Posts Tagged: Agraulis vanillae
NIMBY--"Not in My Back Yard"--is a term used to target unwanted development projects in a neighborhood. Irate residents ban together and tell a governmental agency, such as a city council: "Not in My Back Yard!" For example, they don't want that chemical plant, prison, toxic waste dump, strip club or casino next to them.
But if you have butterflies in your back yard, NIMBY doesn't apply.
We planted seven passionflower vines (Passiflora) to attract the tropical Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), the brightly colored orange-reddish buterflies belonging to the family Nymphalidae and subfamily Heliconiinae.
It's a joy to see them fluttering around the yard--the females laying eggs and the males cruising for a "date." From the eggs to the caterpillars to the chrysalids to the adults--the Gulf Frit population keeps expanding.
Then, surprisingly, we spotted an unfamiliar-looking caterpillar among all the rest.
"What is this?" we asked noted butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, who monitors the butterfly population in the Central Valley and maintains a butterfly site.
"It's the melanic phase of the Gulf Frit larva, well-known in the southeast United States and in South America, but I've never seen one in California," Shapiro said. "Presumably genetic, but the genetics have not been worked out. See if you can breed from it!"
Well, what to do? We popped the VIP (or rather VIC for "Very Important Caterpillar") in our butterfly habitat container, newly purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
The container is now home to a dozen caterpillars, six chrysalids, and one VIC.
But breeding the butterfly? First, the caterpillar would have to form a chrysalis. Then, if and when the butterfly emerges, we'll have to determine the gender, provide a mate, and see if anything happens.
Melanic phase of a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar, rare in California. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Melanic Gulf Fritillary caterpillar. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
An adult Gulf Fritillary on a passion flower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Valley carpenter bees are passionate about passionflower vines (Passiflora).
You see these black bees foraging on the blossoms. Tiny grains of golden pollen, looking like gold dust, dot the thorax.
Their loud buzz frightens many a person, but wait, they're pollinators.
Valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta) are found in the Central Valley and southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southward through Mexico, according to native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis.
These carpenter bees are large (about the size of a queen bumble bee). The females are solid black, while the males are golden/buff-colored with green eyes.
We receive scores of calls about "golden bumble bees." They're the male Valley carpenter bees, sometimes nicknamed "Teddy bears."
The females are the only ones we've seen in the passionflower vines, though.
The males? They must be cruising somewhere else, patrolling for females.
Most of the time we see female Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) laying their eggs on the leaves, and male Gulf Frits searching for females.
A female Valley carpenter bee is covered with yellow pollen. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Female Valley carpenter bee on a passionflower blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Call it serendipity.
Call it a prize from the sky.
Frankly, it's not every day that a newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, lands at your feet. It crawled from its chrysalis, hinged to a eight-foot high tree limb near our passionflower vines (Passiflora), and fell, quite unceremoniously, on a bed of wood chips.
Right where I was standing.
At first I thought a scrub jay or an European paper wasp (which keep an attentive eye on the Gulf Frit population in our yard) had nailed it.
No. This was newly emerged. It looked like a plop of red, orange and silver paint, its body limp, its antennae crumbled, its wings still damp.
I lifted it gingerly and placed it on a Passiflora to dry off. Did it fly off in five minutes? Ten minutes? Half an hour? No, it stayed for two hours. When scores of male adult butterflies ventured down to check its gender and then left, I figured it to be the same gender.
A boy butterfly.
If it were female, a male would have mated with her in minutes as one did several weeks ago when a female emerged from a chrysalis. (That, however, is not the only way you can tell gender! There are abdominal differences and males are more brightly colored, a deeper reddish-orange, than the females.)
Boy Butterfly leaned his head back, opened and stretched his wings, and finally, he took off, touching me on the shoulder as he floated by.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis who monitors the butterfly population in the Central Valley, is glad to see the Gulf Frits making a comeback in this area. He writes on his website:
"this dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century--we don't know how--and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s. It can be quite common in the East and South Bay--particularly in Berkeley--and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions. According to Hal Michael, who grew up in South Sacramento, this species bred there in abundance on garden Passiflora in the early 1960s. It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
As for Boy Butterfly, a loudly buzzing female Valley carpenter bee attempting to forage on a flower near his head, prompted his rather abrupt departure.
Newly emerged Gulf Fritillary butterfly, fresh from its chrysalis, lands on a bed of wood chips. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Fritillary starts to stir. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Fritillary drying off on a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Fritillary slightly opens its wings. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
First opening of the wings. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Another butterfly comes down to investigate. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
One last spread of the wings, and it's off. It's a male.(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Your mother laid an egg, you hatched into a caterpillar, and you're eating as much as you can before you spin into a chrysalis and then emerge, as a butterfly, ready to start the life cycle over again.
You are not aware of the European paper wasp, its long legs dangling, moving through the leaves and eating the newly laid eggs around you. The wasp lurks in the deep, dark shadows as you finish one bite and reach for another.
Then you see the predator coming after you.
It does not end well for you. You have become protein for the wasp to feed its young.
For several weeks now, the European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) have wreaked havoc on the Gulf Frit population on our Passiflora. Sometimes they pair up in twos, sometimes in threes and fours, and once a horde of five descended
They follow the fluttering butterflies as they touch down on a leaf to lay an egg. Then they eat the eggs, kill the caterpillars, and tear apart the chrysalids.
European paper wasps are relatively new invaders from Europe; they were first spotted in the United States in 1981 in Massachusetts. They are now colonizing the entire country, taking over the native wasps' territory.
There's good news and then there's bad news. If you like having European paper wasps around to prey on the larvae of hornworms, cabbageworms and tent caterpillars, then you may consider them beneficial insects. But if you're trying to rear a few butterflies, such as the Gulf Fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae), then they're Public Enemy No. 1.
Studies show that they can also be cunning.
According to an article out of Michigan State University: "A Cornell University researcher has found that certain female wasps, without nests of their own, 'sit and wait' for an opportunity to adopt an orphaned nest or hijack a nest from another queen. These sit-and-wait female wasps prefer to adopt the most mature nests, probably because these nests will produce workers the soonest, and colonies with workers are very likely to survive. Once a queen adopts a nest she will eat the former queen's eggs and young larvae and replace them with her own eggs. The older larvae and pupae, which belonged to the former queen, are allowed to complete development and may eventually help rear the adopting female's offspring. Ferocious hunters, paper wasps feast on caterpillars."
"The nests are usually founded by a single Queen or Foundress, who starts her nest in May having hibernated as a mated queen throughout the winter often in the company of all the other mated females from their parental nest."
See photos of European paper wasps on BugGuide.net.
Meanwhile, we figure that only about 10 percent of the Gulf Frit eggs will ever make it into butterflies--no thanks to assorted predators.
But a few will make it, and what spectacular butterflies they will be!
A European paper wasp on the hunt. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A European paper wasp attacks a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The European paper wasp tears apart the caterpillar, food for its young. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Complete metamorphosis. Complete awe.
In our yard, the Gulf Fritillary butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) are laying eggs on our passionflower vine (Passiflora). They deposit the eggs on top of the leaves, beneath the leaves, or on the tendrils.
An egg hatches, and a caterpillar--a very hungry caterpillar--emerges. It eats as if there is no tomorrow, and for some, there IS no tomorrow. Predators, including birds, spiders, praying mantids and European paper wasps, await them.
Humans also kill them with pesticides because the caterpillars do what they're supposed to do--eat the leaves. Skeletonized plants in the garden? Horrors, what would our neighbors say?
But, if all goes well, and the caterpillars thrive, the next stage is the chrysalis.
Finally, the adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis to start the life cycle all over again.
Sometimes when you look at the tiny yellow Gulf Frit egg, it's difficult to imagine that one day it will become a reddish-orange butterfly fluttering around the garden, sipping nectar from lantana (genus Lantana), Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and other plants.
Interested in butterflies? When you get a chance, you should explore Art Shapiro's Butterfly World. Shapiro, a distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, monitors the butterfly population in the Central Valley. He's also written a book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions.
And those amazing Gulf Frits? They're making a comeback in the Sacramento area.
And none too soon.
Tiny Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg at end of a tendril on a passionflower vine. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A very hungry caterpillar. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A chrysalis: soon a butterfly will emerge. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
An adult Gulf Fritillary. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)