We call it the Fourth of July or Independence Day.
Our 13 American colonies rose up against the monarch of Great Britain, King George III, and declared themselves free and independent.
This weekend, no thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, we won't celebrate with fireworks, parades, picnics, family reunions or baseball games, but we will give thanks to the 13 colonies who gave us our freedom from a troubling monarch.
Today we watched a different kind of monarch, a monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, gain her freedom as she eclossed from her chrysalis.
From an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult..."Welcome to the world, Ms. Monarch."
But first, let Ms. Monarch cling to the Hot Lips salvia, Salvia microphylla, and dry those wings. Let her watch the honey bees, carpenter bees, cabbage white butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries, damselflies, and syrphid flies forage. Let her react when they buzz, bounce or bump into her. Beware of that praying mantis!
She will know when she's had enough...just like the 13 colonies knew when enough was enough and King George III lost his American colonies.
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?"
(Editor's Note: Those 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.)
Welcome, Danaus plexippus!
A monarch butterfly, the first of the year, fluttered through our family pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. last Sunday and hung around for about two hours. We clocked him in at 5 p.m. and he exited around 7. He was on the move!
"Boy Butterfly" visited:
- the tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii)
- a yellow rose ("Sparkle and Shine," related to the Julia Child rose, a purchase from the California Center for Urban Horticulture, UC Davis, during its 2013 Rose Day
- a honeysuckle (genus Lonicera)
- a tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) (it ignored the native "showy milkweed," Asclepias speciosa
- a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
- a mallow (Althaea officinalis)
- a blooming succulent, hens-and-chicks (genus Echeveria): when it's blooming, it's referred to as a "rooster"
Then Boy Butterfly touched down on the ear of a cat (garden sculpture) while a mama California scrub jay watched closely. We could hear the baby birds chirping "We're hungry! We're hungry! Let's eat!"
Fortunately for the monarch, Mama's menu changed. She settled on some honey bees nectaring on the catmint (genus Nepeta), and left my Boy Butterfly alone.
A male European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) chased him. A Gulf Fritillary followed him. And a bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) almost collided with him.
And then this persistent photographer, armed with a 200mm macro lens, stealthily approached him...
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.
Happy Presidents' Day.
It's day we honor not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but all the men (no women yet!) who have served as President of the United States.
"The federal holiday honoring Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices," according to Wikipedia. "As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington's birthday under the Gregorian calendar, Feb. 22. On Jan. 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This places it between February 15 and 21, which makes 'Washington's Birthday' something of a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington's actual birthday, Feb. 22."
"A rough analog of this phenomenon can be seen in Commonwealth realms, where the reigning monarch's official birthday is celebrated without regard to their actual date of birth."
There you have it.
And speaking of monarchs and Presidents' Day, it's a good time to post a monarch on the American flag. Danaus plexippus reigns supreme in the world of butterflies, in that it's arguably the most recognized butterfly.
The embattled monarch--some folks want to see it listed as threatened or endangered--will be the subject of a session hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund on Feb. 28 at the University of California, Davis. It's by invitation only. But one of the speakers is Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
Shapiro, who has monitored the entire butterfly faunas (including monarchs) at 10 locations along I-80 coordinator for more than four decades, just published a commentary in the Davis Enterprise headlined "So the Monarch Is Endangered--Now What?"
He began with "So the monarch butterfly is in trouble and various folks, including the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, want California or the United States, or both, to declare it endangered or at least threatened (Bee editorial Feb. 5). Great, then what?
"The fact is, nobody can answer that question competently."
"There is no disputing the facts: Monarch butterfly populations in California have dropped catastrophically," he wrote. "Based on counts of adults overwintering along the coast, numbers have dropped from some 4.5 million in the 1980s to a mere 28,429 this year. At one site, Bolinas, numbers dropped 90 percent in one year from 12,360 in 2017 to 1,256 this year."
"But the decline has not been linear or monotonic, and it is very poorly understood."
He noted: "Conservation organizations are promoting lists of things private citizens and organizations can do to help “save the monarch.” The most-often-repeated one is to plant milkweed, its larval host plant. But there is absolutely no evidence that there is any milkweed shortage in California, let alone that such a shortage is driving monarch declines."
Shapiro went on to write that "there are huge holes in our knowledge of basic monarch biology, and those translate into our inability to say why monarchs are in decline."
Shapiro noted in his commentary that "We have been stuck with using the winter censuses, which are easy to generate, as our measure of population size. But the winter numbers are the sum of everything that happened during the year, which is hidden from our view except very locally. One can do statistical analyses with them and they will give you some kind of an answer, but will it tell us anything used in interpreting reality?"
"The point of giving species protection under Endangered Species legislation is to provide a legal umbrella to encourage actions that will promote species recovery. Most endangered species have discrete populations and their critical habitat and resources can thus be protected. The monarch is different. There is no point in declaring it threatened or endangered if that, like planting milkweed, is just a feel-good action unlikely to translate into any benefit to the species."
As for the meeting at UC Davis on Feb. 28, "its first order of business," Shapiro believes, "should be to decide what we need to know that we don't know in order to take meaningful action on the monarch (and by extension, to help the rest of our imperiled butterfly fauna)."