Backyard Orchard News
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation issued news today that is both disturbing and hopeful.
Disturbing in that the monarch butterfly population (Danaus plexippus) has declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years.
Hopeful in that the monarch may receive federal protection through the Endangered Species Act.
The Xerces Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, and monarch scientist Lincoln Brower, have filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the monarch through the Endangered Species Act. The agency must respond within 30 days as to whether the petition warrants further review.
“Monarchs are in a deadly free fall and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range,” related Lincoln Brower, preeminent monarch researcher and conservationist, who has been studying the species since 1954.
Tragicallly, the monarchs have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat, including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds that contain their host plant, milkweed. The female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and this is the only food their larvae eat.
As Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, told us today: "Might be too little too late but they have to preserve/conserve milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) That's more important than the butterfly itself."
Xerces earlier sounded the alarm on the critical role that milkweeds play in the monarch's life cycle.
Senior scientist Tierra Curry of the Center for Biological Diversity, hammered home this point in the news release: “The 90 percent drop in the monarch's population is a loss so staggering that in human-population terms it would be like losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio.”
And the loss of habitat is equal in size to the state of Texas.
The news release said that the butterfly's dramatic decline is "being driven by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs are born. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, a uniquely potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar's only food. The dramatic surge in Roundup use with Roundup Ready crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in midwestern corn and soybean fields."
Science policy analyst Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety was quoted as saying: "The widespread decline of monarchs is driven by the massive spraying of herbicides on genetically engineered crops, which has virtually eliminated monarch habitat in cropland that dominates the Midwest landscape. Doing what is needed to protect monarchs will also benefit pollinators and other valuable insects, and thus safeguard our food supply.”
Monarch butterflies are known for their spectacular multigenerational migration each year from Mexico to Canada and back, the news release said.
"The population has declined from a recorded high of approximately 1 billion butterflies in the mid-1990s to only 35 million butterflies last winter, the lowest number ever recorded," according to the release. "The overall population shows a steep and statistically significant decline of 90 percent over 20 years. In addition to herbicide use with genetically engineered crops, monarchs are also threatened by global climate change, drought and heat waves, other pesticides, urban sprawl, and logging on their Mexican wintering grounds. Scientists have predicted that the monarch's entire winter range in Mexico and large parts of its summer range in the states could become unsuitable due to changing temperatures and increased risk of drought, heat waves and severe storms."
Endangered species director Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society worries--and rightfully so--that the monarch may become extinct, just like the passenger pigeon.
We are, too. We've seen only two--two--of these majestic butterflies fluttering in our family bee garden this year.
Monarch butterfly nectaring on Mexican sunflower, Tithonia, as a territorial male longhorned bee, Melissodes agilis, takes aim. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Monarch butterfly heading toward a butterfly bush. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
This is milkweed, the monarch's host plant. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
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Are you on a winning streak? Or a losing streak? Or somewhere in between?
The Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) is always on a streak--a gray streak.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, writes about the Gray Hairstreak on his website, Art's Butterfly World. It's one of the many butterflies in the Central Valley that he's monitored over the past four decades.
It's most common in weedy and disturbed habitats at low elevation, Shapiro says, adding that it's "territorial and a hilltopper in suitable terrain, but does very well in towns and cities in the Central Valley. It is multiple-brooded and has a very long flight season, at sea level from February to November, but rarely seen before June in the mountains where it does not appear able to overwinter."
"Its most frequent hosts in our area are mallows, including the weedy species of Malva; legumes, including Spanish Lotus (Lotus purshianus), bird's-boot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), white clover (Trifolium repens) in lawns, alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and many others;and turkey mullein (Eremocarpus or Croton setigerus, Euphorbiaceae)."
We recently spotted the Gray Hairstreak grabbing some nectar on our guara (Guara lindheimer). Its distinctive orange spot matched perfectly the color of the nearby Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
Those of us joining naturalist Steve Daubert's butterfly talk and tour at the UC Davis Arboretum last September also spotted a Gray Hairstreak. The good news is that he's giving another "Butterfly Ecology Talk and Walk," sponsored by the UC Davis Arboretum, on Sunday, Sept. 14. It's free and open to the public. Participants will gather at 11 a.m. by the trellis at the California Native Plant GATEway Garden (newly-constructed garden at the Arboretum's east end, just behind the Davis Commons Shopping Center). (See the Arboretum calendar for more information and a map.)
"Last year at the Arboretum Butterfly Walk and Talk we talked about the co-evolution of the butterflies with the flowering plants, starting in the Middle Cretaceous," Daubert told us in an email. "This year we will set the scene farther back into the Mesozoic Era and talk about the origin of the advanced insect orders, including the Lepidoptera (the holometabolous insects). We will also talk about blue colors in the animals. And we will talk about butterfly gardening for folks here in the valley. We will be looking to see members of the five butterfly families commonly found in Davis."
Daubert is a molecular scientist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology. In addition to writing scientific technical text, he writes short stories, illustrated with his own photographs. He blogs at threadsintheweb.com.
Gray Hairsteak, Strymon melinus, nectaring guara. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Bottoms up! Gray Hairstreak sipping nectar from guara. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
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)