Saturday, August 30, 2014

Here's a quick entry regarding Monarch butterfly caterpillars, diseases affecting them, and ways of minimizing threats. It's estimated that only one out of one hundred butterfly caterpillars reach maturity to become winged adults. Losses include diseases, parasitism, and predation.


Friday, August 29, 2014

"Nerves and butterflies are fine - they're a physical sign that you're mentally ready and eager.  You have to get the butterflies to fly in formation, that's the trick."
-Steve Bull

Several months ago, the garden lost all of its Oleander Aphids: YAY!
Several months ago, the garden lost all of its Monarch caterpillars... SAY WHAT?!


We have a bug spraying company that comes about every other month or so to spray around the base of the house and underneath it, also checking the yard for unwanted creepy crawly critters. Up until then, there were no unwanted critters in the container garden or the yard in general. Before the container garden was created, the yard was a very sterile environment for insects. Cacti, succulents, some rocks, and a carpet of gravel was all it offered.

Enter the containers and almost immediately, the garden became a bug haven of sorts. With the advent of warmer weather in June, the bugs began to appear in earnest along with the Monarch caterpillars.

Enter our bug spray guy:

He routinely checks around and under the house, also checking the yard. Spotting the aphis hoards anchored on to the milkweed plants, he obligingly sprayed for them and surrounding plants with insecticide.


I forgot to mention to him that I didn't want the plants sprayed at all nor the immediate area of the house adjoining the container garden. I was at first elated that the aphids were decimated by voracious predatory ladybugs, wasps, and ambush bugs. IPM works!!!

I then noticed that all of the cats were either dead or dying. Upon closer inspection of the plants, a noticeable white residue was spotted spattered on their surfaces. HORROR!

It was amazing the day and night transformation of the container garden with regards to the insect populations that previously inhabited the site. From a healthy, humming, teeming with insect life (both good and not so good) biome, the Container Butterfly Garden became a beautiful dead zone; sterile and pretty to look at. It effectively became a metaphor for the beautiful but cold Ice Queen.

I was so bummed!

To make a long story not much longer, I waited for the bug spraying guy to make his appearance again, walked him around the container garden, explaining its purpose and intent. He was intensely interested in the concept, and sincere in his enthusiasm for the project. All is well now here. The caterpillars are back -- the aphids too -- plus all of the other little crawling and buzzing bugs have returned. Seeing them again is like wearing a favorite pair of old house slippers: I feel all warm and fuzzy inside again!

How dead and utterly useless the garden was after it was sprayed! Yes, there are the bad bugs mixed in with the good bugs, but if one lets nature balance itself out, a happy medium can be maintained. It took a good month and a half to two months before the cats returned.

I do go in and look for detestable Large Milkweed Bugs in and amongst the milkweed plants during the summer months, knocking them into a jar half filled with water with a bit of dish detergent mixed in. The detergent makes the water "wetter", allowing the bugs to become less hydrophobic and able to drown faster.

Large Milkweed Bugs are not a threat to milkweed plants per say, mainly feeding on the seeds and sap of milkweed seed capsules. Their numbers can explode if not kept in check, and that's what is detestable to me, although they are rather pretty in their own right. I've seen weaker milkweed plants succumb to masses of these creatures infesting them. They bug me [ :-)) ] with their mass presence, so I go after them.

 Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus

If I feel rather rambunctious, I'll even squish some Oleander Aphids between the thumb and forefinger. A messy, but rather rewarding feeling, it really doesn't do much good when aphid numbers are out of control.

So, to wrap it up, this is just a reminder to those that have a bug spray service or an uninformed gardener to please advise them of your intent for the butterfly plants you've placed in your yards.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"The green grass and the happy skies
court the fluttering butterflies."
 -Terri Guillemets 

The Little Skippers

I was going to defer posting this article to a later date until Marion Jacobs in Laguna Beach shot me an email wondering  what were all of the little moth sized butterflies visiting the Lantana bushes up at Alta Laguna Park, so it is fitting to present this article now.

There are numerous species of little skipper butterflies that call Southern California home. Normally colored in orange and brownish hues, these diminutive creatures can be easily identified when perched on a flower by the unique "delta-winged fighter jet" wing posture they assume when at rest.

Fiery Skipper, Hylephila phyleus

The Fiery Skipper is one of the more common skipper species along our coastal and intercoastal zones. There were a multitude of skippers, both Fiery and others, bouncing about the Lantana camara bushes planted between the Alta Laguna Park tennis courts in Laguna Beach, California, in search of nectar. Skippers are especially attracted to lantana blooms. Lantana camara makes for a good potted specimen in an adequately sized container; a 16-18 inch pot is sufficient.

Common Branded Skipper, Hesperia comma

This one is also fairly common in So Cal. The Common Branded Skipper makes its home in England and the Continent too. Known as the Silver-spotted Skipper in the U.K.

 Wandering Skipper, Panoquina errans

 Funereal Duskywing, Erynnis funeralis

The duskywings stray from the more popular skippers in their wing positions during rest. They tend to lay their wings flat versus the fighter jet stance of others. The Funereal Duskywing can be found as far down south as Argentina.

Skippers host on various grass species, both native and introduced. Their numbers usually aren't sufficient enough to be considered lawn pests, whereas the duskywings host on various legumes. Locally, the duskywing host plant is our native species of Deerweed, Lotus scoparius var. scoparius.

Remember: if one wishes to attract these cute little butterflies (and many other species too!) to one's gardens, by all means plant Lantana camara. My opinion is that Lantana is one of the top three plants one should introduce to a yard for attracting butterflies of all sorts, being rather indiscriminate in this highly desirable quality.

These four are just a sampling of the various skippers of So Cal. Skippers can be found in North, Central, and South America, the U.K., and even New Zealand, and maybe beyond...


Friday, August 15, 2014

"Not quite birds, as they were not quite flowers, mysterious and fascinating as are all indeterminate creatures."
-Elizabeth Goudge

The summer doldrums have hit the container butterfly garden pretty hard. As this is the first year of its existence and have introduced many unfamiliar plants that I've never seen before or even heard of, the first season has become an immersive learning experience.

The two basic criteria in choosing plants for the Container Butterfly Garden were their abilities to attract and support various butterfly populations, and for their beauty in the garden.

Container gardening is very different than growing directly in the ground. Limits in root space, the heating up of containers in the bright summer sun with its effect of elevated potting soil temps and subsequent effect on evaporation rates, all add up to a very different maintenance strategy.

Plants grown in the ground have the advantage of almost limitless root space, the insulating effect of large amounts of soil for their roots, and the capacity to accept and retain vast amounts of water for consistent hydration; and the fact that adding fertilizer to the ground tends to keep it available longer in the root zone for plants vs. in a pot where repeated waterings can quickly leach it out through the bottom, shortening the time for their intended benefits.

 Observation has shown that some plants seem to be made for containers, whereas others are not without much coaxing and hand holding. Plant divas are better left to perform on a stage composed of terra firma rather than within the constraints of potting soil in a pot.

As such, next year's container garden will see quite a few divas replaced with container heartier fare. These freed up pots will allow the addition of more milkweed plants which do extremely well in containers. Lantana camara has done well and is a great nectar source. The butterflies here LOVE the three different scabiosas I planted, so, some of the smaller pots will be receiving divisions of existing ones.

The Liatris spicata I'm happy to say, will reside once again in the garden. The beautifully colored flower torches of this butterfly magnet will grace several new and existing pots. The inflorescence of Liatris has a peculiar habit of blooming contrary to the more popular manner of starting at the bottom and successively opening as the flowers ascend up the stalk. Liatris starts at the top and works its way to the bottom blooms. What advantage this gives the plant is a mystery to me.

Liatris spicata, Gay Feather; Blazing Star

How unfortunate Echinacea purpurea and the several rudbeckia I own have succumbed to the heat buildup of their potting soils this summer. During the spring and early summer, they gave the impression of amazing things to come, but since have flagged and even "bit the dust". The echinacea is barely surviving, but I love this plant, so I'll try to nurse it along as best as can be done. Both echinacea and rudbeckia species make wonderful additions to a conventional garden; alas, not so for the container garden here...

Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower

More later on the continuing saga of blooms that bombed.

Friday, August 8, 2014

“You can only chase a butterfly for so long.”
-Jane Yolen

Paul Hengstebeck of Laguna Beach, California recently finished producing his video of a Monarch caterpillar metamorphosing into a chrysalis and ultimately into an adult butterfly. You may remember his initial video we saw a few weeks ago.

Paul also opened a Google+ page showcasing some of the lovely photos he's taken of Monarchs.

The Cabbage White Butterfly

First landing in Canada, the Cabbage White butterfly is an European introduction that hitchhiked across the Atlantic back in the last half of the 1800's in shipments of cabbages and other cruciferous (also known as brassicas) vegetables. Without any natural enemies, it soon spread out across most of North America. Other crucifers include kale, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, horseradish, bok choy... the list goes on and on...

Very common, it is one of the first butterflies to be spotted early in the season. Will overwinter in Southern California, and can be seen almost every day of the year when the sun is shining.

Cabbage White, Pieris rapae. Male, left; female, right.

Cabbage White caterpillar. Somewhat variable in color and markings; mainly green.

The larvae if left unchecked, will riddle members of the cabbage family with holes and frass, making for unmarketable produce and less than desirable veggie garden table fare. For those wishing to enlist more environmentally friendly alternatives to dispatch these critters from your plants, hand picking is effective, although sometimes cats will bore deep inside cabbage heads, making it almost impossible to extricate them. A very effective IPM strategy is the use of  Bt, but beware, fellow butterfly aficionados; it will affect other caterpillars in surrounding areas if accidentally introduced.

I've found them eating the buds of zonal geraniums, besides cabbages.They are also known to attack nasturtiums.

Cabbage White chrysalis. Variable in color from green to brown.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

 “A fallen blossom
returning to the bough, I thought --
But no, a butterfly.”

-Arakida Moritake

Marion tells me that there are eight little Monarch caterpillars that are happy as clams living on the two milkweed plants she donated to the Alta Laguna Park Butterfly Garden. By the time you read this, they won't be so tiny anymore.

Marion Jacobs

Photo taken by Marion Jacobs of two Monarch caterpillars feeding on Asclepias curassavica, or Mexican Milkweed that she donated to the Alta Laguna Park Butterfly Garden. One may notice the color variations between these two. From what I've read, the warmer the weather, the darker the cat. Interesting that one is considerably darker than the other at the same part of the season. From my own observations, the larger cats do seem to be darker in warmer weather VS cooler.

James Vaughn

James Vaughn, also of Laguna Beach, shared the above photo showing how Monarch caterpillars are in the process of ravaging one of the milkweeds he planted in his garden. I was terrible at math; hated it in school. This type of math I like though:

1 conservationist-minded person + 1 milkweed plant = <1 Monarch caterpillar!

Integrated Pest Management

A good introductory article regarding Integrated Pest Management, aka IPM, explains what it is and provides some examples how to integrate it into your own yards and gardens, therefor cutting down and even eliminating chemical pesticides. The key is to implement IPM and stick with it.

A beautiful garden that has been maintained with the liberal use of pesticides is in truth a sterile environment. This type of husbandry dampens the ecological balance a normal system maintains itself with. "Nature abhors a vacuum." is one of the principal laws we learn in Physics 101; same principal applies to botany and biology.

Get rid of everything, then what comes back will fill the void, and pronto. Predatory organisms by nature reproduce slower than the pests they consume, consequently pest populations explode in a sterile environment while pest predators must find and then struggle to effectively control the exploding pest populations.

When we spray for critters, it is usually an indiscriminate carpet bombing approach to the yard or parts of it. Killing these pests inadvertently kills the organisms that feed on the pests, eliminating natural biological controls. When we stop spraying, the pests come back in explosive hoards, worse than when we initially sprayed them, so then we need to spray even more... yada-yada...

For more in depth info on IPM, try this: Google search IPM

The Morning Cloak Butterfly

We will examine the Mourning Cloak butterfly today.

This species is a neighborhood toughie, although not necessarily a bully. Staking out a territory, it will defend it against other butterflies and at times even birds. Very curious creatures, they have been known to land on people's heads. These butterflies are easy to observe close up if you approach them slowly and quietly, especially if they are preoccupied on feeding.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly, Nymphalis antiopa

Mourning Cloak Caterpillar

Mourning Cloak Chrysalis

Also found in England the the European Continent, Mourning Cloak caterpillars feed on various species of willow and Chinese Evergreen Elm. Chinese Evergreen Elm makes for a fine street tree and summertime shade tree. Deciduous, it will let the sun in on those cold winter days. I planted an elm behind the irrigation control panel box at Alta Laguna Park in Laguna Beach when employed as a gardener for the city. The park had lots of adult Mourning Cloaks flitting about the area visiting the elm and feeding on the large butterfly bush plants nearby. Almost every year one could find their caterpillars amongst the boughs of this elm.

This handsome butterfly makes a delightful addition to any garden, butterfly or otherwise. They are especially fun to watch when a Mourning Cloak gets a burr under its tail, begins chasing a bird, the bird doesn't take guff, and a mini strafing battle ensues. Usually short lived, as birds normally are passersby. I've never seen them attacking birds feeding on the ground directly below them; must be a flight response issue.