"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough."--Rabindranath Tagore
When we think of orange and autumn, we think of the marriage of the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), and the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
The silver-spangled Gulf Fritillary, a showy orange butterfly, looks like two different species. When it spreads its wings, it's orange. The underwings: silver.
"Dazzling," agrees butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
"This dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century --we don't know how-- and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s," he says on his website.
"It can be quite common in the East and South Bay --particularly in Berkeley--and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions."
The Gulf Frit bred in Sacramento in abundance on Passiflora in the early 1960s, Shapiro relates. "It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
Its host plant: Passiflora or passionflower vine. Plant it and they will come (at least in this area)!
"Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."--Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Frit and the fly...or the butterfly and the fly...
That would be the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) and the syrphid fly (family Syrphidae), aka flower fly or hover fly.
They meet on a beautiful autumn day on an equally beautiful Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). The season is winding down.
"I was here first!" the Gulf Frit proclaims.
"I was here second!" the fly says.
The yellow-and-black striped fly, masquerading as a bee, is determined to sip some nectar. It edges closer and closer.
The newly eclosed butterfly simply wants to dry its wings before taking off.
The fly is more persistent. And more hungry.
The fly brushes the butterfly. The butterfly takes flight.
Score: Fly: 1; Butterfly, 0.
It starts out slow.
Beginning in the spring (and sometimes year-around in some locales) Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) lay their eggs on their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
They deposit their eggs on the tendrils, on the leaves, and sometimes on the fence, wall or door where the passionflower vine climbs.
When fall approaches and the Gulf Frits are still laying eggs, you won't recognize your vine. It is skeletonized. The caterpillars, incredible shredding machines, have devoured all the leaves, leaving nothing but scarred sticks. And the 'cats are now gobbling up the remaining fruit. Hungry, hungry caterpillars!
Your plant, now incognito, looks like it should be in the Federal Witness Protection Program--and you have to defend yourself for "being a bad gardener."
But that's why we plant the Passiflora: for the Gulf Frits.
"No plant wants to be eaten," wisely observes Bruce Hammock, a UC Davis distinguished professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. "They all have defenses. They do not like insects, fungi, cows or even vegetarians that eat them."
At the time, Professor Hammock was talking to a reporter about toxic plants, and how we have bred many poisons out of plants or learned to not eat the most toxic parts. "In some cases, we like the taste of the poisons: cinnamon, potato, parsley, and mustard," Hammock told him.
In the case of the passionflower vine, aka Scraped Skinny Stick, it probably wishes (if plants could wish) and wonders (if plants could wonder) "Why am I so attractive?" and "Where are all the birds, wasps and other predators of caterpillars when I need them?"
That's what we've been told for years. We hear that butterflies don't like the red ones, and that they may, in fact, be poisonous to them.
We've grown both in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Both flourished. However, we removed the red passionflower vine, P. jamesonii, because the Gulf Frits avoided it. They lay their eggs--and quite profusely, too--on our lavender passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), also called "Maypop." (In fact, every year they skeletonize them. Hungry, hungry caterpillars!)
Which brings us to the question from a reader: "I have the Maypop and Purple Passionvine, which is working well as a host plant for the Gulf Frit. I recently bought a Red Passionvine and then read it is poisonous to the Gulf Frit. Is it true?"
We asked butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California for more than four decades and publishes his research and observations on his website.
"They don't use some of the red-flowered species," Shapiro says. "I don't know if they're actually poisonous. I've never found the bug on P. jamesonii around Ohlone Park in Berkeley, where there's tons of it. There's a large plant at the northwest corner of 3rd and B in Davis that may be this species, and they don't use it, either."
P. jamesoni, also known as "Coral Seas," (one of some 500 varieties in the world, see Wikipedia for the full list) is indeed striking with its brilliant red flowers.
As an aside, P. jamesoni is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That would be the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which describes itself "an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resource an international organization."
Justification for Being on the Red List:
"Passiflora jamesonii is endemic to the Ecuadorean Andes, where it is known from five subpopulations on both sides of the range. Only one subpopulation is inside Ecuador's protected areas network. The species seems to prefer untouched areas, so fires are a severe threat," according to the IUCN Red List.
Talk about "crafty"--as in cunning or sneaky--insects.
Ever seen a praying mantis ambushing a cabbage white butterfly?
Or an assassin bug targeting a spotted cucumber beetle?
Or European paper wasps attacking a Gulf Fritillary butterfly?
And, how about the other kind of "crafty" insects--like honey bees and European paper wasps creating those intricate nests?
"Crafty Insects" will set the theme for the Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on the UC Davis campus. The event is free and family friendly.
“We are hoping to have two parallel exhibits--one where we show crafty insects and then one where we are asking people to bring insect-themed crafts from their home--a plate with a cicada on it, or mug shaped like a wasp or we have a bee-shaped stapler for example,” said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator. “We'll have a place for them to display their crafts.”
“Crafty insects can be interpreted in two ways,” Yang commented. "‘Crafty' can be makers such as caddis fly larvae, case bearer moths, and potter wasps. The other crafty interpretation is sneaky, so our live orchid mantid, the dead leaf butterfly like Kallima inachus will be on display.” Activities are to include “spot the flower fly versus bee activity” and “spot the assassin fly versus bumble bee activity.”
For the family crafts, visitors will be painting rocks that can be hidden on campus or elsewhere. The Bohart Museum officials were inspired by Yolo Rocks and Solano Rocks, but a similar organization on campus, UC Davis Rocks, launched a similar activity last spring. It is the brainchild of Kim Pearson and Martha Garrison, who work in the arts administrative group in the College of Letters and Science.
Saturday, Sept. 22 is also move-in weekend for UC Davis students, so the Bohart Museum expects a lot of new people exploring the campus.
Bohart associates Jeff Smith, curator of the butterfly and moth exhibit and naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas will be on hand to shows the collection.
The Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens. It is also the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity. In addition to the petting zoo, the museum features a year-around gift shop, which is stocked with T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.