- (Focus Area) Yard & Garden
Yes, they're still there.
More today than yesterday. That's how it goes in the Magical World of Butterflies.
The Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are keeping busy, and so is this insect wedding photographer trying to capture their images.
There! A Gulf Fritillary has just emerged from her chrysalis on the passionflower vine, and a suitor descends within minutes. He doesn't use any pick-up lines. He doesn't have to. In seconds, there's a twosome on the passionflower vine, something apparently rarely seen. (The Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, answers telephone calls from folks who excitedly proclaim they've found a "two-headed butterfly.")
Soon another suitor appears...three heads...a three-headed butterfly?...and flutters away.
Meanwhile, other brides and grooms meet and greet. It's like being on the Las Vegas strip with all the wedding chapels occupied.
Just another day in the Magical World of Butterflies.
Love is like a butterfly
A rare and gentle thing
--Love Is Like a Butterfly, Dolly Parton
When Dolly Parton penned her song, "Love Is Like a Butterfly," she probably wasn't thinking of passion butterflies, Gulf Fritillaries.
And when she sings that popular song, neither she nor her audience are thinking of Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), getting together on a Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia.
But Lepidopterists, entomologists, horticulturists and insect photographers are.
It's autumn, approaching Halloween, and the Gulf Fritillaries are doing what comes naturally on their host plant, the passionflower vine. But sometimes you'll find them on the fence line, on the ground, or on a neighboring flower.
Then you make a beeline for your camera. It's insect wedding photography. The bride and the groom and the photographer. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers are producing nectar, the bees are buzzing, the crickets are chirping, and all's right with the world.
Love is indeed like a butterfly, "a rare and gentle thing."
So here are all these milkweed bugs clustered on a showy milkweed leaf, Asclepias speciosa. It's early morning and the red bugs are a real eye opener.
They're seed eaters, but as Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology says: "They are opportunistic and generalists." They not only eat seeds, but monarch eggs and larvae, as well as the oleander aphids that infest the milkweed.
But wait, one of these is not like the other.
A lady beetle, aka ladybug, photobombs the scene. It sleeps with them and eats (aphids) with them. They are sharing the same food source: oleander aphids.
Scientists, conservationists and citizen scientists were there to discuss "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
"The western population of the monarch butterfly has garnered widespread attention because of its dramatic decline in recent decades," the Environmental Defense Fund said in its opening statements. "The latest population surveys indicate that monarchs overwintering on the central coast have declined 86% since last winter and now total 0.5% of their historical average. Population declines have spurred greater scientific study, funding, and coordination around the western monarch. California legislators appropriated $3 million in funding to the California Wildlife Conservation Board to establish the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program."
In his presentation, Shapiro told the group: "As of right now, the monarch is on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos. If our patient comes back from the brink—as history suggests it may well—will we convince ourselves that our placebos worked? Probably. And that's not how to do science. That's what philosophers call the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc." (See Shapiro's other comments)
Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly populations of central California for more than four decades, posts his research on his website, Art's Butterfly World.
Meanwhile, the widespread interest in monarchs continues to widen. What's happening with the monarchs this year?
If you're a University of California Master Gardener and want an update on the status of Western monarchs, be sure to attend Shapiro's presentation at the UC Master Gardeners' Fall Conference on Saturday, Oct. 26 in the Veterans Memorial Senior Center, 1455 Madison Ave., Redwood City.
The event, to take place from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., includes a talk by Shapiro from 1:15 to 2:45 p.m. on "The Controversy on the Western Monarch Monarch Butterfly."
- 9:30-9:45: Welcome and Introductions, Shirley Melnicoe, president and Kali Burke, new program coordinator
- 9:35-10: Recognition, Ginny Piazza, membership chair
- 10 to 11: Soils Group presentation by Master Gardeners Joe Lees and Nick Landolfi
- 11 to 11:15: Break
- 11:15 to 11:45: Igor Lacan, UC Cooperative Extension Advisor for San Francisco Bay Area, The Odonata Order – The Mystery of Dragonflies
- 11:45 to noon: Sheena Sidhu, staff biologist, San Mateo County Department of Agriculture on Pests and Diseases, Latest Pests & Diseases in San Mateo County
- 12 to 1: Lunch
- 1 to 1:15: Master Gardeners leading some exercises, to be announced
- 1:15 to 2:45: Arthur M. Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, The Controversy on the Western Monarch Butterfly
- 2:45-3: Closing comments/wrap-up
It's commonly called a "passion butterfly," but we call it a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillaea) or Gulf Frit.
A sure sign of autumn:
- A skeletonized passionflower vine (Passiflora)
- A Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) eclosing
- A ravenous caterpillar crawling along a stem, and
- A caterpillar J'ing, about to form a chrysalis.
The orange-reddish butterfly, with its silver-spangled underwings, is a glorious butterfly.
How's the population doing this year?
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly populations of central California for more than four decades and posts his research on Art's Butterfly World, says this year the Gulf Frit population is "spotty; locally abundant but less generally distributed than in recent years."
His 10 field sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin.
We notice the ups and downs of the Gulf Frit population every year in Vacaville. This spring they were slow to start, Western scrub jays and European paper wasps grabbed what few caterpillars there were. In the summer, the population speeded up. And now caterpillars and chrysalids cover two of our three vines--or what's left of our three vines.
Shaprio says the Gulf Frit was introduced into southern California in the 19th century, in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s. It was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908. "It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since." Once prevalent in the Sacramento area in the 1960s, it "seems to have died out by the early 1970s," he said. Then in 2009, it began making a comeback in the Sacramento area.
Meanwhile, the passionflower vine climbs our fences with reckless abandon, only to be skeletonized by the growing population of Gulf Frits. They eat the leaves, the flowers, the fruit, and then start in on the bark.
More Gulf Frits mate. More eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids and adults appear. The cycle continues until the first frost. The plants die back, and will recover in the spring. A few chrysalids will remain, clinging to the vines like leftover Christmas tree ornaments,
Surprises occur. Several years ago, we saw a Gulf Frit laying an egg on Christmas Day.