Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Monday, September 2, 2013

New Resident in Archie's Garden

Yuck! While working in the Archie's Garden, Elizabeth noticed a gigantic and gross bird dropping on the leaf of an orange tree.
But hang on a second! There's something suspicious about that bird poop.

Hey... wait a minute ...
It turns out that it wasn't what it looked like... As you can read here, this is a caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly.

It's moving!

To protect itself from predators, this species uses "bio-mimicry," a fancy word for disguise. Unlike some caterpillars who depend on hiding under leaves, or only moving when it's dark out, the Giant Swallowtail caterpillar can stay right out in the open. Most predators will think like we did — that's just a bird poop — and will not pay any more attention.

(as always, click on the pictures for larger versions)

Sunday, August 11, 2013


This summer, very few Monarch butterflies have come to Archie's Garden. We have a brand new butterfly fort to protect caterpillars against wasps, but we don't have any caterpillars to protect. There are whole days that go by when not a single Monarch comes to visit. We're trying not to worry, but we don't really know what's going on.

The story is different when it comes to Swallowtail butterflies. We've had far more of these fast-flying butterflies than we've ever had in the past.

Swallowtail Butterflies (Papilio polyxenes) use fennel, parsley, and dill for their host plants. We have some fennel where caterpillars have been munching.

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Another Caterpillar

While Monarch caterpillars hang in a "J" shape before they pupate, these Swallowtail caterpillars create a silk "seatbelt" for themselves, and curl with their heads upright.  Interestingly, when these caterpillars have pupated, we've seen two very different looking pupae. On a wooden post, the pupa is mottled blacks and browns, while on the fennel stalk the pupa is yellows and greens. We don't know if it's camouflage, or if we are seeing two different species.

Caterpillar with
Silk "Seatbelt"



Yesterday, the dark pupa eclosed. I wasn't there when it happened, but I discovered the butterfly shortly afterward. It had damaged its right fore-wing. I was worried that it might not be able to fly. However, after an hour, it had fluttered a short distance, and was resting in the sun. A few hours later, it was gone. I hope that it succeeded in flying off to new adventures!

Just Eclosed

Pupa after eclosure


Wing Detail

(as always, you can click on the pictures to see bigger versions).

Friday, June 21, 2013

Russell Crow Visits Archie's Garden!

I thought this crow was sick.

At first I was very worried. I came home and as I was about to open my front door, I saw this disheveled crow sitting near our stoop. He wouldn't fly away, just sidled away from me as I moved closer. Uh-oh, I's sick (and we have West Nile in our crow population here in Mar Vista.) I didn't know what to do, but I did know not to touch it.
Baby crows have blue eyes. 
He sat there for several hours, moving very little. I took a few photos, and good thing I did.

We tried keeping an eye on him and were worried that one of the local cats would get him. We started looking around for crow rescue societies.

However, as nightfall approached he struggled to climb up into rose bush. I put out some water on a platform and he drank a little. In the morning he was still in the rose bush.

Russell climbed into the roses at night for safety.

But then I found some websites that explained the whole thing. Little Russell, as we called him, wasn't sick. He was a baby crow--a fledgling--that had been pushed out of the nest. However, he hadn't been abandoned by his parents; in fact, his parents were nearby, waiting to feed him and keep him company.

We identified that he was a baby from the photos I took--baby crows have blue eyes, and adult's eyes are brown. Sometimes crows push fledglings out of the nest before they can fully fly so they aren't sitting ducks (as it were) if the nest is attacked.

Russell drinking some water
Russell and one of his folks. 
During the day Russell would hide in the thicket in our front yard, then climb up into the rose bushes at night. Sure enough, his parents would come feed him regularly. A few days later, we saw Russell fly--very clumsily--into the tree next door, with Mom/Dad close behind. The past few weeks he has been flying further and more smoothly, but he still hollers every morning and every evening for food. His cry isn't like a mature crow's squawk, it's like a very loud nasal duck. We're glad to know he's doing okay. We'll see you around the neighborhood, Russell!

Russell contemplating his next flight plan.
If you'd like to know what to do when you find a baby crow, check out these websites. Remember, don't touch! Crows are wild animals, and sometimes trying to help will do more harm than good. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Arrival: Wally Shakespeare

Happy Birthday Wally Shakespeare!

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday! Now that warm weather has come to Southern California, we're finding new chrysalides and eclosures almost every day. This guy arrived this afternoon, April 23rd, so we're calling him "Wally Shakespeare."

We've had quite a few caterpillars pupate on our stucco walls, some not very successfully, so we're delighted Wally arrived safe and sound.

"....Then music is
Even as the flourish when true subjects bow
To a new-crowned monarch: such it is
As are those dulcet sounds in break of day
That creep into the dreaming bridegroom's ear,
And summon him to marriage."

The Merchant of Venice 
William Shakespeare

Golden Jubilee rose at the garden gate

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Scary Things: the OE Plague

The monarch butterflies of Archie's Garden are strange, beautiful creatures. Especially in Spring Time, the garden is filled with flowers and butterflies. It seems a magical place.

Unfortunately, though, nature is not only beautiful, but has a harsh side to it. In the past, we've talked about some scary things. Today, we are going to talk about another scary thing: a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or "OE" for short.

In Archie's Garden, we sometimes see butterflies that have trouble eclosing, or trouble unfolding their wings after they eclose. If the butterflies don't straighten out their wings, the wings will remain all wrinkled and the butterfly won't be able to fly. If they can't fly, they won't survive very long. We call these guys "crumpies" because of their crumpled wings.
Picture of a "crumpy" - click to enlarge.

When we first saw this, it seemed to happen more during colder weather, and we assumed that it was because of the cooler temperature. As we have learned more about monarch butterflies, we now believe it's because of infection with OE.

To find out whether the butterflies were infected with OE, we pushed clear tape against the bodies of crumpies who had not survived. The tape is sticky, and pulls off loose butterfly feathers and debris. We then took that tape, and looked at it under a microscope at about 50x magnification.

Microscope view of Monarch Feathers and OE spores

Another microscope view of feathers and spores

Close-up view of feathers and OE spores

(Click on any of the pictures to enlarge)

The big, roundish things in the pictures are individual feathers from the monarch. The little sand-like grains, however, are OE spores. What we saw confirmed what we were afraid of.  The crumpies are suffering from OE infection.
We don't know exactly what to do. The crumpies usually would not survive the night after they eclosed, so used to put them out on the milkweed so they could feed at the flowers. We now know this was a bad idea, since that only spreads more of the dangerous spores. We will try to keep them isolated from the plants in the future.

We have read about techniques for sterilizing milkweed plants using bleach spray, and other people talk about cutting the plants down in the winter and disposing of the older growth. Because the infection is in the monarch population at large, this might reduce the problem but it won't solve it entirely.

We have plenty of healthy butterflies growing up too, so we're not sure how bad the situation is. We will keep watching and learning, and we will report what we learn here.

Read more about OE.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Mystery of the Unexpected Eggs

Hey... what's that?
(click to enlarge)
It's Spring in Archie's Garden! All sorts of things are happening: trees are leafing out and flowers are budding and blooming.

After taking some pictures of purple freesias, something caught our eye. What's that little white speck on the nasturtium leaf?

Zooming in on the picture, we were surprised to see something that looked a whole lot like the Monarch butterfly eggs that we see on the milkweed plants. This speck was smaller than a Monarch egg (maybe two-thirds the size).

But if it was an egg, the big mystery is what it was doing on a nasturtium. Monarchs don't lay their eggs on just any plant. They only lay eggs on milkweed, and nasturtiums are not related to milkweed.

We went out to take a closer look at that speck. Here's what we saw:
Mystery Egg I (click to enlarge)
Mystery Egg II (click to enlarge)

There were a couple of these eggs around, and all on nasturtium leaves. They couldn't be Monarch butterflies ... but, they sure looked like butterfly eggs! For comparison, here's a picture of a Monarch egg:
Monarch egg (click to enlarge)

When we looked it up on the Internet, we learned that there's a species of butterfly that likes to lay eggs on nasturtiums - and it's a species we frequently see in Archie's Garden:  Cabbage White Butterflies (Pieris rapae):

Cabbage White Butterfly (click to enlarge)

So the mystery was solved!