Monarch Butterflies, in Berkeley?!

For years, George and I have trekked to Albany Hill to count the monarch butterflies for the annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, started by the Monarch Program in 1997. The largest clusters we’ve seen at Albany Hill arrived in 2011.

Monarchs wintering on Albany Hill

Monarchs wintering on Albany Hill in 2011, copyright Heidi Rand

Although numbers decreased for the past few years, early reports for 2015 from citizen spotters are markedly up. Most exciting locally is the discovery of a new clustering site in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park! The news quickly spread from hard-core monarch researchers to locals who had never seen the splendor of monarchs clustering, reported in an excellent article by Elaine Miller Bond on the Berkeleyside news site.

George and I rushed to see them yesterday. We had been told they were near the 14th basket of the disc-golf course, an easy walk from the Park’s north parking lot. Even without seeing many monarchs flying around in the clear winter sky, we couldn’t miss the spot where gawkers gathered beneath an ash tree with cameras and binoculars pointed up.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

We estimated at least a thousand butterflies were clustering, and figured possibly double that many were flying around and would join the clusters for warmth and protection at sunset.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

We watched for an hour as monarchs danced; leaving clusters to fly about and then return. Entranced, we marveled and shared information with people gathered there about planting milkweed, raising butterflies, and other local overwintering sites.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

A closeup shows most of the cluster with wings closed, and one female (the male has two large spots near the veins at the bottom wing) with her wings open.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

Have you seen any monarch butterflies in your garden or at an overwintering site? Do you grow milkweed or provide nectaring plants for butterflies and birds? For more information, and photos and stories about our adventures watching and raising monarch butterflies, see my prior blog posts:

Monarch Butterfly Mating Dance

More Monarch Butterflies

A Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

Monarch caterpillar to chrysalis

First monarch caterpillar emerges

Monarch eggs in the garden!

A Very Butterfly Day

A Butterfly Born on the 4th of July

Finally, if you’re a local, I’d like to cordially invite you to my Holiday Gift Sale and Art Show, the first two weekends of December. I have lots of monarch and other butterfly-related photos and artwork and crafts that I make from my nature photographs. Click here for all the deets.

Anise swallowtail butterflies return

The calendar says it’s summer, but my weatherman (aka George) observes: Brrrrr … . Happily, despite our fog and chilly temps, the Anise Swallowtail butterflies are here on schedule. I haven’t seen any adults visit the garden, but they’re leaving precious yellow eggs on the fennel. The egg on top was probably laid today, the one with darkening bands was likely laid several days ago. This is an extreme closeup shot – the eggs are smaller than the head of a pin.

Anise swallowtail butterfly eggs

I took this photo in 2013 of a female laying an egg (ovipositing) on the same fennel plant.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

We keep the eggs and caterpillars inside in a net cage where we feed them and keep the chrysalises safe until the adult butterflies emerge. We also rescued several caterpillars from a plant in our neighborhood that has been cut down in previous years. This guy just shed his skin (on the right).

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar

See how coloration varies in different larval stages.Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillars

So far one adult has emerged.

Anise swallowtail butterfly emerged

When the sun finally came out I put her onto a lily plant on the deck, and after a minute or so she happily flew away.

Want to see more of these wonderful butterflies and their life cycle?

My 2013 post about anise swallowtail butterflies.

And from 2012.  Another from 2012.  And another!

And from 2011.  Another from 2011. And another!

 

 

Bees Are Bustin’ Out All Over

In the middle of a jam-packed weekend George got the kind of call that makes him drop everything and jump into the car: there’s a swarm of bees in a tree near where you live, do you want to get it? 99% of the time the answer is Hell yeah! So equipped with beekeeper suit and nuc box, a’ gathering we went, George singing: “June June June, and bees are bustin’ out all over!” Oh, a nuc box is a half-sized beehive with 5 frames instead of the regular 10, set up to catch and transport bees.

Zowie! The largest swarm I’ve ever seen was settled in a fig tree in the back garden of a house the next town over from us.Swarm of honeybees

George’s Plan: set the nuc box on top of the fence, and the leftover honey and wax on the frames in the box will lure the bees to move into their yummy new home.

Bee swarm

And in they went.

Honeybee swarm

At dusk, when all of the girls had found their way into the nuc box, George sealed it up and brought them to their new home in a friend’s large sunny garden. We checked on the hive yesterday and were overjoyed to see that these hard-working girls have in a week already built comb on 4 of the 5 frames!

Bee swarm

Take a look at the magnificent queen!

Queen Honeybee

George uploaded a short video he took of the bees marching into the nuc box.

This is my post about a swarm George caught earlier this year, using a bee vacuum.

And click here to read my post about the process George and our friend Joan went through to catch a swarm in her garden.

Celebration of Roses in El Cerrito

Happy Mother’s Day! My mom loved roses, and she would have swooned over the amazing profusion of blooms in George’s garden.

George with roses

All our dear friends: Graham Thomas, Sally Holmes, Mr. Lincoln, as well as Ispahan, Electron, Sombreuil, Double Delight and more are blooming like crazy. George says it’s the chicken poop; I credit his green thumbs.

Rosa Californica (California wild rose)

Whatever the reason, we’re really excited to show them off at next Sunday’s Celebration of Old Roses, our absolute favorite event in El Cerrito. Always the Sunday after Mother’s Day, this year it’s on May 17th, 2015, from 11:00 to 3:30 pm. Sponsored by the Heritage Rose Group Bay Area, the show is held at the El Cerrito Community Centera few blocks east of San Pablo Ave (the main drag in El Cerrito), at 7007 Moeser Lane (cross is Ashbury Ave).  The event and parking are free, and it’s wheelchair-accessible.

Butterscotch Rose bud

The heart of the Celebration is an overflowing 100-foot display of all kinds of roses. Everyone from expert cultivators to casual gardeners bring cut roses to share and show off. The roses are arranged by type, so just by cruising the collection you’ll get a great education! Need a rose identified? Bring it along for an expert’s opinion. This year for the first time children can get a free rose plant courtesy of Tom Liggett and the Heritage Rose Group Bay Area, while supplies last!

Mr. Lincoln rose

Along with the roses there’s a great collection of arts and crafts and flower-related products for you to enjoy -your chance to stock up on gifts for rose and nature-lovers in your life. I’ve had a table with my artwork and crafts at the Celebration for the past ten years, and I’ll be there with the things I make from my original photos, rose and flower-related, including jewelry, scarves, decorated boxes, purses, cards, prints, and much more!

Rose Show

We’ll have our sublime local honey and all-natural beeswax candles from our beehives. If you can’t wait until the Celebration, you can always buy our honey at Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, or contact me to arrange for pickup.

George with honey

Put Sunday May 17th on your calendar — go to smell the intoxicating roses and then stop by our table to say hello. If you have any questions about the show, please email me at HeidiRand@gmail.com

Killing Our Lawn

This guest post written by my wonderful husband George McRae is very timely as California’s long-term drought worsens and it becomes more critical for people to conserve water.

Killing Our Lawn: Or, How We Made the Transition to a Wildlife Refuge, by George McRae

When Heidi and I moved into our house, I saw gardening as a selfish endeavor: vegetables, fruit, flowers were for the enjoyment of humans only. I even installed a lawn, from seed. Then I got involved in local environmental issues in El Cerrito. Creek restoration was at the top of the list, as a branch of Baxter Creek was at the back side of our home. Not wanting to get involved in a “lawn-envy war” with our neighbor, I roto-tilled our parking strip. I terraced it and planted what started out as an English cottage-style garden, but has evolved into a wildlife habitat. The photo on the left is our neighbor’s lawn, our native garden’s on the right.

Front lawns

I started to read National Wildlife Federation literature about how local back and front yards, and even apartment balconies, are the best hope for many endangered species considering how much habitat is being destroyed by development.

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

I began planting native California plants everywhere I could fit them in. Our philosophy evolved into, “if a local critter eats it or needs it, we’ll plant it.”

California grape

We registered as an NWF wildlife habitat. We provide food and water.

Squirrels at feeder

Also required: shelter and places for critters to raise their young. We’ve been rewarded many times over by birds, in particular hummingbirds, raising families here year after year.

Hummingbird mother on nest

And insects galore! Monarch, Swallowtail, Skipper, Red Admirable (Admiral), Painted lady, Dragonfly…. an endless list of species, come here to lay eggs on the plants we provide them.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

Other benefits? With the abundance of California native plants, our water bill is extremely low. We use no pesticides or fertilizers, so we’re not adding downstream pollutants to the biosphere. We evaluate any weed as a possible food source. If not, we hand pull. We use no herbicides, as they are proven amphibian killers. We rarely use power gardening tools, reducing our addition to air and noise pollution and global warming. We prune our trees and weed carefully and during seasons when we won’t upset nesting cycles of birds, insects and mammals.

Towhee eggs in nest

Towhee eggs in nest

W H A T  C A N  Y O U  D O ?

1) Plant local native plants in as many varieties as possible, from grasses to flowering trees, like ceanothus. California bunch grasses have deep roots and hold soils together, preventing erosion and drawing deep moisture to the surface for other plants. Many butterflies use them as larval food sources. Grasses are the basis of a sound ecosystem.

Some local nurseries to learn more and buy natives:

California Native Plant Society (East Bay), Native Here Nursery

Watershed Nursery

Bay Natives Nursery

Honeybee on fennel flower

2) Before you prune, thin or remove trees, shrubbery or other plants, make sure you’re not disturbing nesting sites or life cycles for birds, insects or other critters making a home there. Late August through late November is best, but be aware that hummingbirds can nest all year long!

3) Certify your garden as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation

Gathering O’ The Swarm

It’s spring-time warm here, and local bees with so much pollen and nectar to gather are thriving, which leads to … swarms! A friend directed a neighbor less than a mile away to beekeeper George to gather a swarm that settled on their house.

Bee swarm

The relatively flat roof was ideal for George to clamber onto by ladder, and it was a good situation to try out the new bee vacuum that Joan, our good friend and partner-in-bees, recently got.

Bee swarm

We onlookers down below couldn’t see the large portion of the swarm in the roof’s gutter. George vac’ed them up first.

Bee swarm

Moving on to the bees overhanging the roof, we watched as some of the swarm flew about, but most were drawn into the gentle pull of the vacuum.

Bee swarm

It was much quicker than what George would have had to do otherwise – scrape the bees from the side of the roof down into a box.

Bee swarm Since the bees will have their new home in Joan’s hive, we went to get one of her hive boxes with some frames that her old bees had built on.

Bee swarm The bees will be attracted to the leftover honey and wax on the frames, and migrate onto them from the vacuum. With the box on the roof, the bees that didn’t get vac’ed will sense the pheromones and re-join their queen and swarm. It’s a whole-day affair, mostly waiting around to make sure that as many bees as possible are gathered up. Any stragglers will likely go back to their old hive.

Click here to read my post about the process Joan and George went through to catch a swarm in her garden last year, I think that slow and laborious process was the impetus behind her ordering the bee vacuum!

A Very Butterfly Day

George and I were jonesing for a monarch butterfly fix. This winter’s Big Storm uprooted the largest milkweed plant in our garden, and no monarchs have visited the smaller ones. Our butterfly-spotting treks to Albany Hill and Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, the over-wintering spots closest to us, were disappointing. We saw a few fluttering around Albany Hill, but nothing like past years’ large clusters. One paused on a branch at the top of the Hill long enough for me to photograph it.Monarch Butterfly at Albany Hill

And that’s why we both woke up yesterday morning with one thought: time to head for Ardenwood Historic Farm Park. Monarchs over-winter in Ardenwood’s eucalyptus grove from December to mid-February, and we’d heard through the butterfly grapevine (aka Facebook) that the numbers were good this year.

Ardenwood’s rangers are well-informed and eager to educate visitors about monarchs, from showing the butterfly’s life cycle to explaining the importance of growing milkweed and flowers, and not using pesticides. George quickly spotted a caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf (Asclepias physocarpa) in their garden.

Monarch caterpillar

Then the ranger pointed out a chrysalis hidden under another leaf. An exciting first for us; we’ve seen so many monarch chrysalises in our butterfly “nursery”, but have never seen one in the wild!

Monarch chrysalisAnd finally! Hundreds of gorgeous orange monarchs fluttered above us in the bright blue sky.

Monarch butterflies

George and I, with the other awed visitors, lay on our backs to watch the dance.

Monarch butterflies

Two flew near a red-tailed hawk making lazy circles.

Monarch and hawk

As the sun slanted lower, the butterflies began to light on the eucalyptus branches.

Monarch  butterflies at Ardenwood

We reluctantly left the monarchs to speed through the rest of the Park before it closed (stay tuned for further adventures). Want to see more of my monarch butterfly blog posts? Click these links:

Monarch Butterfly Mating Dance

More Monarch Butterflies

A Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

Monarch Caterpillar to Chrysalis

First Monarch Caterpillar Emerges

Monarch Eggs in the Garden!

Monarch in the Garden

Butterflies & Barbie at the Albany Library