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 email@example.com.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.
There's an old joke circulating among entomologists about excited novices contacting them about finding a "two-headed butterfly."
Sounds like National Enquirer stuff, right?
Wrong. Just two butterflies mating.
If you see lots of Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) frequenting their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora), you might spot a two-headed butterfly--if the angle is right.
This butterfly is a comeback butterlfy. It first appeared in California in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s, according to noted butterfly researcher Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He's been monitoring the butterflies of central California for four decades and maintains this website.
From San Diego, “it spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908," says Shapiro. "It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
We remember hearing about the butterfly in the Sacramento/Davis area in the 1960s. Shapiro says it “apparently bred in the Sacramento area and possibly in Davis in the 1960s, becoming extinct in the early 1970s, then recolonizing again throughout the area since 2000.” Read what he wrote about them.
In our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, it's been a good year for Gulf Frits, with multiple sightings of two-headed butterflies. The following images, however, are of all same pair.
Just a hoax. A fear-mongering hoax.
A so-called Facebook "public service announcement" on Aug. 21 that warned of a “new deadly spider species” spreading across the United States went viral, but it was all fake news. The images that the South Carolina man posted are of a woodlouse spider, Dysderca crocata, and it's neither new nor deadly to humans.
Unfortunately, many gullible people--probably many who cringe at the very sight of a spider!--believed the hoax. And even more unfortunately, the post went viral.
The South Carolina resident posted the "public service announcement" in all caps:
“THE SPIDER FROM HELL. FIVE PEOPLE HAVE DIED THIS WEEK DUE TO THE BITE OF THIS DEADLY SPIDER .THIS SPIDER WAS FIRST SEEN IN SOUTH CAROLINA IN JULY SINCE THEN IT HAS CAUSED DEATHS IN WEST VIRGINIA ,TENNESSEE AND MISSISSIPPI. ONE BITE FROM THIS SPIDER IS DEADLY. US GOVERNMENT WORKING ON AN ANTI VENOM AT THIS TIME PLEASE MAKE YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS AWARE.”
“This beast, Dysderca crocata, has been in most of North America for decades,” Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, told us. “That includes California. It occurs mostly around buildings, especially if there is a mulched garden where its primary prey, isopods (rolypolies, pillbugs), live. I've had it at my place for years, but the number of pillbugs went way down during the drought and I haven't seen the spider lately."
“Needless to say, its bite is not lethal," Shapiro pointed out. "It has very large chelicerae and displays them menacingly if annoyed. According to the literature, bites (really rare) cause brief pain and occasionally local dermatitis, nothing more.”
Snopes.com, the fact-checking site, declared it a hoax on Aug. 21, a day later, but not before the damage was done. Today the Entomological Society of America (ESA) tweeted “FACT CHECK: Did a 'New Deadly Spider' Species Kill Several People in the U.S. in the Summer of 2018?” ESA answered the question succinctly: “Spoiler alert: No, it did not.”
No. It. Did. Not.
Snopes wrote: “Invasive and exotic animals have long been common subjects of scarelore, and messages alerting readers to the supposed threat posed by some new or previously unheard-of species often spread like wildfire across message boards, social networks and email inboxes. These posts typically take the form of a 'public service announcement' and are shared in good faith, and without hesitation, by people who sincerely wish to alert their friends and loved ones to an unfamiliar threat. For these reasons, the 'dangerous animal alert' is also a frequent source of misinformation, deliberate scare-mongering, or even downright trolling.”
It's a good idea to question these kinds of Facebook posts (note: where are you, Facebook monitors?)
Wikipedia informs us that "The woodlouse spider, Dysdera crocata, is a species of spider that preys primarily upon woodlice. Other common names refer to variations on the common name of its prey, including woodlouse hunter, sowbug hunter, sowbug killer, pillbug hunter and slater spider."
"Female specimens are 11–15 mm (0.43–0.59 in) long, while males are 9–10 mm (0.35–0.39 in).They have six eyes, a dark-red cephalothorax and legs, and a shiny (sometimes very shiny) yellow-brown abdomen. Notably, they have disproportionately large chelicerae for a spider of this size."
Native to the Mediterranean area, the woodlouse spider is found throughout much of the world, including North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It's found "under logs, rocks, bricks, and in leaf litter in warm places, often close to woodlice," Wikipedia relates. "They have also been found in houses. They spend the day in a silken retreat made to enclose crevices in, generally, partially decayed wood, but sometimes construct tent-like structures in indents of various large rocks. Woodlouse spiders hunt at night and do not spin webs."
There. You. Have. It.
"Too weird," commented Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, who fields lots of questions about insects and arachnids. "Funny that they picked this spider. Its ferocious looking but tiny and probably couldn't bite you even if it wanted to."
Sadly, Arachnophobia, or the extreme or rational fear of spiders, is very real--unlike the disturbing hoaxes that keep popping up on the Internet.
One of the joys of planting a pollinator garden is watching majestic butterflies flutter in and sip a little nectar.
Today a Western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus) took a liking to a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) in our Vacaville garden.
The "very gravid" female (as identified by Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis) also nectared on Verbena before departing--probably to lay her eggs on a favorite host plant, liquidambar (sweet gum) or the nearby sycamore.
During her 10-minute visit that graced our garden, the brilliantly colored yellow-and-black butterfly, with a wingspan of three to four inches, managed to evade the California scrub jays looking for a quick meal.
A meal for the butterfly, none for the bird.