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...
The Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis, has butterflies in its gift shop that will never leave you, never migrate and never die.
Think stuffed animal/puppet in a zippered pouch that resembles a chrysalis. Unzip one section and out pops the familiar black, yellow and white caterpillar. Unzip another section and out pops the iconic monarch butterfly.
Monarchs are just part of the animal menagerie in the Bohart Museum gift shop. Besides the monarchs, you'll see stuffed animals resembling bed bugs, lice, tardigrades and mosquitoes. You'll find t-shirts, sweatshirts, books, posters, jewelry, insect collecting equipment and insect-themed candy, all ready for gift-giving. Proceeds benefit the Bohart's many educational and public outreach activities.
And now, mark you calendar! In keeping with the widespread interest in monarchs and other butterflies, the Bohart Museum is hosting a special open house, "Eggs to Wings: Backyard Butterfly Gardening," on Sunday, March 19. The event, free and open to the public, takes place from 1 to 4 p.m.
Meanwhile, other open houses, all scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m., will share the spotlight:
Sunday, Jan. 22: 1 to 4 p.m.: “Parasite Palooza: Botflies, Fleas and Mites, Oh, My”
Saturday, Feb. 18: (varying times throughout campus): Biodiversity Museum Day, an opportunity to explore 11 UC Davis collections
And toward the end of the academic year is the campuswide UC Davis Picnic Day, an annual open house set Saturday, April 22. The Bohart Museum will greet thousands of visitors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The insect museum's regular hours are from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The gift shop is open year around. The museum is closed to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on major holidays. Admission is free.
So here's this tattered old worker bee seeking some nectar from the broadleaf milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. She looks as if she's not only been around the block a few times but around the county several dozen times. Her wings look too ragged to support her flight back to her colony. She'll probably live just a few more days. Worker bees live only four to six weeks in the peak season, and this is the peak season.
She bends her head and sips nectar, only to realize she is not alone. She encounters long antennae...the long antennae of a monarch caterpillar munching on a blossom. Whose plant is this? The bee wants the nectar. The monarch caterpillar wants the entire plant. This is the larval host plant of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. The caterpillars turn into veritable eating machines, devouring the leaves, flowers and some of the stems. Without milkweed, no monarchs. It's a matter of survival.
The tattered old bee touches antennae with the hungry caterpillar--Well, hello, there, dining companion!--and she backs off. There will be another blossom--if she moves quickly to claim it.
Another bee, this one much younger than the senior citizen bee, buzzes over to nearby blossom while another caterpillar, partially hidden, munches away. The bee gets stuck in the sticky mass of gold pollinia and struggles to free herself, just as another bee flies off with some of that gooey "winged" substance, anchoring her flight. She will remove it. She will return. The nectar is too enticing.
Just another chapter in the Saga of the Milkweed, the Bee and the Caterpillar...
Where have you been?
For the last several weeks, we've been watching for signs of the first seasonal monarch caterpillar on our narrow-leafed milkweed.
The lush leaves refused to yield any secrets. They looked untouched, undisturbed and intact. But on June 15, there it was, a not-so-little caterpillar munching away as if it had been there all along.
Where have you been?
How it managed to survive is puzzling. A Western scrub jay nest is about two feet away and we can hear the baby birds chirping throughout the day. Then the mother obligingly swoops down into the "supermarket" pollinator garden and grabs fresh food for them. We've seen her--and photographed her--plucking a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar from the passionflower vine. We've seen her perching on a flower pot and nailing bees. We've seen her flying back to her nest.
So, this not-so-little caterpillar, a sole survivor, overcame incredible odds. Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, says that probably fewer than 10 percent make it from egg to adult. (And that's without a bird nest two feet away!)
In the interests of conservation, the monarch caterpillar is now safely housed in our butterfly habitat as we wait for it to form a chrysalis and emerge as an adult. Then we'll release it. It may soar 80 feet in the air, as others have done, or it may linger in the pollinator garden, or it may decline to fly away from our outstretched hand.
The parents will never meet the offspring, and the offspring will never meet its parents.
Nevertheless, Sunday, June 19 is Father's Day. Dad, you did good! And you, too, Mom!