When you're in your garden, look up.
Sometimes you'll see a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar outlined against the sky, munching away on its host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
The bright orange caterpillars can be as striking as the adults (Agraulis vanillae).
This caterpillar, however, is not the only critter hungry in the Passiflora. We saw evidence that a praying mantis also calls this home. One wing of a Gulf Frit here. One wing of a Gulf Frit there.
Everything eats in the garden.
In a previous Bug Squad, we mentioned that the Gulf Frits are found in many parts of the world and arrived in California (San Diego) in the 1870s, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. They spread through Southern California in urban settings and were first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908, Shapiro says. They "became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro says the Gulf Frits “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.”
Yes, they're back and a joy to see.
So here's this Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, nectaring on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola.
It's National Pollinator Week. All's right with the world. The butterfly had visited a passionflower vine, Passiflora, its host plant.
Now for a little fuel. The nectar is enticing. The Gulf Frit flutters from flower to flower.
And then...it's targeted.
Get off my flower, that's mine! A very territorial male long-horned bee, Melissodes agilis, buzzes past, trying to dislodge the butterfly. Then another male appears. And another.
What's going on? Like frenzied kamikaze pilots, the males patrol the flowers, dive-bombing and dislodging any temporary tenants, in hopes of saving the nectar for the females of their species. And to mate with them.
After four attacks, the Gulf Frit decides the nectar is not worth it.
It's always a good idea to carry your cell phone or shoulder a camera while you're taking a stroll through a garden.
You never know what you will see.
It was early morning on Tuesday, June 7, when we spotted a female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa sonorina, asleep on a passionflower vine, Passiflora. That's the host plant for the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, but carpenter bees are always hanging around for pollination. Tiny grains of golden pollen cling to this bee look like gold dust.
The females are solid black, while the males are a golden blond with green eyes. Sexual dimorphism. These bees are found in the Central Valley and southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southward through Mexico, according to the late native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology. He described them as "the largest of the carpenter bees in California."
Wikipedia indicates Valley carpenter bees are found from western Texas to northern California, and the eastern Pacific islands. Frederick Smith, assistant in the Zoological Department of the British Museum and member of the council of the Entomological Society of London, first described X. sonorina in 1874 from specimens collected in Hawaii, according to Wikipedia. "Until 1956, it was thought that X. sonorina came from the Sunda Islands, but in a paper published that year,M. A. Lieftinck showed that Smith's interpretation of the original specimen labels was in error: Smith had mistakenly read the label of X. sonorina as meaning the Sunda Islands instead of the Sandwich Islands."
"In 1899, R. C. L. Perkins described the same species as Xylocopa aeneipennis, and in 1922, P. H. Timberlake claimed that the Hawaiian Xylocopa was the same as the mainland X. varipuncta, that had been named in 1879, and Roy Snelling predicted in 2003 that X. varipuncta would eventually be reclassified as a synonym of X. sonorina," Wikipedia relates. "This was confirmed in 2020 using DNA analysis, and as the name sonorina has seniority, this is the valid species name."
Up until 2020, we'd always called them X. varipuncta.
This week we called one "sleepy head."
Ms. Valley Carpenter Bee finally stirred and soon after, took flight.
Interviewer: "Hey, Gulf Fritillary! What happened to you? Something take a chunk out of your wings?"
Miss Gulf Frit: "I dunno. I was just fluttering around the passionflower vine and something grabbed me."
Interviewer: "Do you have any idea what happened?"
Miss Gulf Frit: "Sorry, no. It happened so fast but I managed to escape. A miss is as good as a mile, right?
Interviewer (turning to praying mantis): "Ms. Mantis, do you have any idea what happened here?"
Ms. Mantis: "What? You talking to me? You talking to me?"
Interviewer: "Yes, you're the only other one in the passionflower patch."
Ms. Mantis (smiling): "It wasn't me, y'hear. It wasn't me! Okay, well, maybe it was me. I was hungry. I'm still hungry. I missed!"
Interviewer: "Well, a miss is as good as a smile."
If you have a passionflower vine (Passiflora), you probably have cats.
No, not the four-legged ones that meow, chase mice or cavort with catnip.
These 'cats or caterpillars are part of the life cycle of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) and Passiflora is their host plant.
Watch for the chewed leaves, the frass (poo) and the chrysalids.
Expect a cat-tastrophe when predators like the California scrub jays, European paper wasps, and praying mantids appear and the 'cats disappear.
The circle of life...