A monarch on the move...
When you see a monarch foraging on a flower, have you ever seen them--or photographed them--taking flight?
It's not your iconic image of monarch, but a few twists and turns, jumble of colors and jagged lines, and the monarch takes flight.
Scenario: a male monarch nectaring on Sept. 4 on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola, in a Vacaville pollinator garden.
He decides it's time to depart--maybe because he's had his fill of nectar, or maybe because male longhorned bees are becoming increasingly territorial, or maybe just because....
During the golden hour, right before sunset, have you ever watched a male longhorned bee roll full-barrel over a flower at Top Gun speed?
During the day, the male longhorned target assorted insects foraging on "their" patch of flowers. Their goal: to save the nectar for the females of their species, perchance to mate with them.
This bee, probably a Melissodes agilis, burst over a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola, at breakneck speed. This may have been his last flight before he settled down to sleep with a cluster of other male bees.
He's promising more territorial maneuvers tomorrow...and the next day...and the next day...
Mine. My patch of flowers.
And just like that, a female monarch butterfly fluttered into our Vacaville pollinator garden this morning, Aug. 10, and left a dozen or so calling cards: precious eggs.
We earlier saw a male monarch patrolling the garden on the morning of July 23, but he left to go find the girls.
So, total number of monarchs sighted in our garden so far this year: 2. (In 2016, we counted more than 300 eggs and caterpillars.)
Ms. Monarch deposited eggs on three milkweed plants: a narrow-leafed milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis, and two tropical milkweeds, Asclepias curassavica. She favored a lone tropical milkweed thriving in a planter. It's already attracted honey bees, leafcutter bees, syrphid flies, crab spiders, cabbage white butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries, mourning cloaks, gray hairstreaks, Western tiger swallowtails, ants, aphids, and a young praying mantis lying in wait.
Ms. Monarch totally ignored the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, that towers over the garden. Not for me, she seemed to say. Ditto on the butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.
We managed a few images of Ms. Monarch in flight, several images of her laying eggs, and a couple of the ever-so tiny eggs clinging beneath the leaves.
Welcome, Ms. Monarch. Now go tell all your buddies where to find the milkweed of your choice, and the rich nectar sources such as Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotunifola).
And you better warn them about that praying mantis...
In his fascinating book, "Life on a Little-Known Planet: A Biologist's View of Insects and Their World," Connecticut-born biologist/entomologist Howard Ensign Evans (1919-2002) asks "What good is a butterfly?"
"To the farmer, it is an adult cabbage worm or carrot caterpillar, and better off dead. To the entomologist, it is a member of a group of diurnal lepidopterans possessing knobbed antennae, a group containing a few pest species but mainly of interest to hobbyists and dabblers. To the romantic poet, it is a stray piece of some forgotten rainbow, a vagrant wisp of eternity---but there are no longer any romantic poets to speak of. To the man of the world, the pillar of society, a butterfly is simply nothing at all."
Oh, but they bring waves of joy to gardeners. And they are pollinators!
Take the Gulf Fritillaries or passion butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) that breed on our passionflower vine (Passiflora), sip nectar from a zinnia, and flutter around the garden as if they own it. They do. It is their real estate.
Sometimes the Gulf Frits encounter a bird, a praying mantis or a spider, and sometimes they live to bring us another wave of joy. Maybe a ripple, maybe a swell, maybe a surge...but it's a wave of joy.
Thank you, Gulf Frits!
And thank you, Howard Ensign Evans, for describing them as "a stray piece of some forgotten rainbow, a wisp of eternity."
Because they are.
Ah, the fiery skipper, Hylephila phyleus!
They are, as UC Davis distinguished professor emeritus Art Shapiro says, "California's most urban butterfly."
Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly populations of Calfornia since 1972 and maintains a research website at https://butterfly.ucdavis.edu, says the fiery skipper is "almost limited to places where people mow lawns."
That would not include us. Our "lawn" is a pollinator garden.
Some interesting facts about the fiery skipper, from Professor Shapiro:
"Its range extends to Argentina and Chile and it belongs to a large genus which is otherwise entirely Andean."
- It's been in California since at least 1937.
- "It is multiple-brooded, and appears to experience heavy winter-kill in most places; scarce early in the season, it spreads out from local places where it survived, gradually reoccupying most of its range by midsummer and achieving maximum abundance in September and October."
- "Breeds mostly on Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon), which despite its name is native to the Mediterranean region; probably on other turf grasses as well, including the native Distichlis spicata, which is a Hylephila hostplant in Peru and Chile! Adults swarm over garden flowers--Lantana, Verbena, Zinnias, Marigolds, Buddleia, etc., etc. and in the wild are quite happy with Yellow Star-Thistle."
How did it get the fiery skipper get its name? From the males, which are a bright orange, while the females are a dull brown.
Fiery skippers have also been described as "rapid flyers with darting movements."
That's especially true when you're focusing your camera. They dart, they dodge, they don't oblige.
Sometimes, however, you get lucky, and catch them in flight.