Make that "an early, unexpected guest who was given a warm welcome and an even warmer send-off."
Henry is a Marin County winter monarch butterfly.
Winter monarchs are becoming more and more common in the Bay Area and near the coast, according to butterfly experts Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor, and David James, associate professor at Washington State University.
Karen Gideon's front yard in Greenbrae yielded the caterpillar on her milkweed, “Hello Yellow" Asclepias tuberosa, on Dec. 9. The perennial, also known as "the butterfly weed," is native to eastern and southwestern North America.
Karen gifted the caterpillar to her friend, UC Master Gardener Alanna Brady of Ross, who reared him to adulthood from Dec. 9 to March 4, the day he eclosed.
“There were so many caterpillars in different stages/sizes all over the plant they were eating the stems down, too!” Alanna related. "Karen gave me one small and one large ‘cat since I had none. I think Henry was in his second instar stage, but we don't really know. The larger 'cat was gone the next day--never found, but Henry remained to feast on the entire plant! All other caterpillars left and she didn't find any chrysalids."
While Henry was cycling through metamorphosis, Alanna nicknamed him "Slow Poke."
In the monarch world, the life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, goes like this:
- The egg usually hatches into a caterpillar in 3 to 4 days
- The caterpillar generally remains in this stage for 10 to 14 days, and then "J's" and forms a chrysalis
- The chrysalis stage usually lasts 10 to 14 days, when the adult monarch ecloses
Henry the Caterpillar took 43 days to "J" and pupate, doing so on Jan. 21. Then he took 42 days to eclose (March 4) from his chrysalis.
”It was an amazing experience,” Alanna said, noting that this is her first year rearing monarchs. She missed the eclosure. "I missed it—literally within 5 minutes he was out! He took a long time pumping up those wings! He hung around Friday morning and took off in the afternoon. I am ready to do this again! So amazing.”
Why did she name him Henry? “After so many weeks of eating here, he needed a name--and "Henry" suited his voracious appetite--and being a monarch! Henry j'd and attached to our (mobile) teak birdhouse so I could move it into the sun in the afternoons. He remained outside the entire time except for one night below 32 degrees in our shed.”
So, on Friday, March 5, Henry the Winter Monarch fluttered away from his Ross home. Perhaps he soon found some nectar, a sunny spot to warm his wings, and a mate. Who knows?
One thing's for sure: "We miss Henry,” Alanna said.
WSU entomologist David James, who studies monarchs and posts his research on the Monarchs of the Pacific Northwest Facebook page, is keeping a close watch on the winter monarchs.
On Dec. 23, he posted:
"As Director of the Washington State University Monarch tagging program, I would like to appeal to all monarch lovers in California who have milkweed and monarchs still active in their backyards, to carefully check all the monarchs they see for a tag! During late summer and fall, we tagged and released about 1200 monarchs in Oregon, Idaho and Washington and to date seven of these have been found in inland areas of CA around milkweed. None have yet been found at overwintering sites. This is very different from previous years when most sightings of our tagged monarchs occur at overwintering sites. We suspect that a far greater proportion of migrant monarchs this year have become reproductive and are staying inland rather than remaining non reproductive and overwintering at coastal sites. So please check that next incoming monarch for a WSU tag, photograph it and report it here or to the email address on the tag, Your observations are important!"
On Jan. 12, he posted a graph "showing the number of observations of monarch larvae/pupae (as recorded on I-Naturalist) in the San Francisco Bay area during November/December for every year since 2015. The graph showed a huge (>5X) increase in observations in 2020 compared to each of the the previous 6 years."
On Jan. 21, he posted:
"Reports continue to come in on monarch breeding activity in the San Francisco Bay area. In fact, there appears to be a flush of new adults and egg laying. This apparent new generation is likely to be the sons and daughters of the migrant generation that eschewed spending winter at the conventional overwintering sites, in favor of reproduction. I believe the well-being and survival of eggs being laid now and over the next few weeks in the Bay area will play a role in determining the size and extent of western monarch populations this summer. With only 1914 monarchs at overwintering sites (50% sex ratio = estimated 950 females), current Bay area breeding populations may well support at least this number of females."
Note that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a Dec. 15, 2020 press release, agreed that the monarch butterfly should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but said that other priorities preclude that for now.
"After a thorough assessment of the monarch butterfly's status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species is warranted but precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions," the press release indicated. "With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate."
Meanwhile, Henry the Winter Monarch is not alone out there!
Happy Presidents' Day.
It's day we honor not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but all the men (no women yet!) who have served as President of the United States.
"The federal holiday honoring Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices," according to Wikipedia. "As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington's birthday under the Gregorian calendar, Feb. 22. On Jan. 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This places it between February 15 and 21, which makes 'Washington's Birthday' something of a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington's actual birthday, Feb. 22."
"A rough analog of this phenomenon can be seen in Commonwealth realms, where the reigning monarch's official birthday is celebrated without regard to their actual date of birth."
There you have it.
And speaking of monarchs and Presidents' Day, it's a good time to post a monarch on the American flag. Danaus plexippus reigns supreme in the world of butterflies, in that it's arguably the most recognized butterfly.
The embattled monarch--some folks want to see it listed as threatened or endangered--will be the subject of a session hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund on Feb. 28 at the University of California, Davis. It's by invitation only. But one of the speakers is Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
Shapiro, who has monitored the entire butterfly faunas (including monarchs) at 10 locations along I-80 coordinator for more than four decades, just published a commentary in the Davis Enterprise headlined "So the Monarch Is Endangered--Now What?"
He began with "So the monarch butterfly is in trouble and various folks, including the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, want California or the United States, or both, to declare it endangered or at least threatened (Bee editorial Feb. 5). Great, then what?
"The fact is, nobody can answer that question competently."
"There is no disputing the facts: Monarch butterfly populations in California have dropped catastrophically," he wrote. "Based on counts of adults overwintering along the coast, numbers have dropped from some 4.5 million in the 1980s to a mere 28,429 this year. At one site, Bolinas, numbers dropped 90 percent in one year from 12,360 in 2017 to 1,256 this year."
"But the decline has not been linear or monotonic, and it is very poorly understood."
He noted: "Conservation organizations are promoting lists of things private citizens and organizations can do to help “save the monarch.” The most-often-repeated one is to plant milkweed, its larval host plant. But there is absolutely no evidence that there is any milkweed shortage in California, let alone that such a shortage is driving monarch declines."
Shapiro went on to write that "there are huge holes in our knowledge of basic monarch biology, and those translate into our inability to say why monarchs are in decline."
Shapiro noted in his commentary that "We have been stuck with using the winter censuses, which are easy to generate, as our measure of population size. But the winter numbers are the sum of everything that happened during the year, which is hidden from our view except very locally. One can do statistical analyses with them and they will give you some kind of an answer, but will it tell us anything used in interpreting reality?"
"The point of giving species protection under Endangered Species legislation is to provide a legal umbrella to encourage actions that will promote species recovery. Most endangered species have discrete populations and their critical habitat and resources can thus be protected. The monarch is different. There is no point in declaring it threatened or endangered if that, like planting milkweed, is just a feel-good action unlikely to translate into any benefit to the species."
As for the meeting at UC Davis on Feb. 28, "its first order of business," Shapiro believes, "should be to decide what we need to know that we don't know in order to take meaningful action on the monarch (and by extension, to help the rest of our imperiled butterfly fauna)."
Merry Christmas has always been merry, but it's better with butterflies! Isn't everything better with butterflies?
Last year, in our small-scale monarch rearing project here in Vacaville, Calif., we saw one monarch eclose on Saturday, Dec. 24, one on Sunday, Dec. 25, and one on Tuesday, Dec. 27. What's missing this Christmas: no monarch butterflies.
In 2016 we reared and released 62 Danaus plexippus. This year, eight. We could blame it on predators, parasites, pesticides, loss of habitat, human errors, natural occurrences, climate change or MC (mysterious circumstances), but we won't. We do know this: eight is not enough.
Just one butterfly is a miracle of nature. That's whether you
- live in France and call it "papillon"
- live in Italy and call it "palomma"
- live in the Philippines and call it "paruparo"
- live in Portugal and call it "borboleta"
- live in Germany and call it “schmetterling"
- live in Vietnam and call it "npau npaim"
Butterflies are the canaries in our coal mines. Their very presence indicates a healthy environment and healthy ecosystem and represent symbols of hope, love, joy, change, transformation, strength and endurance.
They overcome the odds. We are part of those odds.
They are flowers with wings: flitting, fluttering and fluctuating flybys just out of our reach. Miracles of nature.
Merry Christmas! And may the best of what's to come be filled with butterflies.
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.
If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."
A member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), it carries "the torch of life" throughout spring, summer and autumn, but it's especially important in autumn when few plants offer sustenance to insects, especially to migrating monarchs. The colorful annual has been blooming in our yard since April, reaching 10-to 15-foot heights (thanks, drip irrigation).
What loves this delightful orange blossom, besides the human beings who grow it?
Over a weeklong period, we photographed dozens of autumn critters, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, hover flies, honey bees and crab spiders.
Every bee garden needs an "Autumn Majesty" and the Mexican sunflower fills the bill. When it goes to seed, finches and other birds will take what's left.