Monday, December 31, 2007

Weeds and Successful Urban Butterflies

This is the herb garden that I gave to my daughter on December 25th. All those lovely pots AND the ladder came from Urban Ore; it was a great deal! One of the herbs was parsley, which Anise Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars like to eat. But there is so little parsley in the city, we would see hardly any Anise Swallowtails if they depended on this herb. There would also be very few of this butterfly if they depended on their original host, yampah. When the Europeans moved in, they destroyed most of this native plant. But they also brought with them that common weed, fennel, which the butterflies learned to use. Anise Swallowtails are one of those butterflies that has learned to live in cities because it thrives on weeds. Many other butterflies have made this switch; West Coast Ladies, Red Admirals, and Common Buckeyes, to name a few. So, be thankful for the weeds; their tenacity means that there is plenty of food for the caterpillars.

Now for the Pay It Forward. This idea is taken from Celia's blog ( )Is anyone reading my blog? I am giving away plants, larval host plants, to be exact, to the first three people to make a comment on my blog. If you live close by, you can come by and pick up a plant. If you live far away, I will send seeds. I will have to grow the plants, so it will take awhile, but it will happen this year. Also, this contest will be for this year only. If I don't get three comments this year, the contest will be over. Good Luck!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spider Season

I I know this blog is supposed to be about butterflies, but I also like other insects and even other arthropods. So I am straying a bit. Halloween is over, but it is still spider season. More spiders are mature adults this time of year than any other. That is why you see them everywhere. My photos are not great, but that is a garden spider at the top. People are rarely bitten by spiders around here, but people are still scared of them, and doctors use the term "spider bite" as a catch-all for any small wound or infection they they are unable to identify. They are loath to say they don't know. Spiders may look like fearsome animals, but they are really lovely creatures that eat insects. If you want fewer insects in the house, let the house spiders tend their web indoors.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cross Pollination at UC Botanical Garden

On Sunday, Jessica and I had a table at the Cross Pollination Event at the UC Botanical Garden. The day was gray and only the most avid gardeners came, but it was nice that way. I gave a talk about butterfly gardening which was well attended. They laughed at my jokes, which made me feel like a good speaker. Friends of Five Creeks ( asked me to speak at one of their meetings. I was flattered. Jessica was great and I was so thankful to have her help and her company. She came to my house afterward for a cup of tea and a lemon bar. It was the perfect end to a lovely day.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Another Butterfly Presentation

That is Emerson Elementary School on the left, now over 100 years old! I did two butterfly presentations there last week. As usual, the kids really enjoyed seeing the live specimens. What was unusual is that I brought an adult, a live luna, for them to look at. "Is it real?" many asked. Yes, it is real. "Is it alive?" was the other question. Yes, it is a moth, it rests during the day and flies at night. It did look like a beautiful piece of art, but it was far more beautiful than any art I have ever seen.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


I've been raising lunas this summer. I know you have seen them on TV in that ad for the sleep aid, Lunesta. I know why they chose lunas. They are night-flying. But more than that they are beautiful in a calm peaceful way.
I have raised them before, and when a friend told me she wanted caterpillars, I went on the internet to find a livestock provider. I paid for about a dozen eggs, and they arrived in due time. I gave some eggs to friends, so I didn't have too many to raise. Big green caterpillars that like to eat liquidamber. They like other trees, too, but I can't remember which ones.
So of course when the adults emerged, I had to let them mate and lay eggs. Except then I had hundreds of mouths to feed. I want to say thank you to all the neighbors whose leaves I appropriated. As a result, I had another successful generation.
I thought the cocoons would overwinter, and the adults would emerge in the spring. I was stunned to see adults had emerged on the evening of September 13. I gasped! On no, thousands of mouths to feed! I decided that I just couldn't do it, since the trees would be getting fall colors and losing their leaves soon. I can't release them, since they are not native here. And I can't let them flap themselves to death in the house. So I am putting them in the freezer. It is hard, but I think it is the best solution, and I will have beautiful specimens for years to come. But I think next time I will find a native moth to rear.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


Yesterday I spent the day at the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. Lots of different booths were set up for the garden fair: orchids, Peace Corps, herbal pillows, California Native Plant Society, and of course, we were there with caterpillars. Glenn Keator and Arlie Middlebrook were there signing their new book, "Designing Native California Gardens" so of course I had to buy a copy.

Andy spent the whole night preparing insect jars. Of course, they were beautiful as usual. Jessica and I arrived at his house at 7 am to load plants. When we arrived at Strybing, the place was already buzzing with activity. We were all set up and ready by the time the fair opened at ten.

The day went really smoothly because there were three of us working. Jessica quickly learned how to lure people to our table with the invitation to see a butterfly egg. I let Andy sell plants for most of the morning, but by the afternoon I started trying to get people interested in buying. My spiel: "Most people think that they need flowers to attract butterflies, but really, you need foliage to feed the caterpillars. The caterpillars are very particular about what they eat, and we have here an selection of those plants that caterpillars prefer." Very few people were interested, but a few bought the plants for the pretty flowers. Others said things like, "No wonder I have so many of those white butterflies in my yard! I have lots of nasturtiums!" So people learned from us, which was really our main goal. But because Jessica drove separately, we brought a whole extra car-load of plants, and sold more than we usually do. So it was a successful, but tiring day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Butterfly presentations

It has been a long time since I blogged. I have just been too busy doing butterfly presentations at Franklin Elementary School in Oakland. Each presentation was only an hour, but getting the insects ready, copying the art project, and making sure I had all the props took some time each day. I was hired to do 20 presentations, and now I am done. Each class received a egg to hatch into a caterpillar. I hope at least some of classes are able to release a butterfly before the school year ends.

The pictures above are of Andy showing live specimens to the kids. This is the best part of the program. The kids are always excited to see live eggs, caterpillars and chrysalids up close. Sometimes we are even surpised by a butterfly that decides to emerge, and the students get to see all four stages.

The program begins with a quick overview of metamorphosis. Then I show the lifecycle video. After that I talk about how to raise a caterpillar. Then I show the kids the art project. We did several this time: ridged egg, caterpillar, and symetrical butterfly. While the kids are doing the art project, small groups visit the specimen table to see the live insects. Then I wrap up by talking about my favorite form of urban wildlife, butterflies.

It is always much more fun when I have company, and I am always delighted when Andy can join me. This time he helped with about half a dozen presentations. Everything goes so smoothly when he helps.

Franklin school was fun, but I am glad it is over. I have to get ready to teach a class at Albany Adult School.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Marin Art and Garden Center Film Showing

Last Saturday, March 24, Andy and I went to the Marin Art and Garden Center ( to screen my brother's film, "In the Company of Wild Butterflies," and to show people live eggs and caterpillars. It was early in the season, so the caterpillars were quite small, which disappointed Andy, but I love showing people the tiniest live specimens. It gives people the idea that they don't eat they much. When we first arrived, we set up our table
outside. Very few people were there. Andy always posts the sign "caterpillar=butterfly." After all, you can't say that a infant is not a mammal because it doesn't have mammary glands, and you cannot say that a caterpillar is not a butterfly because it doesn't have wings. Andy generally brings a beautiful bouquet of mallows to show people all the wonderful ornamental plants that ladies eat. After we were set up, I went in to introduce the film. I couldn't stay inside, though, it was so beautiful out. The ribes were blooming and the iris. A phoebe was snatching insects flying above the lawn. After the film, many people came to the table. I tried to avoid talking about the specimens because I was recovering from laryngitis. I let Andy do most of the talking. It was a very appreciative audience, and several people purchased the film. One woman brought a mystery caterpillar. After the event was over, I traded my pellitory for a Queen Anne's Lace. We walked over to the office to see the nesting owl on the video monitor. Quite a show! Then we packed the car and drove back. It was a lovely and successful day.

Monday, March 19, 2007

California Tortoiseshells

A flurry of butterflies unexpectly appeared at the UC Botanical Garden on March 12. I counted ten, but I am sure there were more. They particularly liked the shady area on the side of a building. I observed one with its proboscis out, probing the painted surface. What was it doing? The butterflies turned out to be California Tortoiseshells, which overwinter as adults
in lowland California. The one to the left is clearly tattered, as if it is at least several months old. They become active and lay eggs on Ceanothus when the weather warms. I haven't been able to detemine whether we can expect eggs and caterpillars in the Garden. Some authorities say that they go through one generation in lower elevations before they migrate to the Sierra, others say they migrate without laying eggs. I may be seeing the caterpillars eating and growing the the California section of the Garden where the ceanothus grows. I will certainly be looking for them. . At any rate, after one or two generations in the mountains, they migrate back to
the coast to spend the winter. The California Tortoiseshell, native to many states in the western United States, is a beautiful orange butterfly with dark borders and black spots. They have now abandoned the building, as far as I can tell.
The population of this butterfly sometimes explodes. When I was driving through Yosemite in the early 1970s, I killed dozens on the windshield without meaning too. Sometimes there are so many that cars skid on the slimy dead bodies on the road and drivers have to stop to clean their windshields. I saw so many in the UC Botanical Garden, I think this could be a big year.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Caterpillar Cages

Anybody can visit and buy a cage, but most of us have the materials to make a cage at home. Here is one method. This is simply a gallon jar with netting on top held on with a rubber band, a paper towel in the bottom to make frass (poop) clean up easy, and a small vase with foodplant (nasturtium in this case). A fish bowl could also be used. The insects don't really need much air, so a paper towel can be used on top instead of netting. Sometimes the larvae crawl into the water and drown, so it is nice to cover the vase with a bit of saran wrap and poke holes in it to put the plant stems through. I used a pretty vase, but an old spice bottle will do. The main concern, however, is fresh host plant. Take a vase with water with you when collecting more food plant, and put the stems in water directly after cutting them. The caterpillar depends upon the plant for food and water, so it must be fresh.

Another easy cage can be made out of an old Easter basket and netting. I get netting at Long's Drug Store, but any fabric store will have it. Again, put a paper towel in the bottom to catch the frass. Then put in a vase with foodplant. And last, use ribbon or string to tie the netting to the basket. Very simple and very effective. I like this cage because the caterpillars tend to pupate on the handle. The butterflies can cling easily to the handle when they emerge, and I don't have to worry about them falling. With the gallon jar, the caterpillars can cling to the glass and sometimes form the chrysalis on the glass. But since the butterflies can't cling to the glass, they sometimes fall and are unable to expand their wings. I tape long strips of paper towel next to the chrysalids on the glass to remedy this situation, but the basket seems like a better solution.

A tomato cage and one gallon nusery pot make the framework for this cage. If the foodplant is growing in the pot, that is best, but it also easy to put dirt in the pot and put a vase with foodplant on the dirt. Insert the legs of the tomato cage into the soil and cover with netting. The netting is overlapped and tied to the pot at the bottom and tied shut at the top. No paper tower to catch frass is necessary with this cage, the poop just falls into the dirt. If you want to get fancy, sew the netting into a tube before using it to cover the tomato cage. This cage works best for tall foodplants, like fennel.

No matter what cage you use, I recommend uncovering the caterpillars regularly to get a good look at them because it can be hard to see all their markings through the netting or the glass. So take down the barriers and enjoy the beauty of metamorphosis every day.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


When I look outside, it looks like spring! The sun is shining, everything is in bloom. Cherry trees! Violets! Daphnne! Sour grass! Acacia! Daffodils! It is the best time of year in Berkeley. The days are getting longer and everything is colorful: pink and white, yellow and purple, and of course very green from the rain. Pictured above is the aristolochia (pipevine) which blooms before it gets leaves. Those maroon flowers look like dead meat to the flies which pollinate it. The butterflies don't like the flowers much, but pipevine swallotails lay their eggs on it. I haven't had any in my yard, where these plants are, but hope springs eternal. Maybe this year I will have a colony.
It may be spring for the plants, but in the insect world, it is the dead of winter. I have no caterpillars in the house, the last gulf fritillary pupated a couple of weeks ago. No eggs or caterpillars outside. It is very difficult to find specimens this time of year. But I have seen a few adults flying the past couple of weeks. A cabbage white was in my yard yesterday. A California tortiseshell graced a sign on Telegraph avenue the day before. Mourning cloaks have been flying at the UC Bot garden. So I suppose the butterfly spring will be starting soon, although in past years it always seems like it took months between the first flight and first egg laying. I am looking forward to the next crop of caterpillars. I am going to need them for my classroom presentations.