Backyard Orchard News
Our buddy, the resident praying mantis, appears to be in perfect form.
Crouched beneath the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), he glistens in the early morning light, as honey bees, long-horned bees, Gulf Fritillary butterflies and fiery skippers search for food. The flower is his beach umbrella, colorfully shading him but also stealthily hiding him.
Finally, he makes his move. He slips up and over the petals and perches on the head of the blossom. As he does, he swivels his head 180 degrees, checking out the photographer and the camera. No predator, no problem, he apparently decides. He assumes the position, folding his spiked forelegs.
A fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) floats by, almost touching down next to him. The praying mantis leaps, just as the startled butterfly spins away. A near miss.
A Gulf Fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) flutters by in his air space, unaware of the "no fly zone." The mantis lurches forward as the butterfly soars. A wide miss.
Praying Mantis: 0.
Sometime a miss is as good as smile.
Praying mantis hides beneath the petals of a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Are you looking at me? (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A leap and a near miss as a startled fiery skipper spins away. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The Gulf Fritillary moves out of the way of the praying matnis. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Bee food. That's what the globe artichoke is. Bee food.
Many of us let our artichokes flower, not because we don't like the vegetable, but because we like bees better.
Whether you see bees flying in formation, or in a gaggle (lacking organization), they're making a beeline to the artichoke (Cynara cardunculus).
Although native to the Mediterranean region, the artichoke is California's official vegetable, as proclaimed on April 10, 2013 by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. And why not? California produces nearly 100 percent of the U.S. crop, and Monterey County (home of Castroville, the self-proclaimed Artichoke Center of the World) accounts for 80 percent of the crop.
We never tire of watching the bees navigate "the purple forest," threading in and out of the petals, trying one entrance and exiting another and returning like giddy explorers without a map.
Humans would need a GPS or an app for that.
Honey bees flying in formation toward an artichoke in bloom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Carrying heavy loads of pollen, bees look for more. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A hot spot! Honey bees engage in a little pushing and shoving. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
There's something about the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) that makes folks foam at the mouth.
That's because butterfly expert Arthur Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, offers a pitcher of beer for the first butterfly of the year that's brought into the department from the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Sacramento.
The contest is all part of Shapiro's 43-year study of climate and butterfly seasonality. He monitors the many species of Central California butterflies and posts the information on his website, Art's Butterfly World.
The cabbage white "is typically one of the first butterflies to emerge in late winter," he says. Since 1972--the year he launched the "beer-for-for-a-butterfly" contest--the first flight has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20.
The good professor almost always wins his own beer-for-a-butterfly contest because he knows where to look.
This year Shapiro netted his prize winner at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14 in West Sacramento, Yolo County. He collected the male on the south slope of the railroad tracks where “I've caught at least half of the first-flight cabbage whites.” The temperature hovered at 62 degrees, but soon rose to 70 degrees.
He caught it in mid-air with a self-described "ballet leap."
Contest over. All done. However, for months afterwards, would-be contestants, aka beer lovers, find a cabbage white and ask "Did I win?" Well, no...
Last weekend I followed a stunningly beautiful cabbage white in our bee garden as it nectared catmint. Usually these butterflies move so fast there's no chance of capturing them in mid-flight, but this one seemed to cooperate.
Pieris rapae! Pieris rapae! Pieris rapae! I almost executed a ballet leap. Hey, Art, did I win?
(Editor's Note: Read about the cabbageworm larvae on the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management site.)
Cabbage white butterfly in mid-flight. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Cabbage white nectaring on catmint. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The look of a lady. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
When do you start? What should you do?
Newly retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, continues to field questions. He's kindly agreed to respond to beekeeping queries until the new Extension apiculturist, Elina Lastro Niño of Pennsylvania State University, comes on board in September. (Actually, we expect to see Mussen buzzing around Briggs Hall and at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility quite a bit in his retirement years.)
Some questions come from 4-H leaders who organize the youth beekeeping projects.
Mussen is quite familiar with 4-H (head, heart, health and hands), a youth development program that emphasizes "learning by doing" and "making the best better." For decades, he's judged the annual California State 4-H Beekeeping Essay Contest.
Since 4-H'ers usually launch their projects in late summer or early fall, continuing through June, does a beekeeping project lend itself to that schedule?
No, not in the late summer or early fall.
"I won't tell you that you cannot start a colony of honey bees in the late summer or fall, but they will have a real uphill battle," Mussen recently told a 4-H leader. "The colony has to have enough time and food to rear a large enough colony population to make it through the winter. The harder part is having access to enough nectar and pollens to rear all the brood they need and still have enough extra nectar to store as a honey crop to get them through winter. They also need quite a bit of stored pollens to consume slowly during the winter and consume like crazy when brood-rearing starts for real around the end of December."
"Also, it will be a bit difficult to get a bunch of bees at this late date, unless you are in good with a beekeeper who will sacrifice a colony. And, if that is the case, I would take everything and overwinter it. Next spring you can split off some bees if you wish to raise a 'homemade' package."
Mussen says those who wish to reserve a package for next spring, should contact the bee breeder now. "They will be booked solid, due to winter colony losses this winter. You may have to hunt around for a smaller operation that will deal with “onesies.” The bigger producers sometimes do not like to ship less than 100 at a time.
"Otherwise, chase down a local beekeeping club and add your request (and dollars) to a larger order that the clubs put out in the spring. While packages can be obtained in late March, the mating weather can be pretty 'iffy.' A week or two into April sounds better to me."
So, bottom line: if you want to keep bees, contact the bee breeder now. Join a local beekeeping club and find a mentor; read beekeeping magazines, journals and books; and peruse back issues of Mussen's online newsletter, from the UC Apiaries and his Bee Briefs.
A drone (male bee) emerging. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
This frame is buzzing with bees. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
We have strippers.
Not anything to do with that thriving business known as "The Strip Club" in Las Vegas.
The strippers we have are Gulf Fritillary caterpillars, which can skeletonize their host plant, the passionflower vine (Passiflora) faster than you can sing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (Mary Poppins movie) forward and backwards ("Dociousaliexpilisticfragicalirupes").
Seems as if one minute the plant is bursting with shoots, tendrils, leaves, flowers and stems, and the next minute, nothing but lots of little larvae.
But we like it that way. The tiny reddish orange caterpillars will turn into glorious reddish orange butterflies, Agraulis vanillae. It's a tropical and subtropical butterfly with a range that extends from the southern United States all the way to central Argentina, according to butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who has monitored scores of butterfly species in the Central Valley for more than four decades. (See his website.)
You probably remember the story. Back in September of 2009, the professor excitedly announced the re-appearance of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly in the Sacramento metropolitan area after a four-decade absence, and in the Davis area after a 30-year absence.
The showy butterfly colonized both south Sacramento and the Winding Way/Auburn Boulevard area in the 1960s but by 1971 "apparently became extinct or nearly so," recalled Shapiro, who moved to the Davis area in 1971.
True, some gardeners don't like to see their plants reduced to a skeleton, something they think should appear only on Halloween night.
But to us--and many others--passionflower vines are just food for the caterpillars. To be a butterfly, you first must be a caterpillar.
Two Gulf Fritillary caterpillars meet on a stem after having munched all the leaves. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A trio of hungry Gulf Frit caterpillars. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gulf Frit catepillar does an end run. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Two Gulf Fritillaries ready to mate. Note the decimated leaves around them. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)