It's the Fourth of July, and amid our celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago on July 4, 1776 and our glorious nation, we celebrate the red, white and blue--the colors of our flag.
But in the insect world, we can also celebrate the red, white and blue:
The red: The firecracker red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata, a common dragonfly of the family Libellulidae, native to western North America. We love to see it perched on a bamboo stake in our pollinator garden.
The white: The delicate, petticoated cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, common throughout much of the world, including North and South America, Europe, Great Britain, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Beauty? Yes. It absolutely glows in the late afternoon sun. Beast? Yes. The caterpillar or larva is a serious pest of our cole crops, including cabbage, kale and mustard.
The blue: The blue spots in the tail of the Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, a common swallowtail butterfly of North America. Its range stretches from much of North America, from British Columbia to North Dakota in the north to Baja California and New Mexico in the south, according to Wikipedia.
We've never been able to capture an image of a flameskimmer, cabbage white butterfly or Western tiger swallowtail in the same photo, but they don't need to be. Individually, their colors are strong and independent, just like our forefathers who signed the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago.
Hurray for the red, white and blue!
One more day until we celebrate the birth of our country, Independence Day, and the patriotic colors will be out in force.
Insects, also, can be red, white and blue.
Take the red flameskimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata). The male is firecracker red, as bright as the stripes on our American flag.
Take the Acmon Blue (Plebejus acmon) butterfly. It's as blue as the starry background on our flag.
Take the white cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapae). it's a white as the stars on our flag. Okay, it's a pest, but its colors are appropriate on July 4.
Just think, when the members of the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, there were all those red, white and blue insects flying around.
We mark the holiday with fireworks, family reunions, parades, barbecues, carnivals, picnics, concerts, baseball games, and the like, but if we look closely, the insects are there, too!
It was windy enough to trigger a small craft advisory.
Yet here comes a flameskimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) around noon on Monday, Memorial Day, circling our little bee garden.
He chases a few flying insects around and then perches on a bamboo stake to eat them.
Hmm, I thought, maybe I can capture an image of Big Red in flight? Will he cooperate? I've always wanted to photograph a flameskimmer in flight, but they're usually (1) too fast (2) too far away or (3) they zig when I think they'll zag and they zag when I think they'll zig.
Plus, they are leery of big dark objects (cameras) with long metal protrusions (lenses).
For the past decade, we've prepared well for our dragonfly visitors. They like our fish pond, our bee garden and the assorted bamboo stakes we've placed around the garden. They especially like the all-you-can-eat insect smorgasbord.
Big Red kept returning to Bamboo Stake No. 2 (bamboo stakes are sort of like pot holes—you can name them if you want).
Using my Nikon D800 camera with a 200mm macro lens, I focused on where I thought Big Red would land.
Bamboo Stake No. 1: Probably not. Too high.
Bamboo Stake No. 3: No, a little short.
Bamboo Stake No. 2: Just right.
Big Red obliged. By now he was not afraid of me—he figured, and rightfully so--that I had no culinary interest in him. And neither would I poke 'em, prod 'em or pin 'em. With the wind tousling his wings, he aimed straight for Bamboo Stake No. 2.
Got 'em. In flight.
Said dragonfly aficionado Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus: “What this photo really shows is that insects do not fly simply by ‘flapping' their wings. This guy's right wings are vertical to the body, but in the same plane, while the left wings actually are down-swept and a bit out of synchrony. The ability of insects to rotate their wings in their sockets allows them to change roll, pitch and yaw as do the moveable parts of airplanes. But, dragonflies can do it instantaneously.”
Commented Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis: "I like how clearly you can see how tightly the one is holding its legs against its body."
The dragonfly vanished right before our residential scrub jays returned. The jays are rearing their young in nearby trees, and the young, as you know, get the munchies. In fact, they're always hungry. Ravenous. Famished.
Have you ever seen a bird nail a dragonfly? Butterflies, yes. Dragonflies, no.
“Birds can change direction in flight pretty quickly, but usually not quickly enough to catch a dragonfly in flight,” Mussen commented. “If it stays stuck to the post, it may be in real trouble.”
The flameskimmers are back!
We've been waiting for the new generation of flameskimmers, aka firecracker skimmers (Libellula saturata), to visit our yard after the long winter.
On Sunday, a male flameskimmer did.
It perched on a bamboo stake, soaked up some rays, took flight, and then returned to its perch. It glittered in the morning sun, a ruby helicopter of an insect. Finally, it clumsily took off, zigging and zagging over the cherry laurel hedge.
Meanwhile, a Western scrub jay nesting in the cherry laurels tracked its movements.
Says Wikipedia: "Due to its choice habitat of warm ponds, streams, or hot springs, flame skimmers are found mainly in the southwestern part of the United States. They also make their homes in public gardens or backyards."
"An immature flame skimmer (nymph) feeds mainly on aquatic insects. Its diet consists of mosquito larvae, aquatic fly larvae, mayfly larvae, freshwater shrimp, small fish, and tadpoles. The nymphs, which live in the mud at the bottom of warm streams or ponds, catch their prey by waiting patiently for it to pass by. Adult skimmers usually feed on moths, flies, ants, or any other soft-bodied insect while waiting perched on a small rock or twig or while flying through the air."
It's our fish pond that draws dragonflies to our yard. To accommodate them, we've posted a dozen bamboo stakes at different heights, from four feet to six feet. Finches and hummingbirds perch on them, too.
To be honest, however, the bamboo stakes are mainly for the dragonflies. (But don't tell that to the finches and hummers.)
It's about raising awareness for heart disease, the No. 1 killer of both men and women. It's a battle we need to fight with an arsenal of weapons.
Spearheading the campuswide initiative is Chancellor Linda Katehi, partnering with Dr. Amparo Villablanca, director of the UC Davis Women's Cardiovascular Medicine Program, and Adele Zhang, curator of the UC Davis Design Museum. For the occasion, the UC Davis Bookstore is selling specially designed t-shirts. Red, of course. With a heart, of course.
A highlight of the events-crowded day will be an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Record for the largest heart formation. The current record: 11,166, set Feb. 27, 2010 in Nuevo León, Mexico.
So UC Davis is inviting everyone, everyone everywhere, to wear red and gather at 11:30 a.m. on Hutchison Intramural Field, rain or shine. The photo will be taken at 12:30.
It's unlikely that insects, the key subject of this blog, will be a part of the red heart formation, but hey, some insects are red, some are red-eyed and some occasionally wear red.
The lady beetle, aka ladybug (family Coccinellidae, is probably the most recognizable red of our insects.
The flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata, is a showstopping red. Firecracker red!
Some flies have prominent red eyes, including the flesh fly from the family Sarcophagidae.
And honey bees--they can play the red game, too. They gather red pollen from a variety of plants, including rock purslane (Calandrinia grandiflora), horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), pear (Pyrus communis),and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule).
Frankly, we think it might rain during the heart formation, but as the UC Davis officials say: “Heart disease doesn't stop for rain and neither do we!"
We'll see red and the heart formation will be a sea of red. Maybe 11,167.