September 16, 2020

After Hurricane Laura

To give you an update from the previous journal post, the repinning of chysallides did not go well. One butterfly got stuck and never made it out of the chysallis, two were eaten by ants, and one butterfly made it. So, if at all possible, don't move the chysallides! I have made a stand for them to hopefully choose as their destination when they begin the pupating stage. We'll see if that helps.

Hurricane Laura blew through on August 26-27, 2020 during the night. It was predicted that the Category 3 (borderlining a Cat 4) eye wall was going to pass right over our house! It turned very slightly to the east and devastated Lake Charles, LA instead. We still had power outages for about a week, trees fell on powerlines, and two houses that we found in town had a tree fall on the roof. Not too bad and was cleaned up quickly. My bamboo poles serving as a trellis for the passionfruit vine were all knocked to the ground and our telephone pole nearby was leaning parallel with the road. There was glass from the street light on the ground around the vines. But the butterflies remained! Many Gulf Fritillarys were seen flitting around the yard the day after the storm! More butterflies may have been pushed up from the southeast.

The leaves on my passionfruit vine are nearly gone. This summer, I've had MANY successful chrysallides! I failed to keep count of the number of empty chrysallides dang and on top of this, we've got our visitors from out-of-town. I hope they can wait to lay eggs until the plants catch up!

While blowing debris off the roof, I found that some of the butterflies are flying over the rooftops. A Gulf Fritillary and an Eastern Swallowtail passed by me and continued on their journeys while flying high.

Hurricane Sally is just hitting New Orleans today September 15 and is supposed to just barely move along while dumping rain (much like Hurricane Harvey did). I may need to expect more butterfly visitors after this second, local, natural disaster.

Posted on September 16, 2020 01:33 by redpenny redpenny | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 18, 2020

Caterpillars Like The Hottest Part of the Year

Three weeks ago (roughly, if my memory is correct), when we got our first heat advisory, is when the Gulf Fritillary caterpillars started showing up. They came by the tens and twenties! A week ago their numbers became more than I could count each day! They seem to prefer the HOTTEST days of the summer.

Well, we're at the time in their life cycle when they wander from the passionflower vine to find just the right spot to form a chrysalis. This group has left evidence of traveling quite a large distance (considering the length of those tiny legs)! I've also observed many more chrysalides than in past years.

The pupating caterpillars are actually becoming a bit of a nuisance. Our tilt trailer, parked near the house during an outdoor renovation project, has around 10 chrysalides. The trailer will need to be moved soon. In addition to that, we have found several chrysalides on my new hog panel, soon to be used for a sugar snap pea trellis, and on the brand new outdoor spigot for my garden hose. So today, I'll be removing them gently and pinning them to some styrofoam that will be placed outside where they can safely continue their transformation. My husband can assist me with this. In one of his homeschooling activities, he raised butterflies. If I can keep an eye on them during this busy time, I'll report back how many chrysalides make it to adult butterfly stage.

I was able to harvest enough passionfruit (aka maypops) to make a little under a pint of juice. The are still many fruits on the vines, but with the rate that the leaves are disappearing, I don't expect the plant to have enough energy to produce the completed, ripened fruit. The fruits are full size, but in the past, the wrinkles never came and the juice sacs around the seeds never fully developed. Time will tell if this happens again.

Posted on August 18, 2020 13:58 by redpenny redpenny | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 15, 2020

Mid-Summer 2020 Update

I've observed a grand total of 2 caterpillars. That's it. You read that right.

It's definitely hot and humid - which seems to be their favorite weather. We had a heat advisory over the weekend. I have triple the amount of leafy vine for them to eat, but where are the caterpillars?!

So, I have thought of 3 possibilities. One, the insect population has cycles that include "off" years in which the population is experiencing a decline after a previous population explosion. Cycles of nature at work. Two, there have been more birds frequenting my yard. Without a cat that is interested in frightening them off (my new cat would rather sleep all day on the cool retaining wall in the backyard), the Northern Mockingbirds have taken to landing on the trellis. There's also a tiny, brown bird who flits in and out of the bushes. He pays no attention to me in the yard and the mockingbirds could care less about my feeble attempts to scare them away. Very tolerant of human presence, these little guys are! I would guess that they fill their bellies with butterflies that attempt to lay eggs on the vines. Three, the overall population of pollinator insects is in decline all over the North American continent, and now I am seeing that here. Everywhere, people are clearing land, building houses and homesteads, putting down concrete parking lots and huge commercial buildings, and destroying the habitat that the insects rely on. People are growing lawns, which removes the flowering weeds that provide food year-round for insects. I had hoped that my home was far enough "in-the-middle-of-nowhere" (Pineywoods forest) that we would either not see this decline, or the survivors would come here for refuge.

My option of choice is number 2. A cycle of population explosions and sharp declines would mean that things are normal AND I could have the best of both worlds: caterpillars some years and delicious passionvine fruit other years.

For now, I'll tend the vines and my garden and see what happens. I suppose I could look at the interaction of stink bugs with caterpillars. The stink bugs have been attracted to the new garden plant that I am trying this year: tomatoes!

Oh! I should mention that March through June was the coronavirus/COVID-19 quarantine period. I spent an extra amount of time in the garden as a result of our voluntary lockdown. It has been expanded and includes a greater variety of edible plants. It was also a very wet spring, which allowed me to place more bamboo trellis poles in the soft ground. So, there has been an increased amount of human disturbance/presence near the vines and the new plant diversity may be attracting a greater diversity of insects and/or diseases - which could be predating on the butterflies, eggs, or larvae without my knowledge. I have to say that I have enjoyed my extra time outside in the spring weather. I am also researching local edible plants - "foraging" as it is called - as kind of a prepper hobby to go along with my "victory garden."

Posted on July 15, 2020 04:43 by redpenny redpenny | 1 comment | Leave a comment

January 29, 2020

Looking Back

(Late August - September) We found 7 chrysallides on our 0.8 acre property. 3 were on the trellis holding the passionflower plant, 1 was hanging from my super huge 1 year old kale plant (3 feet away), and one was hanging on the ironwork column near my front door (34 feet away). I guess I need to research how far the larvae will travel to find just the right spot to pupate. This is important because my trellis is near the road and there are undisturbed wooded lots on the other side. I may be losing some caterpillars to passing cars!

I did notice that I lost more caterpillars during the late summer after the sudden demise of my cat (likely to a hungry owl). I assume that more birds came into the yard as a result and feasted on the fat, red larvae. There are usually two waves of caterpillars. The first wave eats the passionflower plant until there are no more leaves. The second wave waits to hatch until the foliage returns, then devours all of it over about a month or two. Well, while there was no cat to frighten off the predators, the first wave took much longer to gobble up all the foliage. However, the larvae kept on returning! I adopted a new cat in early autumn, and things went back to normal. (Don't worry about the birds, I have safe 100 ft tall pines for them to land on away from the cat AND I have a neighbor 4 blocks away who provides the birds with a safe feeding environment! Lots of feeders all over her yard.)

(October) The local Master Gardeners have a butterfly enclosure for community outreach. Inside, they had some Gulf Fritillary larvae that hung themselves from a contraption that looked like one of those wire mesh bird feeders. It hung on a chain from a wooden timber protruding from the passionflower trellis. I need to research if this is something I need to hang for my caterpillars. It seemed to be a favorite spot because there were 3 pupating caterpillars and 2 more inching their way down the chain. I did notice that there were significantly fewer wild butterflies this year in the open air butterfly garden. Last year, it was hard not to bump into a butterfly (or vice versa) and there was a variety of species. Sadly, not the case this year. Mostly monarchs released by the Master Gardeners in a effort to increase the population and track the migration.

(November) We had our first frost. Before it happened, the plant starting sending up new shoots away from the main plant rather than growing a third wave of foliage on the main plant. I mowed around a few vines in order to feed the new recruits (because they'll just keep hatching until there's nothing left to eat!). I moved the old eaters when all the leaves were gone from the main plant to the new when the new vines reached 6 ft long. Then, the frost finished them all off for the year. I found 2 more chrysallides on my trellis, but they did not survive the frost.

(December) was uneventful unless you wanna talk about the weather. There is a standing joke about how Texas' fall only last 2 weeks. It's true. We our first frost was in November, then, in an unusual twist, December went right back to fall/spring and stayed there for a month. Temperatures having 70 degree F highs and 45-50 degree F lows, who could ask for a better range? Sunny on top of it all. We also had our first dry spell in many months. We also had some weather fronts that brought tornadoes in much of Northeast and East Texas.

(January) Back to winter. Various cold fronts brought lots of rain and cloudy days. Warmer than usual this time of year. No sleet or snow. Only grazing the freezing point for the low temperature (33-35 degrees F). I wonder what a winter like this will do to the insect population?

I attended a Master Naturalist meeting. The presentation that night was about pollinators! I put in my two cents about digging up a native passionflower vine and raising caterpillars. The group confirmed that it is normal for the caterpillars to eat and eat and eat until no leaves are left AND the plant will send up new shoots all over the yard if you let it! I also found out that pollinator species who don't migrate will often hide in leaf litter to ride out the winter.

I might make it a goal for the next year to have the Master Naturalists over when the trellis is covered and the caterpillars are at their peak. Might be a fun outing for everyone :)

Posted on January 29, 2020 21:39 by redpenny redpenny | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 17, 2019

The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillars Have Arrived!

It's been hot and humid here in East Texas. So much so, that for the last 2 weeks straight AccuWeather has issued Heat Advisories asking folks to limit their outdoor activities. Most days are 97 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat index of about 107.

Before the advisories, I had checked my Passionflower Vine every day (along with my other garden plants). With the extreme heat of August, I chose to trade gardening outside for crocheting an afghan inside. I was disappointed in the amount of Butterfly activity anyway.

Today was cloudy with a high of 87 degrees F, so I decided to venture out. Wow, was I surprised!

These insects must flourish in the extreme heat and humidity! Their numbers went from one or two, to more than I can keep track of! My husband stopped counting at 30; he was 1/4 of the way through my Passionflower vine. There are two chrysalides that are empty and one that is occupied. All of the vines (that had overgrown the trellises and constantly required new bamboo additions) had been devoided of the newest tender growth. These ravenous little guys are already down to the middle-aged leaves for their food supply. The largest one measured 1.5 inches long.

Bring on the hottest part of the summer! These Gulf Fritillary larvae can take it!

Posted on August 17, 2019 02:06 by redpenny redpenny | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 29, 2019

Insects Attracted to the Passionflower Vine

Note: There will likely be multiple updates to this journal post, as more insects are observed and identified.

Summer 2018, the passionvine habitat was a popular hangout for Orange Assassin Bugs (Pselliopus barberi). They came to suck the juices out of the Gulf Fritillary caterpillars. They may yet, return this year. Double check the ID, document with photos (Source to use https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/82026-Pselliopus-barberi)

I think I may have seen milkweed bugs last year also. Need to look for this year

This spring/early summer, the Two-Lined Spittlebugs (Prosapia bicincta) are making it their home. Every time I walk out to train the vines on the trellis, I feel one land on my ankle and crawl up my leg. This is a new bug to me, and I have yet to discover what attracts it to the vines. It is apparently a Leafhopper (which explains why they jump on me) and as a juvenile it lives in spit-like foam (spittle) where it feeds on juices from the plant (Source: https://www.whatsthatbug.com/2009/07/14/two-lined-spittlebug-2/).

Update 5/31/19
A new Leaf-Footed Bug has come to the Passionvine habitat! Acanthocephala terminalis (one of the Leaf-Footed Bug family) has a dark gray body with red feet and red tips to the antennae.

What a coincidence that I found an observation of this bug just a few days ago in Tatum, TX. I decided to favorite the observation in case it showed up here, and here it is!

Update 7/30/19
The first few Gulf Fritillary caterpillars have finally showed up! In fact, one made it to adulthood before I even found it. I have had a lot fewer insect visitors to my vine than I had hoped for. Definitely fewer than last year. Many of the flowers are now getting pollinated and turning into fruit. The plants and insects are not thirsty, that's for sure. It's been an usually wet summer. I managed to catch photos of a Carpenter Bee, Bee Assassin Bug, and my first Gulf Fritillary caterpillar found this year.

Posted on May 29, 2019 19:06 by redpenny redpenny | 6 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 22, 2019

My Experience Growing Native Passionflower for Gulf Fritillary Butterfly Habitat

I have never raised butterflies before. Actually, I had my heart set on raising edible plants. Passionfruit are similar to pomegranate, with juicy sacs around the seeds. However, I discovered that a certain butterfly's larvae exclusively eat this plant and are very plentiful in my area.

In late Spring 2018, I dug up 3 passionflower vines from a nearby clearcut and transplanted them in my front yard. By the time the plants outgrew my store-bought trellis, the caterpillars arrived! They ate the plants til they were nearly bare. The caterpillar population declined, the plants grew back, then the caterpillars came again. This time, they did eat the plants until they were completely void of leaves. I spent this first year observing the population increase & decline and the status of the plants.

in Spring 2019, more than 3 passionflower vines have sprouted near the transplants from last year! They must have developed a good root system before the caterpillars stripped the leaves. I now have 7 individual vines! These vines are behind those growing in the clearcut, which already have rigid semi-woody vines, stiff tendrils, and many flowers. They are long enough to climb the nearby shrubs/saplings. Meanwhile, 4 of my vines are 5 ft long, most of which is still fairly flexible for training on the trellis. I have 1 open flower and several buds. 3 vines are new sprouts.

I observed the caterpillar population last year, rather than interfere, because I wanted to find out how many caterpillars the plants could sustain (and, of course, I didn't have the heart to thin them out, condemning some caterpillars to starvation). I expected to replant this year due to the devastation the caterpillars caused, but was pleasantly surprised to find the plants grew even more stems from the roots!

I did not observe many pupae transform into adult butterflies in 2018. Most of those that made it to pupa stage must have died while inside the chrysalis. I only found 3 empty chrysalides. I did not see any new butterflies drying their wings.

This year, I will tally the pupae and empty pupae. It's nice to know how many made it to adulthood. I could also tally the total caterpillars observed each day, after all, I count them anyway just for fun. I won't be able to get an accurate success ratio, though. The caterpillar numbers go up and down daily depending on new hatches and predation. There is no cover to protect them from hungry birds. Therefore, I don't actually know the starting number of caterpillars to compare with the ending number of empty chrysalides.

Posted on May 22, 2019 16:05 by redpenny redpenny | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment