Our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., usually draws dozens of them in the summer as they flutter around, sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lay their eggs on their host plant, milkweed.
Then in late summer and fall, the migratory monarchs from the Pacific Northwest pass through on their way to their overwintering sites in coastal California, including Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.
Something is happening this year, and it's not good.
As a "monarch mom," I reared and released more than 60 in 2016. This year so far: zero, zip, zilch. In fact, I never saw a single monarch in our pollinator garden this year until Monday, Aug. 13, and then again today (Friday, Aug. 30) when a male fluttered in and hung around for several hours.
This time last year and in 2016? Often five to seven sightings a day.
"What's going on with the monarchs?" I asked butterfly expert Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly population in central California for more than four decades and maintains a research website. "All I have on our milkweed are aphids and milkweed bugs, and occasional bees and hover flies."
I also haven't seen a single monarch on the UC Davis campus. Neither have fellow photographers and naturalists who keep an eye out for them.
Background: Shapiro has been surveying fixed routes at 10 sites at approximately two-week intervals since 1972. They range from "the Sacramento River delta, through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, to the high desert of the western Great Basin." As he says on his website, "the sites represent the great biological, geological, and climatological diversity of central California." As of the end of 2006, he has logged "5476 site-visits and tallied approximately 83,000 individual records of 159 butterfly species and subspecies. This major effort is continuing and represents the world's largest dataset of intensive site-specific data on butterfly populations collected by one person under a strict protocol. We have also collated monthly climate records for the entire study period from weather stations along the transect."
So, what's going on with the monarchs?
"You are not alone (in not sighting them)," he related in an email yesterday. "I have seen one adult monarch in the Valley in the past five weeks (and about 6 in the Sierra, migrating westward). I have not seen a single wild larva in 2018. Anywhere! Everybody's talking about it. We know there was some breeding at Fallon, Nev., but only a couple of adults have been seen in Reno. Either they are breeding in recondite places, which is possible, or the population is in serious collapse. We will know which by early November when we see what shows up at the overwintering sites. One thing is certain: it's not due to milkweed shortage!"
The statistics on his Looking Backward section of his website indicate these monarch sightings:
- 2015: 100
- 2016: 64
- 2017: 54
- 2018: 20
Note that this is the time of year when citizen scientists in entomologist David James' migratory monarch research program at Washington State University (my alma mater) tag and release them throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. (See Bug Squad)
They should be passing through our area soon. In fact, the third anniversary of "The WSU Traveler" is rapidly approaching: On Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2016, one of the tagged butterflies from James' citizen scientist program in Ashland, Ore., fluttered into our yard (see above photograph). The monarch, a male, hung around for five hours, sipping nectaring and circling around.
The background: Citizen scientist Steven Johnson of Ashland tagged and released the male, No. A6093, on Sunday, Aug. 28. It "flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James told us. "Pretty amazing. So, I doubt he broke his journey for much more than the five hours you watched him--he could be 100 miles further south by now. Clearly this male is on his way to an overwintering colony and it's possible we may sight him again during the winter in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove!”
Maybe we'll see another tagged one this year? The odds do not look good.
As the WSU Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, related today:
"While the migration from the PNW (Pacific Northwest) to California has been underway for about 2 weeks, September is when it really ramps up. Unlike the migration in eastern USA this year, our migration is subtle and comprised of much smaller numbers of butterflies. In fact there will be very few Monarchs migrating south from British Columbia, Washington and northern Idaho because we simply did not have significant summer populations in these areas this year. However, our research-based WSU breeding/tagging program will result in hundreds of tagged Monarchs migrating from various parts of Washington State. Apart from the celebrated Washington State Penitentiary tagging program, this year we also have more than 30 members of Cowiche Canyon Conservancy (Yakima) and the Washington Butterfly Association (Seattle, Spokane) each rearing and tagging small numbers of Monarchs. The first tagged Monarchs from this program were released yesterday (August 30) so watch out for them as they head south! And please be ready to capture an image on your phone that you can email to us."
So, if you see a tagged monarch butterfly from the WSU program, kindly photograph it and send the information to David James and his fellow researchers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every sighting helps.
So here's this male longhorned bee (Svastra) sipping a little nectar from a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
As the late Mr. Rogers (1928-2003), star of the TV show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," so often proclaimed: "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."
And here I "bee," admiring and photographing the bees on the reddish-orange blossoms on July 13 in our little pollinator garden.
It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Could you be mine?
Would you be mine?
Yes, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, but wait--what's that?
Another male longhorned bee, fast as the proverbial speeding bullet, dive-bombs my little buddy. Both are male Svastra--territorial males--as identified by Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. He's the co-author of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (along with UC-affiliated colleagues Gordon Frankie, Rollin E. Coville and Barbara Ertter), a must for everyone who wants to learn about bees and blooms. A noted authority on bees, Thorp annually teaches at The Bee Course, a nine-day intensive workshop affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History and held at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Ariz. To be held Aug. 20-30, it is offered "for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists, and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees." He's served as one of the instructors since 2002.
So, what happened to the male Svastra occupying the blossom?
Nothing. The occupier kept occupying and the dive-bomber quit dive-bombing.
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you
(This image was taken with a Nikon D500, with a 105mm macro lens and a fast shutter speed of 1/3200 of a second. Other settings: f-stop, 7.1, and ISO 1600.)
A spectacular pollinator garden that's a "must-see" is Kate Frey's pollinator garden at Sonoma Cornerstone.
Kate Frey, a world-class pollinator garden designer, pollinator advocate and author who addressed the UC Davis Bee Symposium in March on "Designing Bee Friendly Gardens," has created a masterpiece. And yes, the pollinator garden is open to the public--no admission fee.
We visited the garden last Saturday and saw a pipevine swallowtail nectaring on Nepeta tuberosa, yellow-faced bumble bees sipping nectar from Stachys bullata, hummingbirds scoring nectar from salvia, and honey bees foraging on everything from Scabiosa "Fama Blue" to a native milkweed, Asclepias speciosa.
This is a happy place.
As she told the crowd at the Bee Symposium, hosted by the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology: Whether you plant them, nurture them, or walk through them, bee gardens make us happy.
Frey's sign at the Sonoma pollinator garden explains that "All the plants offer food resources of pollen and nectar for pollinators such as native bees, honey bees, hummingbirds and beneficial insects. Pollen is a protein, mineral and fat source and is primarily a larval food for bees, while nectar is composed of various sugars and is the main food for pollinators and the adult life stage of many beneficial insects. Pollinators need a continuous food source for many months of the year. This garden contains a range of plants that will bloom in succession from early spring to late fall."
Frey's sign also noted that "Pollinators all have preferred plants they feed from, and flowers cater to specific pollinators. Some flower shapes are designed to exclude unwanted pollinators. The long, constricted floral tubes of honeysuckles or many salvia exhibit their focus on hummingbirds as primary pollinators. Other flowers nectar, like coffee berry is easily accessible to all pollinators. This garden contains a wide range of plants to appear to a variety of pollinators. Over 80 percent of flowering plants require insect or animal pollination. What insects or birds do you see visiting each flower type?"
Well, let's see: bees, butterflies, and birds...Apis mellifera, Battus philenor, Bombus vosnesenskii, Papilio rutulus, Calypte anna...
"The same plants that support pollinators," Frey indicated on the sign, "also make us happy."
They do! Happiness is a pollinator garden...
Just call it "Fire and Fury in a Pollinator Garden."
That would be the firecracker red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata.
They fly into our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., attracted by the lily-padded pond and the all-you-can-eat buffet of flying insects.
They snag their prey in flight--usually a native bee or syprhid fly--and perch on a bamboo stake to eat it.
Table for one, please! No, waiter, I don't need a napkin. Thank you, though.
Native to North America, they are a delight to see and photograph. Sometimes they allow multiple close-up images and that's when we turn into a paparazzi! (To be honest, we'd rather take images of low-flying dragonflies than of high-profile people.)
Their flight reminds us of helicopters. Firecracker red helicopters.
If you've ever thought about the dragonfly being a perfect design for a helicopter, you'd be right.
Check out the website, "Design and the Universe," for its informative piece on "The Dragonfly: The Inspiration for the Helicopter."
"The wings of the dragonfly cannot be folded back on its body. In addition, the way in which the muscles for flight are used in the motion of the wings differs from the rest of insects. Because of these properties, evolutionists claim that dragonflies are "primitive insects."
"In contrast, the flight system of these so-called 'primitive insects' is nothing less than a wonder of design. The world's leading helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky, finished the design of one of their helicopters by taking the dragonfly as a model.6 IBM, which assisted Sikorsky in this project, started by putting a model of a dragonfly in a computer (IBM 3081). Two thousand special renderings were done on computer in the light of the manoeuvres of the dragonfly in air. Therefore, Sikorsky's model for transporting personnel and artillery was built upon examples derived from dragonflies."
"The body of a dragonfly looks like a helical structure wrapped with metal. Two wings are cross-placed on a body that displays a colour gradation from ice blue to maroon. Because of this structure, the dragonfly is equipped with superb manoeuvrability. No matter at what speed or direction it is already moving, it can immediately stop and start flying in the opposite direction. Alternatively, it can remain suspended in air for the purpose of hunting. At that position, it can move quite swiftly towards its prey. It can accelerate up to a speed that is quite surprising for an insect: 25mph (40km/h), which would be identical to an athlete running 100 metres in the Olympics at 24.4mph (39km/h).
"At this speed, it collides with its prey. The shock of the impact is quite strong. However, the armoury of the dragonfly is both very resistant and very flexible. The flexible structure of its body absorbs the impact of collision. However, the same cannot be said for its prey. The dragonfly's prey would pass out or even be killed by the impact."
"Following the collision, the rear legs of dragonfly take on the role of its most lethal weapons. The legs stretch forward and capture the shocked prey, which is then swiftly dismembered and consumed by powerful jaws."
As for our little male flameskimmer, our firecracker red dragonfly, we watched him ambush prey, unleashing his special brand of fire and fury in a pollinator garden.
Fire and fury in a pollinator garden...
It's Thanksgiving Day and time to give thanks for NOT what we WANT, but what we HAVE.
And, not for what we OWN, but what we CANNOT.
That includes the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii.
On the morning of Nov. 12, we traveled to the Sonoma Cornerstone, Sonoma, to check the plants and pollinators in Kate Frey's amazing pollinator garden. Kate Frey, co-author of The Bee-Friendly Garden" (with UC San Francisco professor Gretchen LeBuhn), is a world-class garden designer and pollinator advocate.
Flashback to Sept. 23, the last time we visited the Frey garden. We noticed monarch butterflies, painted ladies, honey bees and--one bumble bee, a hungry queen Bombus vosnesenskii, newly emerged from winter hibernation to grab something to eat. Sometimes on warm sunny days, the queens will disrupt their hibernation to search for nectar. They. Are. Hungry.
At 12:30 on Nov. 12, the temperature rose to 62 degrees.
And then we saw her, The Queen. The Queen. Resplendent in gold and black, she buzzed loudly toward the spiked floral purple plant, Salvia indigo spires (Salvia farinacea x S. farinacea). Honey bees quickly moved out of her way as she claimed the nectar, all of it. Her wings glowed in the sunlight and her buzz seemed loud enough to break the sound barrier.
Is there anything more bee-utiful?
One bumble bee. One queen. A royal moment.