It was a dismal year in Vacaville (and other parts of California) for monarch-rearing. Of the 10 caterpillars we collected from milkweed in our pollinator garden in early September and tried to rear, only eight made it.
One caterpillar died when a sibling attacked it. Another caterpillar made it to the chrysalis stage, and then it succumbed.
"The intersegmental membranes are showing," observed butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has researched butterflies for more than four decades and maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu. "Whatever caused that, it opens the door to severe water loss, so the pupa will probably die."
Yes, it did.
Black lines rimmed the non-viable chrysalis, and then it deteriorated almost beyond recognition.
Lynn Epstein, UC Davis emeritus professor of plant pathology, photographed it under a Leica DVM6 microscope on Nov. 2. An amazing image.
Meanwhile, perhaps the eight monarchs we reared and released made it to an overwintering site along the California coast...maybe to the eucalyptus grove at the Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz.
Or maybe they encountered a predator--a praying mantis or a bird.
Regardless, the declining monarch populations at the overwintering sites along coastal California are troubling.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, based in Portland, Ore., noted in a news release Feb. 2, 2018 that the "annual census of monarch butterflies overwintering along California's coast reveals that populations in western North America are at their lowest point in five years, despite recovery efforts. Volunteers with the Xerces Society's Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count visited more sites this past year than have ever been counted since the survey began in 1997, yet they tallied fewer than 200,000 monarchs."
“This year's numbers indicate a continuing decline in the monarch population,” noted Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society's endangered species program director. “Two decades ago, more than 1.2 million monarchs were recorded from far fewer coastal sites, and just last year nearly 300,000 monarchs were observed at almost the same number of sites.” Population estimates at individual sites also suggest that the western monarch population has continued to shrink. Of the 15 sites which have been monitored annually for more than two decades, 11 had lower counts than last year."
Also in the news release, Emma Pelton, conservation biologist with Xerces, said: “Counts at some of the state's largest sites were dramatically lower. Pismo Beach State Park was down by 38 percent, a private site in Big Sur was down by 50 percent, and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove was down 57 percent, from 17,100 to just 7,350 butterflies.”
Xerces Society officials also noted that "the few sites in which monarch numbers remained stable or increased compared to 2016, include Natural Bridges State Park, Moran Lake, and Lighthouse Field State Park, all in Santa Cruz County."
We like to think that The Vacaville Eight were The Lucky Eight.
"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough."--Rabindranath Tagore
When we think of orange and autumn, we think of the marriage of the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), and the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
The silver-spangled Gulf Fritillary, a showy orange butterfly, looks like two different species. When it spreads its wings, it's orange. The underwings: silver.
"Dazzling," agrees butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
"This dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century --we don't know how-- and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s," he says on his website.
"It can be quite common in the East and South Bay --particularly in Berkeley--and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions."
The Gulf Frit bred in Sacramento in abundance on Passiflora in the early 1960s, Shapiro relates. "It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
Its host plant: Passiflora or passionflower vine. Plant it and they will come (at least in this area)!
"Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."--Nathaniel Hawthorne
That's what we've been told for years. We hear that butterflies don't like the red ones, and that they may, in fact, be poisonous to them.
We've grown both in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Both flourished. However, we removed the red passionflower vine, P. jamesonii, because the Gulf Frits avoided it. They lay their eggs--and quite profusely, too--on our lavender passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), also called "Maypop." (In fact, every year they skeletonize them. Hungry, hungry caterpillars!)
Which brings us to the question from a reader: "I have the Maypop and Purple Passionvine, which is working well as a host plant for the Gulf Frit. I recently bought a Red Passionvine and then read it is poisonous to the Gulf Frit. Is it true?"
We asked butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California for more than four decades and publishes his research and observations on his website.
"They don't use some of the red-flowered species," Shapiro says. "I don't know if they're actually poisonous. I've never found the bug on P. jamesonii around Ohlone Park in Berkeley, where there's tons of it. There's a large plant at the northwest corner of 3rd and B in Davis that may be this species, and they don't use it, either."
P. jamesoni, also known as "Coral Seas," (one of some 500 varieties in the world, see Wikipedia for the full list) is indeed striking with its brilliant red flowers.
As an aside, P. jamesoni is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That would be the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which describes itself "an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resource an international organization."
Justification for Being on the Red List:
"Passiflora jamesonii is endemic to the Ecuadorean Andes, where it is known from five subpopulations on both sides of the range. Only one subpopulation is inside Ecuador's protected areas network. The species seems to prefer untouched areas, so fires are a severe threat," according to the IUCN Red List.
Thar's gold in them thar hills?
Probably not. But thar's definitely gold in that there pollinator garden--our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
Gold, black and white--as in the iconic monarch caterpillars.
We've been waiting all year for Mama Monarchs to lay some eggs on our milkweed. We planted four different species, watered them and watched them bloom, fade, and go to seed. The bees sipped nectar from the blossoms, aphids sucked the juices from the stems, lady beetles (aka lady bugs) ate the aphids, and milkweed bugs chewed on the seeds.
All was not going well.
At 9 a.m., we saw FOUR monarch caterpillars munching away on our potted narrow-leaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis. Then at 6 tonight, FIVE more on the same batch of narrow-leaf milkweed.
Just when I was thinking I wouldn't be rearing any monarchs this year (in 2016 the tally totaled 60 plus), one or more Monarch Mamas proved me wrong.
I placed the 'cats in a netted butterfly habitat from the Bohart Museum of Entomology to protect them from predators and give them a chance at life, a chance for another generation.
What's going on with monarchs in this area is not good.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California for 46 years, from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin, has not seen a single egg or caterpillar this entire calendar year at his low elevation sites.
"Not one!" he told Beth Ruyak on her "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento, last week.
Shapiro, who maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu, will talk about butterfly population trends (including monarchs) and how climate has affected them at a free public presentation from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Sierra College, Grass Valley. The event takes place in the Multipurpose Center Building, N-12, Room 103. Parking is $3; permits can be purchased at the kiosk machine at the main entrance to the campus. (For more information, contact the series coordinator, Jason Giuliani at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And news flash: Shapiro spotted one monarch today, an adult female, in West Sacramento.
But...this year ranks as the best milkweed season he's ever seen in California.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California for 46 years, from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin.
It's been a troubling year.
"I have not seen a wild egg or caterpillar of the monarch this entire calendar year at low elevations," he said Thursday during an interview on the "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento.
"Not one." (Listen to the interview.)
Shapiro, a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1971, and author of the book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley Regions, visits his 10 sites along the Interstate 80 corridor generally every two weeks "to record what's out." The largest and oldest database in North America, it was recently cited by British conservation biologist Chris Thomas in a worldwide study of insect biomass.
How many species of butterflies has he tallied? 163. He maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/
Fast forward to next week: Shapiro will talk about butterfly population trends and how climate has affected them at a free public lecture, set from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Sierra College, Grass Valley. The presentation will take place in the Multipurpose Center Building, N-12, Room 103. Parking is $3; permits can be purchased at the kiosk machine at the main entrance to the campus. (For more information, contact the series coordinator, Jason Giuliani at email@example.com.)
Shapiro's talk will zero in on climate change. "The vast majority of the butterflies we monitor are emerging earlier in the year now than they were in the 1970s," he told the second annual Butterfly Summit, held May 26 at Annie's Annuals and Perennials, Richmond. (See Bug Squad for the gist of his talk)
Got a question about monarchs or any other butterflies? About the California wildfires' effect on butterflies? Be there on Tuesday, Sept. 11. He welcomes your questions and comments.