Friday, June 27, 2014

 “Oh my dear love is so fragile but also very beautiful ... just like a butterfly . Promise me you never put your heart in the hands of savage , but instead give it to another butterfly .”
-Dagmar D.l.R

Summer is well on its way now, as the latest photos below of the container garden attest. There is a constant flow of new and emerging Monarch caterpillars, coupled with a population explosion of oleander aphid on the milkweed.

No worries mate, as they are host specific just as the caterpillars are. Yes, they are ugly, and yes, they can literally cover a plant's stems, but they don't seem to affect their hosts too much; there are plenty of leaves to be had for the munching by Monarch caterpillars.

The only plants I've lost to aphids were those that were already weak for whatever reason. They would have eventually succumbed without the help of the aphids anyway.

Margot Norris of Laguna Beach, California informed me that she just found six Monarch cats on her Tropical Milkweed plant. Congrats Margot! As the season progresses Margot, and if you get bit by the Monarch caterpillar bug, you will need to buy more milkweed in order to satisfy the voracious appetites these striped hotdogs with legs require.


There have been reports on a Facebook page of people purchasing milkweed at their local Home Depot, only to have their Monarch caterpillars croak after feeding on them (copied from Facebook Monarch Butterfly Garden page):

A Cautionary Tale that Bears Repeating:

From MBG Community Member Wendy: "Please warn everyone The Home Depot is selling milkweed with pesticides. A friend and I bought tropical milkweed plants, and transferred our caterpillars to these pl... See More

 That's not to disparage Home Depot; others have bought milkweed plants there without the resultant cat mortality. Basically, buy from a reputable source that will guarantee their milkweed plants to be pesticide free. Ask first before purchasing. Although the nursery personnel may say they don't spray pesticides on their milkweed, their supplier or suppliers may. Locally, Butterfly Farms of Vista, California specifically raises host and nectar plants that are pesticide free with butterflies in mind .

I'm sure there were Anise Swallowtail cats in the fennel. I can't find any, but several days ago I noticed that the fennel plants were all disheveled. Looking closer, I did find tiny caterpillar frass in some of the leaf crotches, but no cats. The assumption is that a larger bird - most likely crows - spotted them and had a heyday with the cats in the plants (sounds like a Dr. Seuss book). As Charlie Brown would say, "Aaugh!"

© Charles Shulz

© Andrew Kliss

© Andrew Kliss

© Andrew Kliss
Large empty tubs waiting for their plants to get larger before planting.

© Andrew Kliss

Friday, June 20, 2014

 “The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.”
-George Carlin

I need to reiterate:
most - if not all - of the butterfly, caterpillar, and chrysalid photos in this blog have been downloaded from web searches. I've received several comments lately about their high quality and the assumption that I took them.

In order to allay any confusion or misconceptions regarding photo authorship, this blog will begin to give credit either to the blog author or Google, which this site uses extensively. I don't have the amount of caterpillars, chrysalids, and butterflies at my disposal, nor the patience to chase down and try to produce quality butterfly photos. I have a cat; trying to corral him at times for either beneficial or seemingly ulterior motives is enough of a patience tester for me as it is.

Butterfly Farms in Vista, California, held an open house of their facilities June 14. They offer butterfly-specific plants for sale on top of regular landscape fare, and is home to the largest butterfly vivarium in California according to their Facebook page, .

Butterfly Farms has recently opened their doors. As such, it is in the process of growing, expanding, and maturing. The visit to the vivarium and butterfly plant nursery was a pleasant way to spend the later half of a Saturday morning amongst butterflies chrysalids, caterpillars, along with some of their favorite plants.

© Andrew Kliss

© Andrew Kliss

This netted building houses plants on sale specifically for butterflies.

© Andrew Kliss

Butterfly plants for sale.

© Andrew Kliss
Butterfly vivarium.

© Andrew Kliss

Once inside the vivarium, one is greeted by a landscape dedicated to supporting butterflies stocked with both host and nectar plants. The watermelon is used as an enticement to lure butterflies and makes for a good nectar substitute when low on flowers. Just about any fruit that contains sugars will work, even oranges. Cut up fruit in a dish and placed in the garden will keep butterflies coming to visit. Change periodically when fruit begins to dry out. Watch out for those pesky Argentine ants, as once they find it, they'll be all over it like flies on feces.

© Andrew Kliss

© Andrew Kliss

This is Micaela, the daughter of one of the owners with an Anise Swallowtail perched upon her forehead. She is the spokesperson, greeter, and unofficial mascot of Butterfly Farms.

© Andrew Kliss
Monarch feeding on lantana.

Male Monarch feeding on Tropical Milkweed. Milkweeds serve a twofold purpose: nectar and host plants. Two gender identifying characteristics are the small black dots on each lower wing with males, and the absence of the dots, plus thicker black veins on wings with females.

© Andrew Kliss

Various instars of Monarch caterpillars chomping away on Tropical Milkweed. Notice the yellowish orange oleander aphids infesting the plant also, which was touched upon in the June 6th blog post.

© Andrew Kliss

© Andrew Kliss
Anise Swallowtail sipping watermelon juice.

© Andrew Kliss

There were several Anise Swallowtail chrysalids on display in the vivarium that exhibited several color morphs, dependent on what color their surroundings are. Above is one in green phase when what it attached itself to was still green. Below is a brown chrysalid blending in with its surroundings. This particular sad looking plant was donated to the vivarium for showcasing the various color forms. Unfortunately, transplant shock got the better of it.

© Andrew Kliss

© Andrew Kliss
Cloudless Sulfur caterpillar feeding on cassia spp.

© Andrew Kliss

The converted clothes hampers above make for great rearing pens. I've been lax with the butterfly web site and have not updated the type of laundry hamper I now use. I really like the Whitmor collapsible laundry hamper for its convenient size and zippered lid.

Is it worth one's time to go out of your way to visit the vivarium? No, not right now at least. If one lives close to Butterfly Farms, the trip is worth the short drive. It is too new and not mature enough to warrant a special trip right now. Next year at this time, the vivarium should be established enough to make a trip worthwhile.

The nursery is worth coming to, as it stocks a varied and large selection of nectar and host plants, with an emphasis on milkweeds. It is a nonprofit; plant sale proceeds go to operations costs, hosting school field trips, and advancing butterfly research.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Know thyself. A maxim as pernicious as it is ugly. Whoever studies himself arrest his own development. A caterpillar who seeks to know himself would never become a butterfly."
-Andre Gide

Finding a few more Monarch caterpillars with each passing week. That's good news, as it affirms the presence of butterflies in a neighborhood sparse with nectar bearing and host plants.

 The Gulf Fritillary

 Many times mistaken for a Monarch due to its similar attire, they are two distinct species with distinct host plant proclivities.

Whereas the Monarch butterfly hosts on milkweed species, the Gulf Fritillary hosts on various species of passion vine. We would not have any "frits" in California were it not for passion vines growing in our gardens.

Gulf Fritillary Agraulis vanillae

The under-wings of Gulf Fritillaries sport large, metallic-luster silvery patches that photographs have a hard time giving justice to. This is one very outstanding notable difference between them and Monarchs.

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar

Gulf Fritillary Chrysalis

Blue Passion Flower Passiflora caerulea

There are a myriad of passion vine species, cultivars, and hybrids one can choose for a garden. A word of warning regarding some passion vines: from what I've read online on various sites and posts, red flowering varieties should be avoided as they are poisonous to frit cats. Whites, purples, violets, yellows -- anything but red should be planted. Also be careful to make sure that any hybrids you may be interested in have no red flowering parentage in their lineage.

The container garden originally was home to Passiflora loefgrenii, but was replaced by Passiflora edulis 'Possum Purple', as P. loefgrenii was not producing as many leaves as wished for in order to support a fair number of frit cats. I was enamored by its blooms, but alas, necessity above beauty. That's not to say P. edulis is the ugly duckling of the passion vine family: far from it! I find all of them to be equally beautiful. How could a parent say one child is more beautiful than another?

I picked 'Possum Purple' over the common P. edulis just to be different, plus from what I've read, it produces excellent passion fruits. Soon I'll be able to sip a tropical passion fruit drink from the front porch while watching butterflies flit about in the container garden. Yes, life is good!

Friday, June 6, 2014

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly.”
- Richard Bach

Now that butterfly season is ramping up, this post is longer than most, covering several different topics. 

Latest Container Garden News:
Found seven new Monarch cats this week. Looking for various swallowtail cat species on my fennel, dill, Queen Anne's lace, angelica, and common rue; all members of the carrot family, or Apiaceae, - except for common rue, which is a member of the citrus family - on which a few members of the swallowtail family host on. Haven't found any yet, but I did see an unidentified swallowtail cruising past the front of the house last week. Also spotted a Giant Swallowtail flitting about the neighbor's dwarf orange tree. Can only guess it was a female looking to oviposit some of her eggs.

The plants mentioned above make wonderful nectar sources on top of being hosts to several swallowtail species here in So Cal. I haven't seen any real nectar gathering on common rue, but that may be due to not seeing this type of activity because of timing: being at the right spot at the right time.

  • Fennel, dill, and Queen Anne's lace host the Anise Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail.
  • Queen Anne's lace also hosts the Giant Swallowtail and possibly the Black Swallowtail.
  • Angelica hosts... I'm not sure yet, as I've only started growing it this year. Makes an excellent nectar plant. Will update.
  • Rue hosts the Giant Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail.
Carrot cousins make for strong butterfly nectar magnets and are necessary host plants for swallowtails. Other members of the carrot family you would be familiar with are caraway, coriander, cumin, lovage, and parsley. The container garden is host to Angelica stricta "Purpurea", an exquisite beauty of a plant. Well worth looking into if one has the inclination to plant this biennial.

Many people plant only milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies, but swallowtails are beautiful guests to gardens too. A few representatives of the carrot family would go a long way in diversifying a butterfly garden, plus they are general nectar plants that Monarchs and others likewise feed on.

Speaking of milkweed:
'tis the season for oleander aphids to start making their appearance on your milkweed plants. These pesky little orange/yellow critters are more of a nuisance and eyesore than anything else, although, if one has severely distressed, sickened, or weak plants, they can succumb to large numbers of them. If you don't find any on your plants, consider yourself very lucky, as they are are pretty much endemic to most of the warmer sections of the U.S. and major portions of the world now.

Oleander aphids, Aphis nerii. The brownish aphids are carcasses of dead individuals parasitised by a tiny wasp.

It is an import that most likely originated in the Middle East where its namesake oleander is native of. It is very host specific, only feeding on a few garden plants here: oleander, milkweed, and hoya are pretty much it. Fear not, as they won't invade other plants one has in surrounding areas.

Tiny wasp parasitising an aphid by injecting a tiny egg in the aphid's body that will hatch to eat its host from the inside, out.

What's a person to do? Certainly not spraying for them, as that will kill any butterfly eggs or caterpillars that may be inhabiting your milkweed, and threaten any butterflies one wishes to attract. The best method is to practice mechanical and biological deterrents. If one has the inclination, one can squish the bastards little darlings between the thumb and forefinger. It's best to let nature take its course, allowing aphid predators to help put a dent on their populations.

The frequent and indiscriminate carpet bomb approach to pest management utilizing chemical sprays is an atrocity to nature. One effectively sterilizes an area, creating a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. Pests return with a vengeance. When one has sterilized an area, one has also dispatched predators, but predators have a much slower rate of reproduction which allows pest populations to explode. So what does one do? ONE SPRAYS AGAIN. AND AGAIN. AND AGAIN...

 This ugly creature is the nymph of a cute ladybug. Ladybugs and their nymphs feast on aphids.

 Adult ladybug, or ladybird beetle as some call it, contentedly munching away on a soft bodied aphid.

 GACK! Ants!

In our warm weather area, we are cursed with another unwanted introduction, the Argentine ant. This little bugger invades gardens and homes and is quite pernicious. They actually round up and cultivate aphids for the honeydew they exude from their bodies, milking them as we do cows. Fierce protectors, they are able to fend off most aphid predator attacks. Bad juju. In order to allow aphid predators to do their thing, one must first eliminate Argentine ants from the garden - or at least on one's plants.

In summary, eliminate or severely curtail the use of pesticides, allowing a natural balance to rule your yard. I do believe in the localized and restricted use of pesticides when all other options have expired, but then allow nature to once again take over.

If you have an ant problem, target them and not the whole yard. There are baits one can place in the garden and house that ants will collect and take back to their colonies which in many instances kills off the colony, or at least severely limits their populations and destructive capabilities.

Milkweed in the container garden is beginning to attract oleander aphids. I do see ladybugs and I've done my share of squishing, and hopefully, predatory wasps have spied them too. Eventually, I'll throw in the towel, stare at the myriad maddening mass of orange/yellow aphid bodies, safe in the knowledge that my Monarch cats are well, my environment is healthy, and biodiversity rules this little corner of God's green earth.

Other News:
Two relatively close So Cal butterfly exhibits that are active at the moment are the ENC Native Butterfly House in Newport Beach, and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Butterfly Pavilion, located in Claremont, California. The butterfly vivarium at Butterfly Farms in Vista is fully now open too.