Our showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is putting on a show.
The towering plant--a good eight feet--anchors the garden as we patiently wait for monarch butterflies to arrive and lay their eggs.
It's mid-August and it appears the monarchs are not coming here to our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Maybe we'll see some during their late summer or early fall migration--on their way to their overwintering sites along coastal California.
Meanwhile, the speciosa has more than its share of lady beetles (aka ladybugs) and aphids.
But now we have a new visitor, well, maybe a permanent resident.
A praying mantis, Stagmomantis limbata (as confirmed by mantis expert Lohit Garikipati, a UC Davis graduate and Bohart Museum of Entomology associate now attending graduate school in Towson University, Maryland) has arrived.
For the first several days, Ms. Mantis hung upside down and did not eat (at least in our presence). She watched the bees buzzing around but made no effort to snag one. We think she was yawning. "Okay, I know you're there. I don't care and I'm not hungry."
Then we found her exoskeleton on one of the speciosa leaves.
A mantid's "skeleton," you know, is outside its body and it's known as an "exoskeleton." It reminds us of a suit of armor, for protection, support and form (is it a "suite of amour" when love abounds?).
A young mantis eats and outgrows its exoskeleton and then it molts (sheds it). Scientists say some species of growing mantids may lose their exoskeletons as many as 10 times.
And, according to Garikipati, a mantis that has just molted may not eat for two or three days.
Did you hear that, bees?
So, bottom line, no monarchs on the milkweed.
But we do have assorted lady beetles, aphids, and one praying mantis and her exoskeleton.
Wait, correct that. Just one mantis. A breeze just swept away the exoskeleton.
Dear Ms. Mantis,
We see you. You're trying to camouflage yourself, but we see you.
You're hanging out on a showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, trying to catch a butterfly or a bee.
So, will you try to nab a monarch? A Mama Monarch that's trying to lay her eggs on her host plant?
You know, the declining monarch population is on “life support,” as butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, says.
Ms. Mantis, we remember when one of your kin ambushed a monarch on our butterfly bush in September of 2015. Your kin ate the head, thorax and abdomen and discarded the wings. The wings fluttered to the ground. Yes, we know you have to eat, too. Everything in the garden eats.
But now that we have your attention, Ms. Mantis, would you kindly consider the following menu--à la carte, if you wish?
- Appetizing aphids
- Scrumptious stink bugs
- Magnificent milkweed bugs
- Crunchy cabbage white butterflies
- Luscious leaffooted bugs
Thank you, Ms. Mantis, for your kind attention to this culinary matter. If we may be of any future help in menu planning (it's important to consider the principles of adequacy, balance, calorie or energy control, nutrient density, moderation and variety), please let us know.
So here are all these milkweed bugs clustered on a showy milkweed leaf, Asclepias speciosa. It's early morning and the red bugs are a real eye opener.
They're seed eaters, but as Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology says: "They are opportunistic and generalists." They not only eat seeds, but monarch eggs and larvae, as well as the oleander aphids that infest the milkweed.
But wait, one of these is not like the other.
A lady beetle, aka ladybug, photobombs the scene. It sleeps with them and eats (aphids) with them. They are sharing the same food source: oleander aphids.
You can't get any more Halloween than a bold (daring) jumping spider with orange spots!
This common North American spider was hanging out yesterday on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, trying to look like a spectator instead of a predator.
The orange spots indicate it's a juvenile Phidippus audax. As it matures, those spots will turn white. It can jump 10 to 15 times its body length, deploying its silk "lifeline" when it's jumping for prey or evading predators, according to Wikipedia. It hunts only in the daytime.
Yesterday, resplendent in its iridescent chelicerae (mouthparts or "fangs"), the eight-eyed, eight-legged dark hairy spider crawled around the broad leaves of the milkweed, sharing its home with assorted lady beetles, aphids, wasps and an occasional butterfly (Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries and skippers).
It soaked up some sun and then apparently decided that the telephoto camera lens represented a clear and present danger, too bold and too daring.
A little haggard, a little worn, a little ragged, a little torn.
But there she was on Monday, Aug. 1, the first monarch of the season to lay eggs in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
She found the milkweed, but that was AFTER the aphids, milkweed bugs, praying mantids, assassin bugs and assorted spiders claimed it.
It's always a joy to see the majestic monarch fluttering through a pollinator garden. On Sunday, July 31, a male lingered for two hours, nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) as the male territorial longhorn bees tried to chase him away. No welcome mat for him! No place setting for him!
Then today, a female arrived, first stopping by the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, to lay eggs and then fluttering over to the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to lay more.
It's amazing how the monarchs, Danaus plexippus, know how to put their "resources" in multiple places. Like the idiom that cautions "don't put all your eggs in one basket," instinctively they seem to know that if they put all their resources in one place, they could lose them all. There's a better chance of offspring survival if they spread the eggs around.