"Hey, Buckeye butterfly, you over there with chunks of a wing missing, yeah you, what happened?"
"Well, it was like this. I was just fluttering around, looking for some good nectar, and a predator grabbed me. I don't know what it was. Maybe it was a praying mantis. Maybe it was a bird or a spider. I don't know. It happened so fast. But anyhow, I lost a couple of eyespots. Yes, it got a piece of me. But it didn't get all of me. I'm still here!"
It's the eyespots--or the missing eyespots--you notice first about the Buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia.
The eyespots are thought to offer some kind of protection from predators.
"Predators think the eyespot is an eye on the head of its prey," according to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida website. "If the predator attacks the eyespot, it might chew off part of the butterfly's wing, but the butterfly's vital organs escape damage."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has studied the butterfly populations of the Central Valley since 1972, writes about the Buckeye on his website, Art's Butterfly World:
"The Buckeye breeds on plants containing bitter iridoid glycosides, including plantains (Plantago, especially P. lanceolata), various Scrophulariaceae (especially Fluellin, Kickxia), and Lippia (Lippia or Phyla nodiflora). The spiny, black-and-white caterpillar has a bright orange head. Its behavior suggests its diet makes it virtually immune to vertebrate predation, but the pupa and adult are quite edible.
"Male Buckeyes are territorial perchers, usually on bare ground. Both sexes visit a great variety of flowers, from Heliotrope and Lippia to California Buckeye and Rabbitbrush! They often swarm over Coyotebrush (Baccharis) in autumn, especially the male plants.
And always, always, the Buckeyes need to keep an eye out for their predators.
So here, you are, a Western Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar from a Mexican sunflower.
You are a Papilo rutulus. And your menu choice? A delicate orange beauty from the sunflower family: a Tithonia rotundifolia.
Ah, the sky is blue, the nectar is excellent, and all is RIGHT with the world.
What was that?
Something is WRONG with the world.
A male territorial long-horned bee, probably Melissodes agilis, has his eyes on you. He is buzzing your wings as if you're a suspicious passenger plane and he's a military escort plane. No, not a military escort plane, a fighter plane! He has no intention of escorting you anywhere but off the flower.
Mr. Melissodes yells "Get off that flower; I'm saving it for my own species." He buzzes your head. He buzzes your right wing. He buzzes between your wings.
"Get off that flower now! Hear me?"
"Excuse me, I am eating my breakfast. Wait your turn, please."
Mr. Melissodes roars up over the petals. You see his tiny, furious face as he ascends into your space.
"Get off now!"
"Well, if you insist," you say, scrambling for safety. "I can take a hint."
Heads will not roll.
The Hunger Games will not begin.
Preying does not always work.
It's Aug. 2, 2020 and a praying mantis decides to occupy a specially stunning Mexican sunflower. Specifically, it's a female Stagmomantis limbata occupying a Tithonia rotundifolia.
It's a brilliant day, the kind of day that makes you love the world and everything in it. You know those kinds of days? No? Thought not. Me, neither.
A honey bee, Apis mellifera, lands on the Orange Blossom Special—no connection to the deluxe-passenger train that Johnny Cash made famous, the train that links New York City to Miami.
Ah, but it's a brilliant day, yes, indeed.
Ms. Honey Bee begins sipping nectar to share with her colony.
Ms. Mantis has no intention of sharing anything.
Ms. Mantis: “Well, hello there, Ms. Honey Bee! You are looking quite delicious today!”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Excuse me? Oh, yes, this nectar is delicious. Try some!”
Ms. Mantis: “No, thanks, I am a carnivore.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Well, I'm a vegetarian!”
Ms. Mantis: “Well, I can bite your head off.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “That would not be a nice thing to do. Where are your manners?”
Ms. Mantis: “Manners? Do you think I'm Ms. Manners? I'm Ms. Mantis not Ms. Manners.”
Ms. Honey Bee: “Well, just telling you that I'm a vegetarian.”
Ms. Mantis: “I eat vegetarians.”
Ms. Honey Bee: "Not today!" Abruptly, she takes flight, buzzing off faster than Johnny Cash can mimic the "choo choo" of the Orange Blossom Special.
Conclusions? There are three:
- Heads do not always roll when a flower is double-occupied by a praying mantis and a honey bee.
- The Hunger Games do not always begin.
- Preying does not always work.
(Editor's Note: No organisms were injured in the making of these photographs. The mantis wanted to, though!)
At first glance, you may think the insect is a carpenter bee or bumble bee.
Then you see it hovering. Then you see its head. Then you see its stubby antennae.
It's a large black syrphid fly, aka flower fly or hover fly.
The genus Copestylum includes more than 350 species in the new world, according to Martin Hauser, senior insect biosystematist with the Plant Pest Diagnostics Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology, says the female Mexican cactus fly lays its eggs in rotting or dying cactus tissue.
This fly, about 3/4 of an inch long, was a few inches short of a neighboring cactus, a torch cactus, Echinopsis spachiana.
The cactus is neither dying nor rotten.
The Mexican cactus fly simply stopped to sip some nectar from the Mexican sunflower.
A monarch butterfly fluttered into our pollinator garden in Vacaville yesterday and sipped nectar from a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) as a bird looked on.
Well, sort of looked on.
The bird was decorative art. The monarch was real.
Now if that bird had been real, the monarch may have been a meal.
It would not have tasted very good, though, due to the infamous cardenolide defense, which the monarch gets in its caterpillar stage while chowing down milkweed, its host plant.
Yes, birds eat monarch butterflies, but they don't eat them like people eat potato chips.
We remember the Linda Fink-Lincoln Brower research article published in May 1981 in the journal Nature about how some birds can overcome the cardenolide defense of monarch butterflies in Mexico.
"Flocks of black-backed orioles (Icterus abeillei Lesson) and black-headed grosbeaks (Pheucticus melanocephalus Swainson) eat several hundred thousand monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus L.) in the dense overwintering colonies in central Mexico, and in 1979 were responsible for over 60% of the butterfly mortality at several sites. Such predation is unusual because, during larval development the aposematically coloured monarch butterfly sequesters cardenolides from its milkweed foodplants (Asclepiadaceae). These bitter-tasting heart poisons cause vomiting in 12 species of birds in 9 families, although the domestic chicken, Japanese quail, hedgehog, mouse and sheep have been shown to be insensitive to their emetic effects. Extensive predation of monarch butterflies by birds has never been observed except in Mexico. We report here that the Mexican butterflies are weakly emetic, and that taste discrimination by orioles and cardenolide insensitivity of grosbeaks allow these birds to feed freely on monarch butterflies."
We've seen birds scatter the overwintering monarchs roosting in the eucalyptus trees at Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz, but never witnessed an all-you-can-eat buffet. They ate a few, though.