Thar's gold in them thar hills?
Probably not. But thar's definitely gold in that there pollinator garden--our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
Gold, black and white--as in the iconic monarch caterpillars.
We've been waiting all year for Mama Monarchs to lay some eggs on our milkweed. We planted four different species, watered them and watched them bloom, fade, and go to seed. The bees sipped nectar from the blossoms, aphids sucked the juices from the stems, lady beetles (aka lady bugs) ate the aphids, and milkweed bugs chewed on the seeds.
All was not going well.
At 9 a.m., we saw FOUR monarch caterpillars munching away on our potted narrow-leaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis. Then at 6 tonight, FIVE more on the same batch of narrow-leaf milkweed.
Just when I was thinking I wouldn't be rearing any monarchs this year (in 2016 the tally totaled 60 plus), one or more Monarch Mamas proved me wrong.
I placed the 'cats in a netted butterfly habitat from the Bohart Museum of Entomology to protect them from predators and give them a chance at life, a chance for another generation.
What's going on with monarchs in this area is not good.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California for 46 years, from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin, has not seen a single egg or caterpillar this entire calendar year at his low elevation sites.
"Not one!" he told Beth Ruyak on her "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento, last week.
Shapiro, who maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu, will talk about butterfly population trends (including monarchs) and how climate has affected them at a free public presentation from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Sierra College, Grass Valley. The event takes place in the Multipurpose Center Building, N-12, Room 103. Parking is $3; permits can be purchased at the kiosk machine at the main entrance to the campus. (For more information, contact the series coordinator, Jason Giuliani at email@example.com.)
And news flash: Shapiro spotted one monarch today, an adult female, in West Sacramento.
Just call them the "incredible aphid-eating machines."
That would be the lady beetles, commonly known as ladybugs (although they are not bugs; they're beetles belonging to the family Coccinellidae, and they're not all "ladies"--some are male!).
How many aphids can a lady beetle eat? Scientists figure around 50 a day. A single lady beetle can eat 5000 aphids during its lifetime, according to the University of Kentucky Extension Service.
That's why they're called beneficial insects!
And it's not just the adult lady beetles that dine on those plant-sucking aphids. So do the larvae.
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program describes lady beetles as "round- or half-dome-shaped insects with hard wing covers. About 200 species occur in California and most are predators both as adults and larvae. Some species specialize on aphids or other groups; others have a broader diet." (See Lady Beetles Card.)
What's for dinner?
Aphids. Maybe a 50-course meal?/span>
See those red spots on your milkweed seed pods?
Lady beetles (aka ladybugs or "garden heroes") are feasting on aphids.
And they're having a ball.
We've been watching the critters on our milkweed, Gomphocarpus physocarpus, for the last couple of months. The plant is a favorite among monarch butterflies, florists and interior decorators. This is the host plant of the monarchs; caterpillars eat only milkweed. It's also a "hostess" plant; florists add them to their floral bouquets and interior decorators grace their holiday tables with them. In fact, interior decorator Allison Domonoske of South Carolina transformed the White House Thanksgiving tablescape with moss, driftwood, pine cones, little white pumpkins and what she called "balloon-plant milkweed: large, green, ball-like flowers."
That was them!
We call them "lime green ball-like pods, covered with tiny spiny hairs"--or you could call them "spiky seed pods," as the Washington Post did. At any rate, they're often used for decorating.
Hmm, a forest green Douglas Fir Christmas tree adorned with lime green spiky seed pods? With red bows amid the green boughs? Gomphocarpus physocarpus to the rescue!
According to the Master Gardener Program, "the name physocarpa comes from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. It has a plethora of common names including balloon plant, balloon cotton-bush, balloon milkweed, bishop's balls, elephant balls, hairy balls, monkey balls, swan plant, and many others." It's also known as goose plant, giant swan milkweed, family jewels, Oscar, and by its former botanical name, Asclepias physocarpa.
It's a tall, spectacular plant that can reach a height of an NBA All-Star. Last summer monarch butterflies laid their eggs on it, lady beetles kept the aphids off it, and praying mantids kept everything off, including bees, butterflies and beetles.
If you have some growing in your garden, think holiday decorations...minus the red lady beetles, the First Ladies of the Garden, and their prey.
Fly away home.
Your house is on fire
And your children are gone.
How many times have you heard that nursery rhyme?
Better yet, how many times have you seen a lady beetle (because they're beetles, not bugs) take off?
Look closely for lady beetles in aphid-infested milkweed plants and you might see this phenomenon. The lady beetle opens its elytra (a modified hardened protective wing case) and out pop the wings.
This lady beetle (below) was munching and crunching aphids on a tropical milkweed this afternoon in Vacaville, Calif., and then opted to take flight. Just another beneficial insect eating soft-bodied pests and then heading off to another "restaurant" that features its prey.
Goes to prove that lady beetles are garden heroes. And when they take flight, they look like super heroes: the superman/superwoman of the garden.
You can learn more about lady beetles from the Natural Enemies Gallery, part of the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) website. "Although they are extremely important natural enemies of aphids, their propensity to disperse makes it difficult for them to be used in inoculative or inundative biological control programs," UC IPM points out.
Tell that to the children chanting the nursery rhyme and they'll probably grow up wanting to learn more about these amazing insects and it's not about their house being on fire: "Their propensity to disperse makes it difficult for them to be used in inoculative or inundative biological control programs."
Migrating monarchs are fluttering daily into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., one by one, two by two, three by three, and four by four, for a little flight fuel. They're sipping nectar from the Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
They're on their way to overwintering sites, such as the Natural Bridges State Park's Monarch Grove Butterfly Natural Preserve, Santa Cruz.
The park's monarch sanctuary "provides a temporary home for thousands of monarchs," according to the website. "In 2016, 8,000 monarch butterflies overwintered at Natural Bridges. From late fall into winter, the monarchs form a 'city in the trees.' The area's mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring."
The numbers typically peak between late October to mid-November. It's an awe-inspiring place, especially if you rear monarchs. And admission is free. The preserve is open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, or visitors can participate in a free one-hour tour on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Meanwhile, scores of monarchs are on their way. Some won't make it. Predators, especially birds, will nail many of them. The weather will deter many others.
We know of at least one that probably won't make it. On Friday, Oct. 27, while we were gathering mllkweed seeds from the Asclepias curassavica, we noticed two lady beetles feasting on aphids.
Wait, what's that beneath that leaf?
Could it be? It was. A monarch caterpillar! Talk about late!
The 'cat is now tucked inside our indoor butterfly habitat, munching on milkweed leaves. With any luck, it will become a mid-life chrysalis and then an adult monarch.
It will take a lot of luck, however, for it to join its buddies in Santa Cruz. Its late start will be exacerbated by the cold, the wind, the rain, the predators....
On a wing and a prayer...