leaves its nest to collect more pollen, the female cuckoo bee sneaks in and lays an egg.
"When the host female seals her nest, it seals the doom of her own offspring," distinguished emeritus professor Robbin Thorp of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology told the crowd at last week's 40th annual Western Apicultural Society meeting, held at UC Davis. They eat the provisions, a pollen ball meant for the host offspring, and kill and eat the host larvae.
The cuckoo bee offspring emerge.
Thorp, co-author of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, also called attention to their "pointy abdomen" and "wasp-looking appearance."
But they are bees--cuckoo bees. They're also called parasitic bees or "kleptoparasites" or "cleptoparasitises."
They have no pollen-carrying/collecting apparatus, like a scopa, because they don't need any, Thorp said, just as they do not construct their own nests.
If you look around a pollinator garden, you just might sight some cuckoo bees. Last week we saw a Xeromelecta californica (as identified by Thorp and Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology). It was sipping nectar from a tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
We've also spotted Anthophora urbana nectaring on our lavender.
One thing's for certain: a cuckoo bee didn't lay its eggs in the Anthophora nest that time or the urbana wouldn't have been there.
A fly, oh, my!
On the approval scale, they don't rank nearly as high as honey bees, but some are often mistaken for them.
Take the Eristalis stipator, which belongs to the family Syrphidae, the hover flies.
It's about the same size as a honey bee and it's a pollinator.
We recently spotted this one--a female Eristalis stipator, as identified by senior insect biosystematist Martin Hauser of the California Department of Food and Agriculture--nectaring on tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. The colors are striking--both the colors of the fly and the flowers. It's a striped fly, with black and white bands, one superimposed gold band, and buff-colored hairs piled on the thorax. And the showy flower, aka "blood flower," is red-orange with a yellow hood.
Eristalis is a large genus of approximately 99 species. The Eristalis stipator has no common name, so we just call it Eristalis stipator.
Or a fly.