It was July 3, 2020.
The male bees, Melissodes agilis, were getting quite territorial.
Every time a butterfly, a honey bee or another insect in our family's pollinator garden expressed an interest in foraging on the Mexican sunflowers, Tithonia rotundifola, a male Melissodes buzzed them.
"Get out of here!" he threatened. "I own these flowers. These are mine!"
What to do? I grabbed my Nikon D500 and 200 mm macro lens, adjusted the settings to 1/5000 of a second, f-stop 5.6, ISO of 800, and managed to get a shot of the menacing bee confronting a bewildered monarch.
Eye-to-eye. Antenna-to-antenna. Wing-to-wing.
What happened? The monarch quickly escaped the wrath.
And the bee? It buzzed off, only to return to target another insect.
"Get out of here! I own these flowers. These are mine!"
Another tiff on the Tithonia. Another round on the rotundifola.
Just another day in the pollinator garden.
Which one is the most popular? Initially, it was the tropical milkweed, A. curassavica. We collected the first five caterpillars there. The A. fascicularis yielded the rest.
So, the count: narrowleaf milkweed, 11; tropical, 5; and showy, a no-show.
To date this year, we have released six monarchs back into the garden. The others went for university research. Elizabeth Pringle's laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, needed male and female monarchs to rear a colony, and the UC Davis laboratory of Louie Yang needed some tachinid flies.
Unfortunately for us--and fortunately for the Yang lab--tachinid flies infested two of our "11-piece collection." The adult flies are parasitoids that lay their eggs in immature monarchs (among other hosts). The fly larvae hatch and eat their host from the inside out. In a chrysalid, you can tell a tachnid fly infestation by the large tell-tale "dented" brown spot, it looks somewhat like a rotten spot on an apple. In a caterpillar? Think withered and discolored. Then a bungee-like white string appears, and the larvae (maggots) slide down--probably gleefully--like a kid on a Goliath Slide at the county fair.
Tachinids, however, are considered beneficial insects. They lay their eggs in or on such pests as cabbage loopers, cutworms, cabbage worms, gypsy moths, hornworms, harlequin bugs, lygus bugs, cucumber beetles, earwigs and the like. (See Bug Squad blog for close-up images of the tachinid larvae and pupae.)
2016: A Very Good Monarch Year
The year 2016 was a very good year for monarchs in our pollinator garden; we reared and released 60-plus. Sadly, the numbers fell drastically in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Last year, no eggs, no caterpillars and no chrysalids, and only a few monarchs passed through. In fact, in 2019 we did not see our first monarch until Aug. 9.
This year we're noticing a comeback of sorts. We spotted the first monarch on May 24. We now see:
- Males patrolling our yard and chasing the females--morning, noon and evening
- Females laying their eggs on the narrowleaf milkweed that's beneath the honeysuckle vine or the tropical milkweed that's beneath the roses
- Both males and females nectaring on milkweed, butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), napping in the branches of the cherry laurels, and greeting any guests with flutter fanfare.
Life is good.
Sometimes the Gulf Fritillaries, Agraulis vanillae, that are hanging out on their host plant, the passionflower vine, mistake them for one of their own species and a pursuit begins.
Yes, the predators are out there: the California scrub jays, praying mantids, spiders, European paper wasps and yellow jackets. So are the tachinid flies and parasitoid wasps.
Would it be too much to ask them to...um....leave our monarchs alone? Yes.
Everybody eats in the garden. The menu choice is theirs.
It's Veterans' Day, and after paying tribute to the military veterans (my ancestors have fought in all of our nation's wars, dating back to the American Revolution--and my other half is a U.S. Air Force veteran), I slip out the back door to our pollinator garden to see where the insect action is.
Honey bees and a sole carpenter bee are buzzing on the African blue basil; Gulf Fritillaries are nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); and a cabbage white butterfly is sipping nectar from the Lantana.
But the passionflower vine (Passiflora) steals the show. A Gulf Fritillary has just eclosed from a chrysalis that resembles a thick wad of gum chewed up and spit out and left to mummify; several male Gulf Frits are fluttering around in search of females; and the offspring of previous reunions are crawling on the stems and munching what's left of the leaves.
Overhead, the California scrub jays glance down, as if trying to decide on their luncheon menu: a fat juicy caterpillar or the bird seed scattered in the feeder.
Their choice is clear. They forsake the fat juicy caterpillars for the bird seed. Tomorrow morning, however, there will be several caterpillars missing in action.
A pollinator garden is a study in diversity--and of inclusion and exclusion.
The residents, the immigrants, the fly-bys, the crawlers, the wigglers, the jumpers. The big, bad and bugly. The prey and the predators. The vegetarians and carnivores.
The nectar-rich flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees and butterflies. And right near them are the predators: the praying mantids, dragonflies and assassin bugs.
The assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, are ambush predators. They resemble human assassins (or at least those on the movie screen!): long narrow neck, beady eyes, and sturdy body. When they ambush a predator, they stab it with their rostrum, inject venom, and suck out the juices. Or as UC Berkeley entomologists Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue write in their book, California Insects, "The victims, which include all kinds of insects, are snatched by quick movements of the forelegs, and immediately subdued by a powerful venom injected through the beak."
Such was the case with the assassin bug, Zelus renardii, this week. We watched one lie in wait on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); we watched another dine on an unidentifiable prey on a milkweed blossom; and we watched yet another stab a lady beetle (aka lady bug) on a leaf.
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
How magical are the dragonflies.
They zig-zag through the pollinator garden, a perfect portrait of a predator: multifaceted eyes, strong wings, and mouthparts that include a toothed jaw and flap like labrium.
They're an ancient insect: scientists have found fossil dragonflies that date back 325 million years ago.
Bank robber Willie Sutton (1901-1980) reportedly said he robbed banks "because that's where the money is." Predators, like dragonflies, frequent pollinator gardens because that's where the food is--food like native bees and syrphid flies.
Like other dragonflies, red flameskimmers, Libellula saturata, frequent our pollinator garden because of "Sutton's law." We welcome them with bamboo-stake perches. They circle the garden on their hunt, snag prey, and return to the perch to consume it.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll see a dragonfly eat a bee (lucky for a nature photographer who wants to share a little bit of how nature works, but not so much for the bee!).
We can't tell what bee was on this male flameskimmer's menu, but it appears to be a longhorned bee, maybe Melissodes agilis, family Apidae.
It's eat and "bee eaten" in a pollinator garden.