Meanwhile, in between social distancing, what's happening in the world of insects?
We were surprised to see a skipper butterfly today (March 25) foraging in our bed of mustard in Vacaville, Calif.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, identified it as an "Umber Skipper, Poanes melane, a riparian species I haven't seen at any of my sites yet! It typically flies first in early to mid-April."
With thoughts of Shapiro's Beer-for-a-Butterfly Contest (first person who collects the first-of-the-year cabbage white butterfly in the three-county area of Sacramento, Solano and Yolo wins a pitcher of beer or its equivalent), I mentioned that I finally beat him!
"I'd say go get a beer, but the bars are closed," Shapiro quipped. "Last year's first records of melane were very late (first iv.24) , as were 2018 (first v.10!). In the East Bay it usually comes out around now. Are you sure you weren't in North Berkeley? At Gates Canyon (Vacaville), my earliest is iii.26.88, which is my earliest anywhere on my transect! During the drought it was fairly early--iv.15.14 and iv.10.15."
Shapiro writes on his website: "Although common in parts of the Bay Area where it is an urban 'lawn skipper,' on our transect this is entirely a species of riparian forest and is generally uncommon or even rare. It perches in dappled light and shade along streamsides, generally well off the ground. Its upper limit of residency at the latitude of I-80 seems to be about 3000'. There is no evident variation. Two to three broods in our area, April-October; flight season longer in Bay Area. Host plants presumably native riparian grasses, but not identified. In Berkeley, it breeds happily on Bermuda Grass, which seems to have not discovered farther inland. Adults visit Yerba Santa, Dogbane, Milkweed, Thistles, Yellow Star Thistle, California Buckeye, Coyote Brush, etc., etc."
Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California since 1972 and maintains a research website. The 10 sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin. 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.
And then another surprise! My photographer-naturalist friend, Allan Jones of Davis, captured some images of an Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon) Saturday, March 21 in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee garden on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. Jones also saw a bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus (female), and a first-of-the-season Eucera frater (male) in the haven.
Said Shapiro: "Zelicaon has been rare hereabouts for about 20 years. It is not unusual to see it the 3rd week of February in dry years. It's been earlier than average this year: Suisun Marsh, iii.26; Old Davis Road (near Low-Water Bridge) ii.28; Gates Canyon (near Vacaville) ii.29, North Sacramento iii.3, Rancho Cordova iii.4."
Meanwhile, back to social distancing!
If you've ever reared a butterfly--from an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult--you know what it feels like.
Like a miracle, to see life unfolding.
Our friend, Marilyn Sexton, aka "Anise Swallowtail Butterfly Mama," showed us her Bohart Museum of Entomology habitat that housed two remaining adult butterflies ready to be freed.
It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, as Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers, 1928-2003) sang.
Two glorious butterflies, Papilio zelicaon, burst out of their habitat and headed straight for some rich floral nectar.
It's a common swallowtail butterfly of western North America, and often confused with the Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, also in the same range.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California since 1972, says on his website:
"The anise swallowtail is a complex set of ecological races, or 'ecotypes,' whose seasonality has been adjusted by natural selection to match that of their host plants. Selection for adaptive life-history traits seems to have proceeded much faster than evolution at the level of neutral molecular loci.
"At sea level our populations are strongly multivoltine, with only weak, facultative pupal diapause. They have several generations (late February or March-October) and breed very largely on sweet fennel ('anise'), Foeniculum vulgare, and (in the first half of the season) poison hemlock, Conium maculatum. Both of these are naturalized European weeds."
Weeds or not, butterflies or not, anise swallowtails are spectacular.
Yes, 'twas a beautiful day in the neighborhood...
If you've ever wanted to converse with butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, about "butterflies and the apocalypse" and sip a beer (or another beverage) at the bar at the same time, here's your chance.
The Davis Science Café has booked "A Conversation with Arthur Shapiro: Butterflies as Heralds of the Apocalypse" at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 10 in the G Street Wunderbar, located at 228 G St., Davis. The event, hosted by professor Jared Shaw, professor and interim department chair of the UC Davis Department of Chemistry, is free and open to the public (but the refreshments are not).
Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California since 1972. The 10 sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin. 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.
What's going on with the butterflies?
The overwintering western population of the monarch butterfly on the central California coast declined 86 percent last winter, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation indicates on its website. "Working at a conservation nonprofit means that we often come across bad news, but the results from this winter's Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count left us shocked: an all-time record low of 28,429 monarchs at 213 sites. This number is an 86% drop from the previous count done at Thanksgiving 2017, when 192,668 monarchs were counted at 263 sites (comparing only the sites monitored in both years)—and a dizzying 99.4% decline from the numbers present in the 1980s (Schultz et al. 2017). In short, only one of every 160 monarchs present in the 1980s exists today."
At the 2018 Butterfly Summit at Annie's Annuals and Perennials in Richmond, Shapiro told the crowd that "The vast majority of the butterflies we monitor are emerging earlier in the year now than they were in the 1970s."
His research shows that not only are butterflies coming out earlier, but "we also find trends in population and species richness."
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, said that "in a nutshell, at low elevations, butterfly faunas have been declining slowly until 1999. In 1999, 17 species had an abrupt fall in abundance, spontaneously. On its face, this was a non-random event. The decline was then rapid from 1999 to the onset of the recent drought and then things went up again."
Science Café, initially supported by the National Science Foundation, is currently supported by the Department of Chemistry and Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and promoted by Capital Science Communicators.
Science Café sessions are hosted the second Wednesday of each month. Topics so far this year? Plant ecologist Mark Schwartz of the UC Davis Department Environmental Sciences and Policy held forth at the March session on "Does California Have a Wildfire Problem? Can It Be Fixed?" The February session featured Professor Roland Faller of the UC Davis Department of Chemical Engineering on "Using Computers to Understand Materials: From Proteins to Semiconductors" while Professor Denis Marcellin-Little of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Surgical and Radiological Sciences discussed "Don't Try That at Home; High-End 3D Printing in Orthopedic Surgery" at the January session.
So it's butterflies and the apocalypse on April 10. Ask your questions, sip an adult beverage (or another beverage) and enjoy the evening!/span>
When you head over to a nursery, and see bees and butterflies and other pollinators foraging on the plants, that's a good sign.
Buy the plants.
Promise: The pollinators will come.
Many gardeners and would-be gardeners are looking forward to the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden Plant Sale--the "first entirely open-to-the-public plant sale of the fall season." It's set from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13 in the Arboretum Teaching Nursery on Garrod Drive, near the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Members of the Friends of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden and the Davis Botanical Society receive 10 percent off their purchases. You can join online, at the door, or call ahead, officials say. New members receive a $10-off coupon as a thank you for joining.
That's a good incentive.
What plants are they offering? Download the inventory.
Meanwhile, summer has ended, fall crept in on Sept. 23, and winter is fast approaching--Dec. 21.
We caught a little sliver left of mellow mornings last weekend in the Kate Frey Pollinator Garden at Sonoma Cornerstone. An anise swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon, fluttered in, touched down to sip some nectar, and soared off. What a sight to see!
Buy a plant (help the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden), and promise, the pollinators that will surely come are free!
And she's beautiful!
It all began with finding two anise swallowtail chrysalids clinging last July to the fennel stems in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
To protect them from predators and the elements, we tucked them inside a zippered net butterfly habitat and placed “the prized package” in the corner of a laundry room to await the spring of 2018--and eclosure.
The first day of spring, March 20, came and went. Then 288 days slipped by. The chrysalids remained intact. Were they viable?
We showed images of the chrysalids to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who's been researching the butterfly population of central California for more than four decades.
“They both look OK—the intersegmental membranes are not showing,” he said. “Stick them in the refrigerator for a month and try again. If they are a coast range population, some may diapause up to 5 years. If a valley population, multiyear diapause is very unusual.”
Shapiro advised that we “put them in a lidded container” to prevent their drying out. “Diapausing pupae only breathe once or twice a day.”
So, on June 5, in the refrigerator they went, joining assorted cups of yogurt, bags of fruits and vegetables, jars of peanut butter, cartons of fat-free milk and what-have-you.
What a life!
Then on July 4, Independence Day (but with no fanfare, ceremony or celebration) out they came. (The yogurt, fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, milk and what-have-you stayed behind.)
We placed the (probably) thoroughly confused chrysalids back in the butterfly habitat, but this time, outdoors, and right next to their host plant, fennel. Daytime temperatures climbed to 100 degrees and night temperatures dropped into the 50s.
Nothing happened. Nothing.
Just as we were wondering if they were still viable, we saw a winged burst of yellow, black and blue on Sunday night, July 14. A long-awaited eclosure!
It's a girl! (as identified by Professor Shapiro). (Read more about the anise swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon, on his website.)
Early Monday morning, we dipped a fennel blossom into a mixture of 10 parts water and one part honey. Food! She drank heartily. Then we placed her atop the towering fennel so she could warm her flight muscles.
Two hours later, Ms. Anise Swallowtail became part of the Wonderful World of Butterflies. She circled the house, returned to nectar on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), and left. No fanfare, no ceremony, no celebration. This is her world now.
The other chrysalis? It remains intact. Fingers crossed that it, too, will survive.
It doesn't get much better than this--in a world where kindness matters. It always has.