Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Bees sip honey from flowers and hum their thanks when they leave.
The gaudy butterfly is sure that the flowers owe thanks to him."

-Rabindranath Tagore

The Anise Swallowtail, or Papilio zelicaon, is one of my favorite butterflies due to its almost clockwork appearance in mid to late June when I was a boy, heralding the start of summer vacation. Summer vacation was fresh, freeing, and exciting; time to explore! It was a common butterfly that I caught easily in my net, took home, and mounted on a spreading board, later to be placed under glass or configured into little natural gliders (which flew remarkably well when the wings were arranged right) that me and my boyhood friend Wayne would launch from the balconies of the apartments we lived in.


 Anise Swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon

 There are several other swallowtail species residing in Southern California. Two are quite similar in appearance to the Anise, but are readily distinguishable with a modicum of learning and experience.

Before the advent of large populations of people here in California, this pretty little creature was rather scarce. As human populations grew and expanded in the beginning of the 20th century, the Anise Swallowtail benefited.

The original host plant sources of this swallowtail were various species of native lomatium and tauschia, relatives of carrots and parsley. With the large scale disruption of native plant areas due to building, agriculture, and livestock, much of their ancestral range was destroyed. Enter fennel.

The introduction of escaped exotic non native fennel into the environment provided a stable host plant base that Anise Swallowtails readily adapted to -- fennel also a carrot and parsley relative -- replacing the disappearing lomatium and tauschia species.

Fennel found Southern California to be a quite a gracious host and soon escaped people's gardens. Large tracts of fennel soon appeared that Anise Swallowtails were attracted to. There being much more fennel now than there ever was of its ancestral host plants, they also grew in populations along with fennel. What once was a rather scarce butterfly visitor to early 20th century So Cal gardens, by the 1950's, became a common resident.

When looking for Anise Swallowtail caterpillars in fennel stands as kids, we would pick a juicy leaf stem and chew on the end of it for its licorice-like flavor. The flavor is delightful, plus it has mild analgesic properties and is sometimes used as a stomach soother in folk medicines. Anise Swallowtail is a misnomer, as it feeds on the similar licorice tasting fennel rather than anise.

Common, or Wild Fennel; Foeniculum vulgare

Wild Fennel is considered an invasive specie in California, and as such, is discouraged from being planted. Wild fennel is thought to have originated from plantings of finocchio that went to seed, escaped, and over time reverted to its present wild state. It's such a shame that this plant is so unruly, as it supports a variety of beneficial insects amongst its leaves and flowers.

 Anise Swallowtail caterpillar



Chrysalises, or chrysalides, of Anise Swallowtails  can come in various colors ranging from browns to greens, depending on the environment they are in. Colors are used to blend in with their surroundings.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"The least thing upset him on the links.  He missed short putts because of the uproar of butterflies in the adjoining meadows."
-P.G. Wodehouse

Copied from Monarch Watch Blog:

Monarch Population Status: Addendum

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014 at 4:45 pm by Chip Taylor
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As an addendum to our Monarch Population Status report posted on 29 July 2014, I offer the following:
Reports from throughout the breeding range indicate an increase in monarch numbers roughly along the lines projected in May. The migration is already underway having started at 50 N around the 12th of August. The leading edge should be in southern MN at this time and in Ames, IA around the 6th of Sept. Fall roosts have been reported to Journey North in the Dakotas, MN, WI, MI and NY as of 28 August. No roosts had been recorded by the 29th of August last year (see Monarch Roosts Fall 2013 and Monarch Roosts Fall 2014). There will surely be more monarchs to tag over the next two months and the overwintering population in Mexico is certain to be larger. At a minimum, I expect the population to be twice as large as last year or roughly 1.4 hectares but it could be twice that size. We still have to hear about monarchs from many areas and the conditions during the migration will likely determine how many of the migrants reach the overwintering sites. It will help to watch the reports of overnight clusters recorded by Journey North and to watch the weather conditions and note the availability of nectar sources as monarchs migrate through the United States and northern Mexico.

Painted Lady butterflies are a common sight in our gardens during the early spring to early summer, when they migrate north from desert areas in Baja California to where ever they land up in, up there somewhere.

Some of you may have seen and remember migratory, literal waves of these butterflies as they passed through on particularly bountiful years. Abundant and timely rains in the deserts create large host plant populations that consequently are able to support large volumes of Painted Lady caterpillar numbers. In domestic gardens, hollyhocks are a favorite host plant.

Vanessa cardui (Painted Lady) caterpillar butterfly rearing kits are extremely popular butterfly related items, especially in elementary classrooms, that can be purchased online at modest prices. These kits include a container with several live caterpillars, specially formulated Painted Lady caterpillar food, informational materials, and a net cage to house emerging butterflies. For those who have children or grand kids that are interested in nature, or would like to introduce them to one of natures miracles, these kits are complete, easy to put together, and easy to maintain. Just remember to release the butterflies from the net cage after they eclose (fancy-shmancy word for coming out of their chrysalides).

Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui



There are several species and sub species of Painted Ladies in North America. Here is an excellent link with photos describing the various species:

Painted Lady butterflies are the most widespread species of butterflies residing on our planet. They can be found in almost every corner of the globe save Antarctica!