You gotta love those 'cats.
Gulf Fritillary caterpillars (Agraulis vanillae) are always hungry. They're as hungry as teenagers returning home from a marathon swimming meet or from a double-overtime basketball game. As soon as they step in the front door, it's off to the refrigerator. What's to eat? I'm starving! When's dinner?
Gulf Frit caterpillars are like starving teens. The 'cats will eat everything in sight--the leaves, buds, flowers and stems of their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora). "Host plant" is a good word--you be the host, Passiflora, and we, the Gulf Frits, will eat it all. Everything.
In fact, Gulf Frit caterpillars will compete for food and knock one another around. When food is scare, they'll engage in a little cannibalism.
If you have a healthy passionflower vine and a good supply of Gulf Frits, chances are your plant will be skeletonized by the end of the season. The 'cats will eat heartily, form a "J," spin into a chrysalis, and voila! An adult butterfly will eclose. That's what butterflies do.
In a previous Bug Squad, we mentioned that the Gulf Frits are found in many parts of the world and arrived in California (San Diego) in the 1870s, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. They spread through Southern California in urban settings and were first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908, Shapiro says. They "became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro says the Gulf Frits “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.”
Some folks don't like Gulf Frits skeletonizing their passionflower vines. They grow them for the passion fruit and for their floral beauty. And when the Gulf Frits take over and decimate the plants? "We look like bad gardeners," lamented one UC Master Gardener.
Bad gardeners? Well, no. Good butterfly conservationists? Yes!
Muir said it well.
Muir (1938-1914), the naturalist and conservationist known as "The Father of Our National Parks," was the driving force behind the establishment of our national parks, including Yosemite National Park.
But have you ever thought about what he said: ""When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe"?
In our yard, we are rearing Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) on their host plant, the passionflower vine. The Gulf Frit is a bright orangish-reddish butterfly with silver-spangled underwings. It's a member of the family Nymphalidae and subfamily Heliconiinae.
We also consider it part of our family. The females and males mate, the females lay eggs on the passionflower vine, the eggs become caterpillars and the caterpillars become adults. That is, if the Western scrub jays and the praying mantids and the European paper wasps let them.
Lately, the caterpillars seem to be multiplying faster than the proverbial rabbits. The Western scrub jays are missing. They no longer sit on the fence and cherry-pick their prey. Why are they MIA? Three resident juvenile Cooper's hawks (as identified by Andrew Engilis, Jr., curator of the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology) possess an appetite for jays (among other prey). The result: too many caterpillars on our passionflower vine. The 'cats are defoliating the plant faster than we expected. In short, it's a veritable population crisis on our passionflower vine.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
We love the caterpillars. We love the butterflies. We love the praying mantids. And we are trying our best to love, or at least like, the wasps after hearing researcher Amy Toth of Iowa State University speak fondly of them at UC Davis. Read the 10 things we should like about wasps. Note that she's trying to popularize the hashtag, #wasplove.
Meanwhile, what about those hawks? It's hawk heaven here. We love seeing them cooling their toes, splashing around in our front-yard birdbath, and communicating with their siblings. It's a sign of the times. California's severe drought means an influx of critters, large and small, heading for urban birdbaths. In addition to hawks, our birdbath draws squirrels, doves, finches, woodpeckers, scrub jays, sparrows, crows, honey bees and even a passing wild turkey with a neck long enough to reach the water.
Lately, it's a hawk birdbath. The jays are gone. The caterpillars are thriving.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
A lady beetle, aka ladybug, sharing stories with Gulf Fritillary caterpillars?
Well, not likely.
The lady beetle (family Coccinellidae) preys mainly on aphids--it can eat about 50 aphids a day or some 5000 aphids in its lifetime. But it will devour other soft-bodied insects, including mites, scales, mealybugs, leafhoppers, and butterfly eggs and larvae (caterpillars). Butterfly caterpillars move quite slowly; they are not Indy 500 speedsters.
We spotted a lady beetle early this morning on one of our passionflower (Passiflora) seed pods, surrounded by hungry Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) caterpillars. It was somewhat like a two-peas-in-a-pod scene, but without the peas. Here were two insect species ON a pod, and both sharing the same warning color: red.
The Gulf Fritillary caterpillars are hungry. Very hungry. They've stripped the passionflower vine of all its leaves and are now eating the stems and seed pods. Actually, we planted the passionflower vine for them. But are they THAT hungry? They are. They're famished. And there are literally hundreds of them.
Sometimes we think that all of the Gulf Frit butterflies west of Mississippi are gravitating toward the plant to lay their eggs. The vine cannot support that many hungry caterpillars, despite predation by scrub jays and European paper wasps.
The lady beetle, we assume is not only eating the tiny yellow eggs of the Gulf Frit, but the tiniest of the tiny larvae. It's an exquisite buffet of tasty treats with high nutritional value.
And easy pickings.
We have strippers.
Not anything to do with that thriving business known as "The Strip Club" in Las Vegas.
The strippers we have are Gulf Fritillary caterpillars, which can skeletonize their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora) faster than you can sing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (Mary Poppins movie) forward and backwards ("Dociousaliexpilisticfragicalirupes").
Seems as if one minute the plant is bursting with shoots, tendrils, leaves, flowers and stems, and the next minute, nothing but lots of little larvae.
But we like it that way. The tiny reddish orange caterpillars will turn into glorious reddish orange butterflies, Agraulis vanillae. It's a tropical and subtropical butterfly with a range that extends from the southern United States all the way to central Argentina, according to butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who has monitored scores of butterfly species in the Central Valley for more than four decades. (See his website.)
You probably remember the story. Back in September of 2009, the professor excitedly announced the re-appearance of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly in the Sacramento metropolitan area after a four-decade absence, and in the Davis area after a 30-year absence.
The showy butterfly colonized both south Sacramento and the Winding Way/Auburn Boulevard area in the 1960s but by 1971 "apparently became extinct or nearly so," recalled Shapiro, who moved to the Davis area in 1971.
True, some gardeners don't like to see their plants reduced to a skeleton, something they think should appear only on Halloween night.
But to us--and many others--passionflower vines are just food for the caterpillars. To be a butterfly, you first must be a caterpillar.
They made it through the winter: the bitter cold with subfreezing temperatures; the 54-day drought (will it ever rain again?) and the heavy rain that caught us thinking about ark-building.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, was among those concerned about whether the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) would be able to survive the winter in this area.
They did. And they are.
Shapiro spotted the "signs of life" in the City of Davis (Yolo County) and the City of Vacaville (Solano County). Naturalist/butterfly enthusiast Greg Kareofela, a volunteer at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, has also seen them in Davis.
The ones pictured in this blog we found near downtown Vacaville last Monday, Feb. 17, on a passionflower vine (Passiflora): two adults and half a dozen caterpillars. Empty chrysalids, and a few viable chrysalids, plus seed pods from the Passilfora, hung from the branches.
The showy reddish-orange butterfly continues to make a comeback in the Sacramento-Davis area. In the early 1970s, it was considered extinct in that area.
“It first appeared in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” Shapiro told us. "It spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908. It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro describes the Gulf Fritillary as “one of the most widespread weedy butterflies in the Americas." However, he points out, it has no “native host plant in California."
Those who want to attract the Gulf Frit can do so by planting its host plant, passionflower vine (tropical genus Passiflora).
If you'd like to learn more about butterflies, ecological communities, and the science of conservation, be sure to attend Art Shapiro's talk at noon on Monday, March 24 at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., San Francisco. His topic is "Ecological Communities and the March of Time."
Ecological communities as we know them are similar to freeze-frames from a long movie. Associations among species are very dynamic on millennial scales, as demonstrated by the evidence since deglaciation 15,000 years ago. Coevolution of species occurs locally in geographic mosaics and can be extremely dynamic as well. Frederic Clements, the father of American community ecology, had a holistic vision. He saw communities as super-organisms. He was wrong.
This program is part of “The Science of Conservation and Biodiversity in the 21st Century”: This series of lectures will present a new way of looking at public policy issues in conservation. The things we've assumed as facts often are not. Traditional approaches are losing ground as science illuminates new pathways for framing and achieving conservation goals.- See more at: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2014-03-24/arthur-m-shapiro-ecological-communities-and-march-time#sthash.iJcIhIcg.dpuf
This program is part of Commonwealth Club's “The Science of Conservation and Biodiversity in the 21st Century," according to spokersperson Chisako Ress (email@example.com). This series of lectures is aimed at presenting a new way of looking at public policy issues in conservation. The things we've assumed as facts often are not, she noted. Traditional approaches are losing ground as science illuminates new pathways for framing and achieving conservation goals.
From the Commonwealth Club website: "Ecological communities as we know them are similar to freeze-frames from a long movie. Associations among species are very dynamic on millennial scales, as demonstrated by the evidence since deglaciation 15,000 years ago. Coevolution of species occurs locally in geographic mosaics and can be extremely dynamic as well. Frederic Clements, the father of American community ecology, had a holistic vision. He saw communities as super-organisms. He was wrong."
You can use this coupon code "friendsforshapiro" to get a discount, Ress said. For program detail and registration, access http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2014-03-24/arthur-m-shapiro-ecological-communities-and-march-time.
Following Shapiro's talk, the next speaker is another UC faculty member; this time it will be Joe McBride of UC Berkeley: