The Gulf Frit, or "passion butterfly" (Agraulis vanillae), lays her tiny, yellow eggs, singly, on her host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora).
The egg? It's about the size of a pin head. Look closely and you'll see it's ridged like the raised lines of sand or a miniature ear of corn.
Often a Gulf Frit will deposit her egg on a tendril, which looks like a cork screw gone ballistic. Sometimes she'll lay her egg on a leaf, a bud, a stem or a nearby wall, gate or fence. Mama, how can we find our way?
We've grown Passiflora in our garden in Vacaville for decades. Some seasons the 'cats will skeletonize the plant, eating everything--from the leaves and blossoms right down to the stems.
Some gardeners refuse to plant the passionflower vine because a stripped plant makes them look like "a bad gardener." They have been known to pluck off the hungry 'cats to "save" the plant.
We let nature take its course. Butterflies mate, eggs hatch, caterpillars crawl, chrysalises form, and the cycle starts all over again. An egg is the promise of a new generation.
Last year the predators, including California scrub jays, praying mantises, spiders, yellowjackets and European paper wasps, grabbed their share of the 'cats.
This season, no. The scrub jays have, for the most part, vanished. Hey, look at that hawk circling our yard! The praying mantises are gone. And we haven't seen a yellowjacket, European paper wasp or spider for weeks.
It's a good year for the Gulf Frits! And a bad year for the passionflower vine... It is about to be skeletonized.
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.
One point about insect wedding photography is that you don't need an invitation to attend. You just have to keep your distance and not disturb the bridal couple. No sudden movements. No stressful impatience. And no camera flash, please.
It helps, though, if you grow the host plant so a bride and a groom will show up. In this case, we grew passionflower vine (Passiflora), the host plant of the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae).
One morning we saw a butterfly eclose from her chrysalis. Wedding Day! Within minutes, a male suitor arrived.
They became a couple.
Then unexpected guests arrived...a hungry caterpillar munching on the leaves and a second prospective suitor (PS) (rejected) and a third PS (rejected) and a fourth PS (rejected).
PS, leave them alone!
When the "ceremony" ended, the couple simply left. One sipped nectar from the nearby Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifola. The other flew over the fence.
Soon we'll have more eggs, more caterpillars, more chrysalids, and more adults.
Life is like that when you're growing Passiflora and hoping for a Wedding Day.
You know the drill, lay 'em on the tendrils.
But Gulf Fritillary butterflies, Agraulis vanillae, don't always lay their eggs on the tendrils of their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora) although textbooks may indicate that.
We've seen Gulf Frits lay eggs on and under the Passiflora leaves, on the stems, on the blossoms, and on nearby fence posts and screen doors.
Hey, Gulf Frits, are you trying to tell us something? Don't you like the accommodations?
But the other day, we saw a Gulf Frit executing acrobatic moves to deposit an egg on a tendril. A little breakdancing, Lindy hopping, pole-climbing, scooting, rolling, hooping and juggling--and she's done.
The egg is tiny, bright yellow and pinpoint in size. It will probably hatch, but the larva or caterpillar may not make it.
Currently we have several California scrub jays enjoying an all-you-can-eat caterpillar buffet every morning. They sit on the fence, swoop down, grab a 'cat, and look for more.
There's always food in a pollinator garden. A Cooper's hawk that hangs out in the birdbath knows that, too.
Gulf Fritillaries in November?
Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are still active here in Solano County, on those warm, sunny afternoons that defy the season.
They're still hanging around their host plant, Passiflora (passionflower vine), "looking for love" (thank you, Johnny Lee). And in all the RIGHT places.
The orange-reddish butterfly, with its silver-spangled underwings, was introduced into southern California in the 19th century, in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution an ecology. It was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908. "It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since." Once prevalent in the Sacramento area in the 1960s, it "seems to have died out by the early 1970s," he says. Then in 2009, it began making a comeback in the Sacramento area.
In our pollinator garden, the Gulf Frits usually skeletonize the plant. They eat the leaves, flowers, the fruit, and then start in on the bark.
Not so this year. What's different? More predators, including California scrub jays, wasps and a resident praying mantis.
The resident mantis perished a month after depositing her egg case. The wasps vanished. And the California scrub jays, eyed by circling hawks, are nowhere to be seen.
Just the Gulf Fritillaries--their eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids and adults--remain.
Gulf Fritillaries in November? Yes.