"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.
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.
The honey bees love it.
So do the long-horned bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, European paper wasps, syrphid flies, butterflies, blister beetles, spotted cucumber beetles, crab spiders, praying mantids, and assorted other insects.
The Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) blooming in gardens around California and beyond is a delight to see.
A native of Mexico and Central America and an annual, it's a member of the sunflower family Asteraceae. In our yard in Vacaville, Calif, it blooms from May or early June through October and November--just in time for the migrating monarchs that pass through on their way to their overwintering sites along coastal California.
But for now, it belongs to the honey bees and the long-horned bees, such as Melissodes agilis.
We encountered this lone honey bee last week--a single bee in need of nectar but not in need of a dive-bombing by the male territorial Melissodes agilis.
The last image, of her in an upside-down stance and peering through the petals, indicates this bee is not about to let her guard down.
Want to learn about honey bees? Be sure to read Norman Gary's book, The Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees. Gary, a UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology, has kept bees for more than seven decades and has held or holds the titles of teacher, scientist, researcher, author, bee wrangler and musician. Check out his website.
Also read the UC book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, by Gordon Frankie of UC Berkeley, (the late) Robbin Thorp of UC Davis, and Rollin Coville and Barbara Ertter, both affiliated with UC Berkeley.
The Frit and the fly...or the butterfly and the fly...
That would be the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) and the syrphid fly (family Syrphidae), aka flower fly or hover fly.
They meet on a beautiful autumn day on an equally beautiful Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). The season is winding down.
"I was here first!" the Gulf Frit proclaims.
"I was here second!" the fly says.
The yellow-and-black striped fly, masquerading as a bee, is determined to sip some nectar. It edges closer and closer.
The newly eclosed butterfly simply wants to dry its wings before taking off.
The fly is more persistent. And more hungry.
The fly brushes the butterfly. The butterfly takes flight.
Score: Fly: 1; Butterfly, 0.