Journal archives for May 2011

May 16, 2011

Caterpillar season I

I've ever paid great attention to the new years' crop of larvae that follows each flight of lepidoperans... With my first gardens I've sought that will'o'the wisp the "butterfly garden". In the sprayed and manicured chaos of the urban flora, what baloney to think that you can create a happy home for your favorite species. However correct your choices in food and nectaring species, it takes a forest, meadow or swamp to raise a butterfly.

I don't know why this bothers me so much. Some nice people register a 'butterfly habitat"; this involves essentially random choices of "butterfly plants"-- whatever they are. One common sign shows a monarch icon: I've not yet seen one of these with our local milkweed. Of course, those orange and black beauties have an amazing radar for their preferred food. hence: your best opportunity to actually raise butterflies... I've grown milkweed here for 15 years; generally having 3-5 kinds gotten here or there. I emphasize the local; and adults flyng over my yard go straight to milkweed--even ignoring tempting nectar sources. An individual will light on every milkweed; nothing else. But they evince preference for the local stuff by landing repeatedly; and gravid females will lay eggs of it alone. Any larvae will eventually eat the other varieties if repeatedly placed on one of them; but they visibly don't seem happy with such variety.
None of our nurseries--and we've more than one who pitch native species--ever have the real deal. These, and other regular vendors often stock the variety with thin glossy dark-green leaves and festive red/orange flowers. I've see local monarchs lay on this stuff. Pretty it is; but to me not right.
On the Santa Rosa plain I've reliably found milkweed and monarchs in season along the railroad tracks. If you walk from Penngrove to Windsor, you'll find patches every mile or so. Elsewhere: zero sightings in 30 years. Sadly, the light rail project--if it ever gets done--will undoubtedly extirpate all of this by cleaning up and planting lovely 'butterfly flowers'. My pet idea was that the yearly late-springtime mowing of the right of way allowed the steady development of this plant; that springs from a taproot after the May drought, so pops right up after the grasses have died and are mowed. Reasonable? One thing's for sure: landscaping with roundup will finish it all off.
Who cares? I'm sensible of the worth to the multigenerational migration of the cohort maturing here after September/Octobers' visit. Starting in Late August, you may see a few patrolling the milkweed sites; flying back and forth. When a male is joined by a few Monarch, they tussle a bit to sort out who's who. A proper pair will mate immediately; and caterpillars are found until the frost kills the last of the plants. If you look for years, you are unlikely to find a crysalid; despite their outstanding jade-green brillance in a sea of dead grass. But they are there, hatching adults until jack frost. These beauties hit the beach in the prime of young life; to luxurate in the milky sun of wintertime Bolinas. To have must have the best chance of making the turnaround in the spring, it must help to be young. It would help if our doughty butterfly gardeners took up slack in the matter of milkweed.

To get yours, collect the downy flyaway seeds from the bursting pods of October. Indeed: clumps of cottonwool allow you to find the elusive weed in catepillar season when the plants are usually withering fast as they are consumed by hoards of yellow aphids. Many years the butterflies come to scant and withered plantations. I walk the tracks and take larvae off little stubs of milkweed; to the eden of my own lusty plants. Transplanting is hard-to-impossible. I've done so by digging up the plants in January; but to do this you need to know what to dig, and there's not much topside to guide you. With scrupulous care, you've a 50/50 chance. Germination of the tiny seeds is inefficient(maybe careful technique could improve the yield), but usually a massive dose of seed in November will yield a few plants. Once it's in, it's permanent. In July, the lavender flowers are very nice. By Monarch time the plants have declined horribly; but in your garden a bit of water and dead-heading will allow plenty for these thrifty bugs.

Posted on May 16, 2011 01:09 by icosahedron icosahedron | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 17, 2011

Caterpillar season II

The pipevine swallowtails fly sometime in april; and at times can be abundant locally. They're seen along the watercourses and on those hillsides where dutchman's pipe grows. Sadly, neither this very striking butterfly or this unusual flower are known to many citizens of Sonoma County. The butterfly because it's single flight here is so early in spring(and sometimes curtailed in cold years); the flower because the vine is so shy in retiring into the surrounding vegitation, and it's small flowers coming out in february.
The vine is quite lovely, with the emerald green, slightly fuzzy, heartshaped leaves you can see in my picture of a larval pipevine. If you trellis it in dappled sunlight, it eventually gets thick; but it is never going to be a garden favorite. Still, in a shady corner not otherwise used, it is quite attractive. the point here is that it is another of those plants which had a powerful attraction for the adults. Indeed, a local--and unusually thoughtful--exponent of 'butterfly gardening' built her little oasis around this butterfly and it's host. You will be frustrated trying to transplant any native vine, but can locate it in many nurseries catering to native plant enthusiasts. You also need patience, as it won't grow much the first two years
Adult pipevines are arguably our most tropical-appearing butterflies. the males are glossy black with a small amount of blue or green iridescence. The females, alas are less jet and don't shine at all; but are still indubitably large black swallowtails. The locals are small as first flights are; doubtless these are much more impressive in their wide range in the southeast with multiple flights over a long humid summer.
The larvae are unlike almost all our swallowtails--most of which are variations on the tiger swallowtail template, with correspondingly similar larvae. Shiny jet segments with impressive orange tubercles that make you hesitate to pick them up must be a protective decoration. More to the point, like all papilionidiae, they extrude scent horns suddenly when menaced or mishandled. With the local Anise Swallowtails you get a strong whiff of licorice; and I presume these beasts shock their foes with something of the pipevines, but I'm too dull to detect it. Their chrysalids are extravagantly baroque, with touches of that golden stuff that gave rise to the name of "the little golden ones''.

Posted on May 17, 2011 23:40 by icosahedron icosahedron | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 19, 2011

Caterpillar Season III

One of my interest has been moths in general, despite the huge complexity of the area. A week gets you conversant with most of the things about all the butterflies in your American Home; but nobody really knows their nocturnal brothers and sisters. One year I was delighted with an underwing present in unusual numbers and posted it on a site when I couldn't find it's ID. It turned out to be hugely common: not worth listing or showing online.
Thus, I'm never snarky when someone shows me a silkmoth( or part of one), an obviously rare treasure blown here from China or somewhere. That an experienced hunter can find their cocoons on wintery branches any year does not mean the neighbors ever saw anything. Happily silkmoths--like most butterflies--rarely damage folage to the extent that you can find their larvae despite their impressive size. When i approach a house to ask if I can take polyphemous from a birch; the incredulous owner is only gratified that I can eliminate a fearsome pest. I suppose I could have told them that they were big spiders; but it's hardly necessary to lie.
Their emergence is a treat, with the usual remarkable tranformation from a hideousity to a gem-winged wonder. A few times I've been tempted to restrain the girls in a 1" mesh hardware cloth enclosure to see the boys arrive. Since reading Fabre's " the great peacock moth" as a boy I've wanted a room full of eager males with their beautiful feathery antennae . Alas, I doubt you could do it here(not true in other areas of N. America). We just don't have enough of 'em.

Posted on May 19, 2011 18:20 by icosahedron icosahedron | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 21, 2011

Caterpillar Season IV: Playing God

There are various reactions to my lifelong habit of collecting caterpillars: few of them favorable. In my aging and jaundiced eye, I see a trend to a reflexive negativity about this hobby. First of all,few people like worms in person; although--of course-- they are universally thought to be excellent in the abstract or in their place facilitating the growth of fancy lettuces. Aside from the disgust factor, there is that of reasoned concern that I am somehow upsetting the balance of nature. or the principled concern that i may destroy a precious tiny life. For my part, I find it hard to believe that I personally can have much impact on the world 'o bugs... I am not the DuPont Corporation. And in the ultimate weighing of my sins before the throne of god, I'm skeptical that St. Peter is going to dwell very long on my Butterfly collection(1958-61). Still, I hate to offend persons of sensibility. If i could avoid it , I would. i've not pinned a specimen for decades. but I cling to the caterpillar thing.

In many specific instances, I perceive that my little victims fare rather better in my clutches than in the wild. many and many a caterpillar I've plucked from a withered wisp of its host plant in a dry field: clearly it would die unmolested. In virtually any case, survival chances are greater in one of my zoos than in the field. Of course, birds, parasitic wasps etc. etc. need love and dinner too. How dare i interfere!

My opinion: it is rather too late in the game to be too sensitive about these issues, given our collective massive, prolonged and continuous interruption of nature. The guy who collects bugs is way down the list of malefactors.

Where I really feel vulnerable is when I get some exotic creatures to play with. I've gotten cocoons from friends unsolicited; and never managed a reproach. This year, charmed by Mr. Oehlke's site, i blew out the stops and ordered 10 cocoons. And as luck would have it, i got mostly Lunas when I ordered the locally occuring Polyphemous and hyalophoria species. Therefore, the rest of you can brace for the coming plague of Lunas. Cane toads, killer bees, brown snails... and now this!

I'm not helping my case by being unrepentant. Certainly by themselves these charming creatures are unlikely to give serious offence. Their asocial catepillars will not wreak havoc on our precious grapevines, or even be noticed where they do nosh. You don't need to tell me of the stern law of unintended consequences; they might carry some horrible plague. Who knows? But since they are here, I'm not going to step on them. That would be playing God.

Posted on May 21, 2011 04:24 by icosahedron icosahedron | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 23, 2011

Caterpillar Season V: It's not always Mother's fault

Although heavily laden with the usual maternal guilt when she went too early to her reward at age 62, my mother had little to do with my caterpillar habit. True, she went out and bought some fine netting to make butterfly nets for my brothers and I; but the whole thing was beyond her control by that point. I suppose she could have been more censorious about certain aspects of our bug collecting; but she just wasn't that sort. Rather, she made us fine nets when the store-boughten ones quickly fell apart when deployed in the real world of thorny shrubery.

It was my brother David who started it all. As he was four years older, I don't recall--never knew--what started him on this path. What I do remember is the case my father made: about 2 x 3 feet, cork lined, glass covered; and replete with the special thin pins needed. Brother has an unusual orderly mind; so the insecta were displayed by class groups after being pinned and dried in balsa boards, and not cased until getting each a small tag with the appropriate facts. Years later, it paid off in invertebrate zoology when already knew my Orders.

Our text was the magisterial " Golden Book" editions covering respectively Butterflies, Moths and Insects(Reptiles and Amphibia, Birds, Rocks and Seashells are another story...). In my life since I've not seen their equal for succinct presentation of the essential in the accessible. Like many of my age, I see the computer as accelerating our downward spiral into confused prolixity in the last decades; a trend that can only lead to chaos; thank providence that Herbert Zim is not here to see it... My brother set about writing his own insect book, and I emulated him fitfully-- hampered a bit by not being able to read or write. Sorry to say, I don't know how far he got; but it would be no surprise if he's still got it.

What I brought to the enterprise was a certain ruthlessness and persistence in the hunt. I suspect that these qualities are not taught or learned; only unleashed in the propitious circumstances. In this area, I was an able colleague. One of our many stops was a vacant lot on Melrose Avenue, where wild anise grew. On this tender and lacy species, we'd inspect each plant for the tiger-stripped larvae of the Anise swallowtail. In season, we often found our lawful prey. Being boys, we'd not resist the temptation to repeatedly induce their protective display of their scent horns: each time with an reinforcing whiff of licorice.

Sorry to say, it's vastly easier to kill and mount a butterfly than raise a caterpillar through metamorphosis. I suppose I should have given that part up as a dead loss then, and let the statute of limitations run out on such boyish crimes. Now, it's far too late, and I might as well get the joy of it before facing my accounts.

Posted on May 23, 2011 14:58 by icosahedron icosahedron | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 26, 2011

Homage to the Snail

Is the story about a home-sick frenchie bringing down the plague 'o snails a base canard? I've never checked, because it's too good a story to risk disproving. Certainly these are the edible type; and a potential bulwark against hunger if it comes to armageddon. Do you doubt they'd only be encouraged by the effects of what Terry Southern called(and the immortal Slim Pickens got these choice lines) 'nuclear combat' ?
My formidable Invertebrate Zoology professor told us he'd surveyed populations in his LA garden(contained in a standard 50 x 150 foot lot), and picked 100 of these per diem one summer without reducing their density. I've never found cause to be skeptical. I wonder--I've the same question about eating acorns-- why nobody seems to want to utilize this source of high-quality protein. At least we could dispense with the compelling need to oysterfarm in Pt. Reyes by turning to this equally cherished molluscan treat.
My lifelong antagonism directed against the brown snail is the very metaphor of futility. Sysphus, forsooth! Nothing--and I mean nothing--is off the table in this vendetta between us apex parasites. My most satisfying ally was a box turtle; who would elegantly seize them by the neck while delicately hooking one claw over the rim of the shell's mouth and extract the beast with a flourish worthy of Brillat -Savarin. Or when impatient, just open wide, and crunch! Or give a brace of little boys a salt shaker...

Today is a day after rain, and I tarried when leaving after stepping on several by accident. I grabbed my trusty bucket and picked 376gms of snail in 5 minutes. These go into the compost. Set around are also 10 cups with a young friend's rejected home beer. Matt told me he'd some results with this oft-mentioned technique. An indeed, I have about 15 floaters in the beer. Hence: at least as helpful as a pet turtle. Matt says that they are attracted to the yeasty smell, and are dehydrated by the dilute alcohol: an important point, as they must suffer as they die!

So what's so bad about metaldehyde bait? It does work; so any gardener who never uses it may be suspected of insincerity. My technique is to cruise with light and bucket on any damp morning, or after dark after watering. Their distribution is always in clusters; so whatever you set out is put where you found large numbers. With metaldehyde, the next morning you'll see 10X what you hand picked clustered on the bait. i suppose a rigorous and systematic program might actually suppress populations; but I've never really accomplished that yet

Posted on May 26, 2011 14:30 by icosahedron icosahedron | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment