In between the rains today, we saw them.
So beautiful! Painted ladies, Vanessa cardui, nectaring in patches of colorful wildflowers in the Biological Orchard and Gardens (BOG), located behind the Mann Laboratory on University of California, Davis campus.
The migratory butterflies, passing through California on their way to the Pacific Northwest, stopped there for some flight fuel: sipping nectar from tidy tips, Layia platyglossa; five-spot, Nemophila maculate, and blue lupine, Lupinus.
They've been in the national news a lot, these butterflies, as has butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. Known for his expertise on all things butterfly, he's monitored the butterfly population of Central California since 1972 and maintains a research website.
Yes, it's been a big year for painted ladies, thanks to the heavy rainfall and super blooms in the deserts near the Mexican border. And, as Shapiro says, tremendous wildflower blooms are typically great years for the painted ladies.
New York Times reporter Julia Jacobs interviewed Shapiro for her March 17th piece, in which she marveled that millions of the painted ladies are migrating. Shapiro told her: "The striking thing is they're moving very rapidly and directionallly. So it's almost like being in a hail of bullets.”
Rita LeRoy or "Farmer Rita," the self-described "Farm Keeper" on the Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, part of the Vallejo City Unified School District, saw the butterflies passing through the farm on Monday, March 17. Her description is fabulous:
"They came through Vallejo on Monday," she said. "Art's description was right on. It was like being in a hail of bullets. This was because they were flying so low and it was a constant stream, like standing in the middle of a 500 lane expressway. I kept telling the students, 'Look! Another, another, another...' The path was at least as wide as the farm which is about 200 yards. When I stood in one spot, I would agree they were passing within my vision (about 100') at about 1 every second. They rarely stopped to nectar but were flying in a very direct NE direction when they came through the farm. They flew through nonstop from before 1 p.m. and the flow started to dwindle around 4 p.m. Still enough at that point to show the after school kids. They didn't fly in huddled groups or clouds and they moved fast. I tried taking a video but it was like a bad remake of The Blair Witch Project, with unfocused, whiplash camera moves of uncertain objects since they are so small in the overall background. I'm so glad Art saw them."
Today (Wednesday) we didn't see the hail of bullets, but we did see about a dozen of them grabbing some flight fuel on the UC Davis campus over a 10-minute period.
If you get a chance, check out the Biological Orchard and Gardens. A 24,000-square-foot garden, located behind the Mann lab, off Kleiber Hall Drive, it's planted with several dozen species of heritage fruit trees, and landscaped with flower gardens. The painted ladies are elsewhere on campus, too, including the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.
We first saw her at 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2017.
She was eating. That's what monarch caterpillars do best. They eat. A lot.
"Where have you been?" I asked. "Where have you been hiding? Your siblings have long gone. Your buddies passed through here in late August and September on their way to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and beyond."
How could I have missed her? This one was a fifth in-star and almost ready to pupate.
"Let's see. When your mama laid the egg, you hatched in about three to four days. You'll be a caterpillar for 10 to 14 days. Then you'll be in the pupa stage for 10 to 14 days. But that's all under normal conditions, summer conditions. This is fall, not normal conditions, little buddy."
The chubby black, yellow and white monarch caterpillar kept eating. "YOU could have been eaten, little buddy," I told her, glancing at the hungry California scrub jays vocalizing in the cherry laurels. True, milkweed contains a poisonous toxin that protects monarchs from predators, but birds do eat them. "Just not as much," says Louie Yang, associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
Then there are the other deadly encounters. Tachinid flies and braconid wasps parasitize the caterpillars and chrysalids. And some fall victim to that dreaded disease, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, caused by an obligate, protozoan parasite.
Give her a chance, just a chance...
So, awed by her unexpected appearance, we prepared the indoor butterfly habitat for its last tenant of the season. Our monarch-rearing kit features a Patron tequila bottle; the narrow neck prevents the 'cats from drowning, and the broad, heavy base assures stability (this is one bottle that doesn't get tipsy!). Just add water, milkweed stems and the caterpillar, and center the bottle in the zippered habitat. Then you wait for the caterpillar to create a silk button and form a J. And then a chrysalis. And then an adult ready to generate more generations.
This November tenant, however, chose the most fragile, overhanging milkweed stem in the bottle to pupate. No mesh ceiling for her!
When the jade-green chrysalis formed on Nov. 4, it looked like a jeweled ornament dangling from a Christmas tree. Or a mid-life chrysalis.
Now, "hurry up and wait." In ideal conditions, a monarch ecloses in 10 to 14 days. In ideal conditions.
Nothing happened for 10 days. Then 12. Then 14. Then 18.
On Day 19, Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), the chrysalis darkened, revealing the orange, black and white wings in all its transparency. The chrysalis bulged, throbbed and swayed. Out slipped the butterfly, wings flat, wings pumping. She clung to the pupal case as her wings expanded. A big, strong and healthy girl.
On Thanksgiving Day, four adults, two dogs and one butterfly celebrated in Casa de la Garvey. At least we think the butterfly celebrated. She dropped to the floor of her habitat and sipped orange juice and a honey/water mixture. Then, sustained, she fluttered up to her perch, and began searching for an opening, an escape.
She. Wanted. Out.
Hmm...No way would she be able to fly three hours to the overwintering site in Santa Cruz in the cold and rain. And then there are those hungry California scrub jays hanging out in the cherry laurels...Just waiting...
It just so happened that a friend and pollinator advocate, Rita LeRoy, the self-described "farm keeper" at the Vallejo School District's Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, was heading to Santa Cruz on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to show her out-of-town relatives the overwintering migratory butterfly sanctuary at the Natural Bridges State Beach Park. That's about a 100-mile trip from Vallejo.
Could Ms. Monarch hitch a ride?
She could. And she did.
Rita, who delights in showing area schoolchildren the monarchs that frequent Loma Vista Farm--she's also a Monarch Mom who rears and releases monarchs and is active in the Bay Area Pollinator Posse--unzipped the mesh habitat at the butterfly sanctuary.
Her sister-in-law captured an image of Miss Monarch in freedom's hands.
Wow! Just wow! From a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult. And there she was! In Rita's hands. In Santa Cruz. In the migratory butterfly sanctuary. With her buddies. Or soon-to-be buddies.
"She flew so fast that we didn't get a picture of her flying away," Rita lamented. "She was anxious to join her new friends."
"It was a beautiful day," Rita said, adding "Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of setting her free. I was so sad that my last ones (monarchs) didn't survive. It was really nice to have this happy experience."
Once upon a monarch...thanks to Rita, the ending could not have been better...
It all started in mid-to-late November when 12 caterpillars surfaced in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. What! What are you doing here? Didn't you get the memo?
We'd just reared and released 54 monarchs. We'd just winterized the garden, pruning back the plants except for one flowering tropical milkweed. We'd leave that for the pollinators, and then, it, too, would freeze.
Well, so would the 12 monarch caterpillars.
Twelve! A dozen hungry, hunkered-down striped ‘cats. Talk about challenges! Too cold, too rainy, too little food and too many predators to survive.
Without a second thought, we brought them inside, tucked them into two zippered, meshed butterfly habitats (from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis) and fed them milkweed. There they munched away, at times appearing to “sway” to soft classical music or “shake” to the harsh political news on National Public Radio. Friends and relatives came and went, glancing quizzically at us and the 'cats. “What are you going to do with them?”
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
“She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can't save all these starfish. You can't begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Could these monarchs be starfish?
It was the holiday season and it was beginning to look a lot like chrysalids. The ‘cats, all 12 of them, each formed a “J.” Then came the chrysalids, those gorgeous gold-studded jadelike jewels--Mother Nature's magic, Father Time's gift, and humanity's treasure. The chrysalids held their own, in belligerent testimony to the monarch butterflies that didn't get the memo: “Reproduction is over!”
Despite the severity of the season outside, the monarchs thrived on the care and warmth inside. They fluttered around, dined on raspberries, orange juice and sugar-water, and roosted on the sides and ceiling of the butterfly habitat while National Public Radio “entertained” them.
What to do? Consider them “starfish” and drive “The Monarch Eight” to an overwintering spot along coastal California? (We'd just been to Santa Cruz, a 226-mile round trip, on Nov. 14.) Release them in Vacaville on a wing and a prayer? Or transport them to the Bohart Museum for “bed and breakfast” and public observation?
A friend who's an educator, a naturalist, a photographer, and an insect and gardening enthusiast came up with the ahh-so-perfect plan. Rita LeRoy, the 26-year “farm keeper” at the Vallejo City Unified School District's Loma Vista Farm, (a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities), told us of her pending trip to the monarch overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and said she'd be delighted to take them there.
So off the Vacaville-bred and reared monarchs went on Wednesday morning, Dec. 28 with the Good Monarcharians from Vallejo. Unlike Rita and Walter, however, the monarchs didn't know where they were going. One minute they're listening to NPR on a kitchen counter in Vacaville, and the next thing they know, an hour-and-a-half later, they're joining their buddies in Santa Cruz. Whoa! How did that happen? How'd we migrate that fast?
Rita LeRoy, known as "Farmer Rita" at Loma Vista Farm, released them, one by one, starting at 1 p.m. at the Lighthouse Field State Park. Flight! Freedom! Friends! One monarch lingered on her finger--probably the one that had eclosed the day before. The others did not linger. “The rest flew away to meet their new friends,” she related.
The overwintering site proved breathtaking, with the sun showcasing the hundreds of the iconic orange, black and white butterflies dancing in the warm breeze. “There were so many butterflies,” she marveled. “It was amazing.”
What a happy ending to a story about a small-scale conservation project that began in Vacaville and took flight in Santa Cruz. First we humans gave them roots; then we gave them wings.
Now this story has legs. “I enjoy learning about the interconnections in nature so I can share this information with the students,” said Rita-the-teacher (and a 25-year 4-H leader). “Monarchs are excellent example of the interconnection between plants and animals and the need for people to assist with the conservation of this beautiful creature.”
Yes, monarchs can be starfish, too.
Rita LeRoy, the self-described "Farm Keeper" at the Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, takes amazing photos.
We recently wrote about the farm, part of the Vallejo City Unified School District, when we visited it during the annual spring festival.
LeRoy, who has worked for the Vallejo school district for 25 years, teaches students about nature and nutrition through hands-on farm lessons involving cooking, gardening, insect appreciation, and animal care. Founded in 1974, the Loma Vista Farm is described on its website as a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities,
But back to Rita LeRoy. She is an avid entomological enthusiast, an insect photographer, and a member of the Pollinator Posse.
She recently posted a photo on Facebook of several praying mantids emerging from their ootheca, a sight folks rarely see. She ca[tired this image in the Loma Vista Farm greenhouse. Indeed, we rarely see the camouflaged adults unless they're moving around in the vegetation or snaring prey.
With her permission, we thought we'd share her amazing photo--from a distance and then a portion of it enlarged.
We have four oothecas in our family bee garden but never once have we seen any action. They are silent as stones.
However, we know the praying mantids are out there. We see them in our yard periodically. These are the survivors, the ones who made it past the sibling-eat-sibling stage and the mating ritual of female-eat-male, also known as "off with the head." They're cannibals, you know. Now they're dining on...alas, our pollinators--the honey bees, sunflower bees, sweat bees, bumble bees and butterflies. (We'd prefer it if they changed their menu to pests instead of pollinators.)
The ever-so-patient mantids lie in wait and snag their prey with their spiked forelegs.
Yes, we know they're out there. This one (below) was hidden in the lavender patch.
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You will if you attend the Spring Festival hosted at the Loma Vista Farm, part of the Vallejo City Unified School District, on Saturday, May 16. Offering free admission, the festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 150 Rainier Ave., Vallejo.
The bumble bee nest? It's the home of a colony of yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, a native bee species commonly found on the west coast of North America, from Baja California to Canada.
Rita LeRoy discovered the entomological prize. She's the "Farm Keeper"--that's her official title--at the Loma Vista Farm. "I've worked for the Vallejo school district at Loma Vista Farm for 25 years," she related. "I teach students about nature and nutrition through hands on farm lessons involving cooking, gardening, insect appreciation, and animal care."
The nest is currently roped off, just waiting for two-legged folks to admire and appreciate it. It's a marvel of nature, for sure.
More on the Loma Vista Farm? Founded in 1974, it's a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities, according to its website. "We seek to increase students' knowledge of nature and nutrition while enhancing academic learning, ecoliteracy, and psychosocial development."
The farm offers field trips, after-school opportunities through 4-H, community service and volunteer opportunities, garden-based workshops for adults, and job training for college students, developmentally disabled young adults, and disadvantaged youth.
We first visited the Loma Vista Farm back in the 1980s as part of a 4-H activity. It was--and is--a delightful place to be. (And bees think so, too!)
Loma Vista Farm is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the school year. It is closed on holidays and follows the Vallejo school district calendar.
And the Spring Festival? It's an opportunity for friends and families to visit the farm and participate in crafts and activities. Activities include educational information booths, animal adventures, train rides and greenhouse tours. Download flier.
In the meantime, check out the red pollen load of Bombus vosnesenskii (at left). We saw the bumble bee foraging on vetch last weekend at the Hastings Preserve, Carmel, a biological field station operated by the University of California. The Hastings Preserve was the site of a BugShot macro photography workshop taught by acclaimed insect photographers Alex Wild, John Abbott and Thomas Shahan.
And for more information on bumble bees, be sure to read the book, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton Press), co-authored by one of our own, Robbin Thorp, native pollinator specialist and distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. Lead author is Paul H. Williams, and co-authors are Leif Richardson and Sheila Colla.