The monarch caterpillar feasting on the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in Vacaville, Calif., kept doing what monarch 'cats do best--eat.
She insisted on devouring the leaves as if there were no tomorrow--and today would end soon.
How did we know her gender? Our Danaus plexippus pupated, formed a chrysalis, and emerged. Oh, you beautiful gal!
Folks who comment that someone is "eating like a pig" or "eating like a horse" or "wolfing it down," have probably never seen a monarch caterpillar chow down, scarf it up or shovel it in.
One minute our little 'cat is stretched out on a leaf, binge eating. The next minute the leaf is gone and she's porking out on a second leaf. And scouting for a third.
Eric Carle titled his classic children's book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," quite well. His little 'cat ate everything in sight: gobbling, guzzling, gorging and gulping down everything from fruits and vegetables to junk food.
Remember the story? First, the little 'cat ate an apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, and five oranges but was still hungry. Famished, really. So he ate a piece of chocolate cake, a lollipop, a piece of cherry pie and a cupcake...and more...and he wasn't little anymore.
Many folks sheltering at home during the COVID-19 crisis can certainly identify with the snatch-and-grab menu of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
Did someone say "chocolate cake?"
(Editor's Note: Those planting the tropical milkweed in temperate zones (like here in Vacaville,Calif.) must remove or cut back the tropical milkweed by winter. "A protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE for short, can travel with monarchs visiting the plants and become deposited on leaves," explains the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.)
Yes, they do, and yes, she did.
Painted lady butterflies, Vanessa cardui, do lay their eggs on Echium wildpretii, commonly known as "the tower of jewels."
However, this little lady (below) persistently returned a few times to find a bee-free spot. She finally claimed a chunk of space near the top of the 8-foot plant.
Temporarily. Until the bees reclaimed it.
"Echium is a borage," says butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. "Boraginaceae are one of the favored host families, so I'm not surprised."
"They routinely breed on fiddleneck and popcorn flower," Shapiro says. "in 2015 they completely destroyed the borage crop at an herb farm in Solano County!" He recently saw them lay eggs on Helianthus, Cardooon (artichoke thistle) and Lupinus succulentus.
"It's been a pretty good cardui year but not as big as last year," said Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly population in Central California since 1972 and publishes his research on his website. "They've been coming in waves for several weeks and there are still some, mostly old females ovipositing."
Said Bohart Museum of Entomology associate Greg Kareofelas, a naturalist and insect photographer: "Vanessa cardui probably has the greatest range of host plants as any butterfly. My question always is: What plant, won't it lay eggs on?"
I call him the Mountain Boy.
A male carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis orpifex, appeared in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.,on Feb. 27, the earliest we've seen this species.
It's the smallest of California's carpenter bees and is often called the foothill or mountain carpenter bee.The females are black with light smoky-colored wings. The male has bright yellow marks on the lower part of its face and some yellow hairs on the top front of its thorax.
In addition to the mountain carpenter bee, California's species are:
- The Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, the largest of the California carpenter bees. It's about an inch long. The female is solid black, while the male, commonly known as "the teddy bear bee," is a green-eyed blond. Why teddy bear? It's fuzzy and does not sting--or as the late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019) distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, was fond of saying: "Boy bees don't sting."
- The California carpenter bee or Western carpenter bee, Xylocopa californica, the second largest of the California carpenter bees. It's often found in the mountain foothill areas of northern and southern California. It's known for its distinctive distinctive bluish metallic reflections on the body, Thorp says. The females have dark smoky brown wings.
Look around. You may find a "mountain boy" or a "mountain girl" foraging in your yard or local park.
Today was a Monarch Kind of Day...in Vacaville.
When Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, searched for butterfly species today at one of his field sites--Gates Canyon in Vacaville--he spotted not one, but two monarchs.
He spotted them separately, both near the bottom of the Brazelton property, and recorded "Two Danaus plexippus: one large, fresh-looking male; one small, unfresh-looking female."
Shapiro, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World (he's monitored the butterfly population in central California since 1972), knows just how scarce monarchs are this year.
Yes, they are. In the fall of 2016, we'd see seven or eight monarchs at a time flutter in for nectar or lay eggs on our milkweed in our Vacaville pollinator garden. This year they're as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. However, over the last two weeks, they're starting to appear, one sighting at a time, one monarch a day. They are mostly huge, fresh-looking males seeking nectar from our patch of Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). A few are females that head over to the tropical milkweed or Tithonia. Solo sightings.
But today was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Around noon, two monarchs arrived at the same time and they both sipped nectar from the Tithonia at the same time. In tandem. Inches away.
It was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Where are all the monarch butterflies?
There's good news and bad news.
First, the bad news:
"An Epic Migration on the Verge of Collapse," wrote the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on its website detailing monarch conservation.
"Both the eastern and western migrations have experienced significant decline in a matter of decades," they wrote. "In the 1990s, nearly 700 million monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that there has been a decline of more than 80% in the east. In the west, the news is more dire. Monarchs have experienced a decline of 99.4% in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to 28,429 as of January 2019."
In our pollinator garden in Vacaville, I've seen only two monarchs this year. One, a female, lingered on the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) for about 30 minutes on Sunday.
But as luck would have it, a family member spotted a monarch this morning in the garden section of a home improvement store in Vacaville and captured this video (below). It was laying eggs on tropical milkweeds, Asclepias curassavica.
That's three. That's a far cry from the 60 we reared in 2016.
Now the good news:
Brookings, Ore., is fluttering with monarchs.
From the Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, covering Washington State University entomologist David James' research and the work of his many citizen scientists, comes the remarkable story of a female monarch named Ovaltine (since passed) and her progeny:
Aug. 23: "The biggest Monarch story on the west coast right now has to be the population explosion in the far southern Oregon coastal town of Brookings! From a single female (that we know about) 'dumping' more than 700 eggs at one Monarch Waystation in late June, there is now such an abundance of Monarchs in Brookings that every patch of Milkweed seems to have eggs on it! It's quite likely that a few other Monarchs also laid a lot of eggs in Brookings in June, but what has been surprising is the way that females have targeted single Milkweed patches for egg 'dumping'. Egg 'dumping' has been observed in other Brookings Milkweed patches, some of them very small. Holly Beyer, whose Waystation hosted the first egg 'dumping' female, has now had to limit egglaying by the new generation of 'egg dumpers' by enclosing her milkweed in netting cages, for fear of the larvae running out of food! I have never heard of anybody needing to do this before! Brookings is an official 'Monarch City' so its certainly living up to its name and the Monarch festival to be held there in early September should be graced by plenty of Monarchs dropping in!"
Aug. 29: "Holly has counted more than 1800 eggs laid by Ovaltine's tagged daughters in her garden! Ovaltine's 'grandchildren' will soon begin eclosing (from mid-September to mid-October) and of course will be the migratory generation. Their numbers will be limited by milkweed availability in Brookings but I expect significant numbers of fresh, migrant monarchs to be milling around Brookings in the coming weeks, feeding on nectar before they depart southward. If Holly had not captive-reared Ovaltine's progeny, there would not be monarchs flying around Brookings in the numbers we are currently seeing! We do not generally consider captive-rearing to be a good conservation strategy for monarchs but in this instance it has demonstrably contributed to monarch conservation. If you want to see monarchs flying, then a trip to Brookings, Oregon in September could be in order!"
If you see any WSU-tagged monarchs migrating through California to their overwintering sites along the coast, photograph them and contact David James at firstname.lastname@example.org. We distinctly remember the tagged monarch from Ashland, Ore. (tagged by Steve Johnson and part of the David James' citizen science project) that passed through our garden on Labor Day, 2016. (See Bug Squad post.)