It's Halloween and scores of trick-or-treaters are donning monarch butterfly costumes.
But they can't do justice to the living monarchs, those iconic, majestic butterflies that are always dressed in Halloween colors: black and orange.
It's always a treat to see them but they have to avoid the "tricks"--predators and parasitoids.
Among the last monarchs we reared in September: a brightly colored female, healthy and strong and rarin' to go.
Where is she now, on Halloween? Is she overwintering in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove? Or, did a predator, perhaps a California scrub jay or a praying mantis, nail her?
We don't known "witch" way she went, but as she fluttered away, we wished her "Safe travels!"
It's been a troubling year for monarchs, Danaus plexippus, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World. "I have not seen a wild egg or caterpillar of the monarch this entire calendar year at low elevations," he said Sept. 6, 2018 during an interview on the "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento. "Not one." (Listen to the interview.)
Where to see the overwintering monarchs in California?
They've been found at more than 400 sites along the California coast, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "The mild winters of the California coast are a perfect haven from the harsh cold weather found in our country's interior," Xerces says on its website. "Monarchs take advantage of this climate and often use the same overwintering sites year after year. Congregations of overwintering monarchs have been found at more than 400 sites along the California coast, from Mendocino County in the north to San Diego in the south. For many people, the arrival of autumn along the California coast is marked by the flutter of orange and black as monarchs arrive at these groves and settle in for the winter."
"The last few years have witnessed low numbers of butterflies throughout the region compared to the late 1990s, but there are still many places to view overwintering monarchs and get involved!"
Open to Bohart Museum associates and members of the Bohart Museum Society, the event drew dozens of costumed characters, from honey bees to black widows to a tarantula hawk.
But it was the anatomically correct fly, masquerading as a piñata, that grabbed the most attention. It was the work of UC Davis entomology PhD student Charlotte Herbert; her fiancé, George Alberts; and the Bohart crew.
It was all in keeping with UC Davis alumna Nicole Tam's creative drawing on the party invitation that featured an Acrocera fly, a larva, and a spider. Mama Fly is telling her little one, "You look wonderful, my little larva!" and the little one, in close association with a spider (her food), is responding with: "Thanks, Mom!
Charlotte, who studies Asiloidea phylogenetics with a focus on Asilidae (aka assassin flies) and their predatory lifestyle and venom, came dressed as Maggie the Maggot or an Acroceridae larva, about to pupate and turn into a fly. She added a spider corpse to her costume "as my meal in honor of the party invitation made by Nicole Tam."
A Procyon lotor. A raccoon.
(Editor's Note: More photos of the variety of costumes to follow in Wednesday's blog)
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.
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
Maybe not at the same time, but they all eat.
We noticed a syrphid fly, aka flower fly/hover fly, heading toward a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in our pollinator garden. Alas for the fly, it was occupied. Occupied by a honey bee (Apis mellifera).
The honey bee soon buzzed off, and the syrphid claimed it.
The honey bee returned and took a turn.
Then another fly, a drone fly (Eristallis tenax), claimed it.
Interesting that all three are sometimes called "bees," much to the chagrin of entomologists and other scientists. It just goes to prove that not all floral visitors are flies.
- Honey bee: Order, Hymenoptera; Family Apidae
- Syrphid fly: Order, Diptera; Family Syrphidae
- Drone fly: Order, Diptera; Family Syrphidae
But they do have several things in common: (1) they're insects (2) they're pollinators (3) they're hungry and (4) they like nectar just as much as humans like sugar, especially on Halloween. And doesn't orange symbolize Halloween?
Orb-weaver spiders know a thing or two about web design and development.
And their skills have nothing to do with computers.
Have you ever stepped out into your garden in the early morning and seen a spiral or wheel-shaped web glistening with droplets of dew? And encountered the web developer hanging out with its prey?
Such was the case last weekend when we spotted an orb weaver or araneid with its catch, a honey bee. The bee was all wrapped up and ready to eat. Web designers and developers get hungry, too.
Why are they called orb weavers? Well, orb is an old English word meaning "circular."
"The family is cosmopolitan, including many well-known large or brightly colored garden spiders," according to Wikipedia. "With around 3,100 species in 169 genera worldwide, Araneidae is the third-largest family of spiders (behind Salticidae and Linyphiidae). Araneid webs are constructed in a stereotyped fashion. A framework of nonsticky silk is built up before the spider adds a final spiral of silk covered in sticky droplets."
So an unsuspecting honey bee flew into the sticky web, struggled to free itself and could not. And along came a spider and the rest is history. Or breakfast.