It's Thanksgiving Day, and what better day to stop and be thankful for not only family and friends, but for the beauty around us.
That would include insects, including the stunning Western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus).
Last summer we enjoyed watching a very gravid female, with a three-to-four-inch wingspan, nectaring on a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) in our Vacaville pollinator garden.
She also nectared on Verbena before departing--probably to lay her eggs on a nearby host plant, liquidambar (sweet gum) or a sycamore.
For just a few minutes, the Western tiger swallowtail graced our pollinator garden with her breathtaking beauty. We are thankful for her presence, and the presence of all the pollinators, past, present and future, in our little pollinator garden.
"Without the actions of pollinators, agricultural economies, our food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse," points out the Pollinator Partnership. "Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food."
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.
A flash of orange.
Usually we see assorted orange butterflies--Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) or Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) or Monarchs (Danaus plexippus)--on our butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).
This time the flash of orange proved to be a California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica).
Its wings are pumpkin orange with huge black spots while the underwings are dullish brown and gray, resembling a dead leaf. What a perfect camouflage!
This particular Cal Tortie is probably a female, according to Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. He has monitored the Central Valley butterfly population since 1972 and maintains a research website.
"Along with the Painted Lady, this is a mass migrant that makes news at irregular intervals by tying up traffic!" Shapiro says on his website. "The 'Tortie' overwinters as an adult and can sometimes be seen sunning itself in midwinter on mild days. It is generally common in foothill canyons in late winter, ovipositing on the young, tender growth of various species of Wild Lilac (Ceanothus)."
And just as the Gulf Frits can defoliate its host plant, the passionflower vine, so, too, can the Tortie defoliate its host plant.
"The spiny, black-marked-with-yellow larvae feed gregariously, without a web, and in big years can defoliate whole stands of the plants," Shapiro notes on his website. "They often pupate on the bare, leafless stems en masse, the grayish-violet pupae looking like some strange kind of leaf and twitching in unison when disturbed. Adults emerge in late May to early June and almost immediately emigrate, going north or east and upslope."
They're often misidentified as monarchs, Shapiro told the recent Butterfly Summit at Annie's Annuals and Perennials, Richmond. He also mentions this on his website.
"Breeding localities in summer vary widely from year to year - sometimes in the high southern Sierra, sometimes in the Cascades... sometimes only in far northeastern California or even farther north," according to Shapiro's website. "The migrant females lay on the tender growth of high-altitude Ceanothus such as Tobaccobrush and Snowbrush, which again may be defoliated. Adults emerge in late July and migrate to estivating grounds, generally above tree-line. These are often in the high country of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but can even be in the Trinity Alps, South Cascades, or (as in 2005) on Mount Rose! Estivating Torties do little but 'hang out,' and many high-altitude hikers have described their encounters with millions of them in mystical terms (they often identify them as Monarchs!). In late September these butterflies scatter downslope to hibernate in the foothills--they are the late-winter butterflies of the new year. Estivators-hibernators thus may live 9 or 10 months as adults." (See more about this amazing butterfly on his website.)
Naturalist and insect photographer Greg Kareofelas, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, says there are a lot of Cal Torties around now. And when they disperse, "they can end up anywhere, including the valley. So not often seen in the valley, but not all that unusual."
This butterfly ended up on its namesake, the butterfly bush in our Vacaville pollinator garden.
Think bees. Think butterflies. Think plants that will attract them.
Members (you can join online or at the gate) can peruse and purchase plants from 9 to 11 a.m., and the general public from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Members save 10 percent off their plant purchases, while new members receive an additional $10 off as a thank-you gift.
You can chat with the Arboretum folks to pick out that special plant you're seeking. They also provide an online list of available plants and/or you can download The Life After Lawn: Garden Gems Plant List.
Many of the plants at the sale are All-Stars. What's an All-Star? The Arboretum horticultural staff has identified "100 tough, reliable plants that have been tested in the Arboretum, are easy to grow, don't need a lot of water, have few problems with pests or diseases, and have outstanding qualities in the garden." Many are California native plants and support native birds and insects. Most All-Star plants can be successfully planted and grown throughout California.
If you miss the Oct. 7th sale, not to worry. There are two more fall plant sales:
Saturday, Oct. 21
Open to the Public: 9 a.m - 1 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 4
Public Clearance Sale: 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.
It's a good idea to BYOB (Bring Your Own Box), BYOW (Bring Your Own Wagon) or BYOC (Bring Your Own Cart).
While you're there, check out the 100-acre Arboretum, including the nearby Ruth Risdon Storer Garden (aka Storer Garden), a Valley-wise garden,and the Carolee Shields White Flower Garden and Gazebo (aka White Garden). Have you seen all of the 17 special gardens and collections?
They're called "living museums" because that's what they are. Living museums. And especially when they attract pollinators!
If you're rearing monarchs or offering them a “way station” of nectar-producing flowers in your yard, there's one thing you don't want to see: A praying mantis nailing a monarch.
That's when the "pollinator friendly garden" seems more like a "predator friendly garden." It's not by chance. It's by choice. Like bank robbers who go where the money is, mantids go where the food is. Unfortunately for those of us who favor pollinators over predators, they patiently wait for bee breakfast and butterfly brunch. And they're as cunning as they are quick.
It's an insect-eat-insect world out there.
It is Oct. 23, a bright, breezy autumn day. Pacific Northwest monarchs are migrating to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove and are fluttering down to nectar on Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana. Flight fuel.
But wait! There's a monarch on the butterfly bush that isn't moving. Why is she not moving? Oh, she's struggling. Oh, she's in the clutches of a praying mantis.
The mantis is perfectly camouflaged amid the green vegetation. She is gravid and an ootheca is in her future. Her bloated abdomen wiggles like the leaf she resembles, Her spiked forelegs, like thorny rose stems, circle her prey. Oh, she's piercing a wing...
This migratory monarch won't be joining her buddies in Santa Cruz.
Final score: Mantis, 1; Monarch, 0.