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.
It was "hit and miss."
The predators hit, and they missed.
Oh sure, they took a chunk out of these Western tiger swallowtails, but as they say, "a miss is as good as a mile."
The predators? Could have been a hungry bird, praying mantis, or a spider.
The Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, a showpiece throughout western North America, populates urban parks and gardens. In color, it's a striking yellow and black, with spots of blue and orange near its tail. Its magnificent wingspan can measure 3 to 4 inches.
If you like to take images of butterflies, don't pass up the Western tiger swallowtail that's missing a chunk here and there. They don't have to be "picture perfect" to photograph--or to enjoy one of the wonders of nature.
Have you ever heard anyone say that when they see the larva of a lady beetle (aka ladybug, family Coccinellidae)?
Unfortunately, it's quite common among non-gardeners and non-insect enthusiasts.
The larvae of lady beetle are mostly black and look like tiny, spiny alligators, but they're beneficial insects just like the adult lady beetles. In the adult and larval stage, they're both predators that prey mainly on aphids, but they'll also eat thrips, spider mites, scale insects, and other soft-bodied insects.
An adult lady beetle can eat as many as 5000 aphids in its lifetime, scientists say. Who knows how many a larva can eat! Who's counting?
"Young lady beetle larvae usually pierce and suck the contents from their prey," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program's website. "Older larvae and adults chew and consume their entire prey. Larvae are active, elongate, have long legs, and resemble tiny alligators."
You've seen lady beetle jewelry and t-shirts and the like (check out the gift shop at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane), but the larvae? They aren't represented.
They're well represented in many gardens, however. In our garden, the adults and larvae are polishing off the oleander aphids on our milkweed plants.
You're heard these idioms:
- The early bird gets the worm
- First come, first served.
- The second mouse gets the cheese.
But have you ever seen a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) eclose and then see her...well...engaged?
Such was the case on Labor Day, Sept. 3 in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
The female (we'll call her "Bride-to-Be") finishes eclosing and is hanging from her empty chrysalis, just drying her wings on the passionflower vine (aptly named) and getting acquainted with her new life stage and leafy surroundings.
Then, whoosh. A suitor (we'll call him "Groom-to-Be") appears out of nowhere. Well, from somewhere, but somewhere quite threatening. He looks tired and worn out, too fragile to fly. (As a colleague said: "He's accumulated a lot of frequent flier miles.") His ragged wings indicate a recent encounter with one or more predators, maybe a bird or a praying mantis. But he lucked out in the Predator-Prey tally: the final score, Butterfly, 1: Predator 0.
He lucks out again. He's the first to arrive at the altar. Our camera catches the action.
"In some Heliconius, the males locate female pupae and may even copulate with the female before she ecloses!" commented butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. "They are related."
Labor Day, 2018.
Any day's a good day when you find the ootheca (egg case) of a praying mantis in your yard. It's much better than finding an Easter egg.
Ootheca comes from the Greek word "oo," meaning egg and the Latin word, "theca," meaning a cover or container.
A few weeks ago, we spotted an ootheca (below) on our lavender bush. It's sturdily attached to a stem about a foot off the ground. Note the small hole on the right near the top, the exit hole of a parasitoid, perhaps a wasp or fly, according to Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
We're not counting our eggs until they hatch but we saw another ootheca on our lantana. And another one on a thin branch of an olive tree. Mama Mantis knows the best spots.
When springlike temperatures greet us, we expect some 100 to 200 praying mantids to hatch or emerge from each egg case. The nymphs will be hungry and will eat everything in sight, including their siblings. They do that, you know. No love lost. No brotherly love or sisterly love here. Bon appétit!
Then the young mantids will nab a few aphids and flies and other small critters until they are able to ambush and snag much larger prey, including honey bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, syprhid flies, and butterflies. And sometimes, a hummingbird...
If you see them hanging around your hummingbird feeder, they're not there for the sugar. They're not vegetarians; they're carnivores.