The Four Elements of Habitat

George and I took our “pup and pony show” to the El Cerrito Garden Club today.  He spoke, and we showed my photos on the topic of maintaining a garden to attract and nurture butterflies.

George speaking about Gardening for ButterfliesWe prepared some handouts and I want to share some of the information with you, so here is George’s explanation of the elements that you need to provide habitat for wildlife.

The four critical elements are: food; water; shelter; and places to raise young. All four elements are intertwined and necessary for wild life. No one element stands alone, and without all four successes at providing for wildlife suffers.

1) Food: All wildlife enhancements absolutely require this. Animals of all species will avoid areas unless they can be guaranteed a reliable food source. A balanced ecosystem needs to sustain everything from plants for larval insects to seeds and prey species, etc.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

2) Water : The second partner in the pas-de-deux of life. Many animals need water to even feed, or to provide the food they need.

3) Shelter : The greatest variety of wildlife occurs at the interface of distinct habitat types. Example: an open field adjacent to a wooded area. Birds can feed in the field while having the woods to escape if necessary. And there needs to be shelter for them for waiting out inclement weather, or for night-time. Brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff” all provide shelter and for the last item below:

4) Places to raise young : Success at proving habitat comes in a reward: succeeding generations of young! Tadpoles, baby birds, spawning fish, a skunk and her kits, emerging butterflies ovipositing and the emergent adults from cocoons or chrysalides is the perfect indicator of habitat success.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

As for shelter, again provide brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff”’, and gravel beds for many anadromous species of fish.

Notes: it is essential that the above provisions are consistent, removal of one or many of the elements will cause unnecessary suffering and waste of valuable energy for animals. Make all changes to the environment gradual and incremental. Many animals will flee a changed ecosystem and not come back.

ABSOLUTELY REFRAIN FROM USING HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES. They have no part in habitat preservation. Most long-term effects are unknown and the current load already in the environment is doing irreparable harm.

Thanks, George, for this concise explanation. Dear reader, are you gardening for wildlife – butterflies, bees, birds, and other critters? What are you doing in your garden to provide the four elements of habitat?

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Found in the garden

If you follow my posts, you know that George and I raise and release butterflies. George plants larval hosts to attract egg-laying females to the garden, and when we’re lucky we find the eggs and bring them inside to raise them. Most recently we’ve had a flurry of anise swallowtail butterflies visit the garden and lay eggs on the fennel. We’ve released about 10 of the butterflies in the past few months. We usually find the tiny eggs, which are about the size of the head of a pin…

Anise swallowtail butterfly egg on fennel

… or the caterpillars when they’re relatively small (these guys were about a half inch long).

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillars on yampah

Today, I found a caterpillar which had thus far escaped our not-so-eagle-eyes. It looks to me like it’s ready to form its chrysalis. I brought it inside to protect it from predators and bad weather. I’ll let you know when it emerges.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar on fennelI recently shut down my smugmug site, where I had galleries of my photos showing the entire life cycle of the anise swallowtail butterfly and the monarch butterfly. I am reconstructing those on my website and will let you know when they’re up. Hopefully letting you know that will motivate me to get it done more quickly!

Anise Swallowtail Butterfly bonanza

It’s a banner year for anise swallowtail butterflies, at least in our garden! A few weeks ago we saw a butterfly fluttering around the fennel plant in the back garden, and sure enough we found 13 eggs. We brought them all in and they’ve started to emerge.

Anise swallowtail caterpillar newly emerged from its chrysalis

We’ve also had some chrysalises incubating for a year or more, and some of them finally decided to emerge as well. Three of the butterflies came out yesterday and four today.

Anise swallowtail butterfly newly emergedWe check the fennel periodically for eggs and babies, and usually find them when they’re small, but this caterpillar eluded us until he had gotten quite large.

Anise swallowtail caterpillar on fennelThis is an extreme closeup, he’s actually a bit over an inch long. Anise swallowtail butterflies, in our area, mostly use fennel for their larval host. It’s plentiful and grows much more easily than the native host, yampah. The problem is that people often cut it down because it gets so large and rangy. Now that you know the beautiful butterflies that rely on the plant, please don’t cut it down until the end of the summer! Want to learn how to raise the butterflies yourself? Drop me an email and I’ll explain how-  HeidiRand@gmail.com

Anise swallowtail butterfly in the garden

And so it begins…. You may not know that my wonderful husband George is a vastly talented actor, when he’s not being an amazing gardener and naturalist. He often works at night, doing performances or taking part in improv murder mysteries.  That’s not an ad for him (well maybe a little), but an explanation why he’s often lucky enough to be out in the garden during the day when something wonderful happens.

Like today, when he saw an anise swallowtail butterfly swoop over the fennel and lay an egg. He didn’t get a photo of her, but here is my photo of one that we raised last year – I like to think it might be her, returning to leave her babies.

Swallowtail on butterfly bush

He found the egg, but left it there for me to find when I got home. We really had to search, the wind had blown the fennel fronds around and it was hidden. But finally he saw the tiny jewel.

Anise swallowtail butterfly egg

This is an extreme closeup, it’s the size of the head of a pin!

Anise swallowtail butterfly egg - closeupWe brought it inside so it won’t fall prey to the weather or another menace. We’ll  feed the caterpillar and protect the chrysalis until the butterfly emerges, and then we’ll release it, to start the cycle over. If you haven’t yet seen my photos of the life cycle of the anise swallowtail butterfly, and of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, click here to get to my smugmug photo gallery.  Pull down and click on the links for the two sets of photographs.

Oh, and a plea – if you have fennel in your yard, please please don’t cut it down until the fall. If you’re in the El Cerrito area and you must cut it, contact us and we’ll rescue the eggs and caterpillars that are sure to be hiding in it.

Pipevine dreams

One of my favorite local butterflies is the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). Here’s a photo of one that we raised a few years ago. Strikingly dramatic, it has black wings fringed with large white spots.

Pipevine Swallowtail butterflyThe underside is equally as exciting — I like Wikipedia’s description: “The underside of the hind wing has seven orange submarginal spots surrounded by iridescent blue.”

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly

Its host plant in our area is the Pipevine (Aristolochia), also known as Dutchman’s Pipe. Once you see it you’ll understand the name:

Dutchman's pipe

We’ve been growing pipevine in a few spots in our garden for several years, but haven’t yet been lucky enough to attract a butterfly to lay eggs on any of them. The vine in the front garden put out a profusion of pipes last week. This photo shows one string of them – there are many more pipes zigzagging up the tree that the vine is twined around.

Pipevine plant

The plants need to get really large to attract the female to lay eggs. We have raised caterpillars from eggs that we rescued, and they ate the pipevine leaves voraciously. We had to forage to find them enough to eat!

This is an “artsy” piece I made from my photo of a Pipevine Swallowtail on a buddleia flower.

Pipevine swallowtail butterflySo this year we’re having pipevine dreams that a butterfly will visit our garden and lay some eggs. If you see one, please send her our way!

Anise swallowtail butterfly from 2006!

I think I’ve mentioned here before that anise swallowtail butterflies don’t emerge from their chrysalises on a set timetable, like monarch butterflies do. George thinks that it’s probably to ensure better survival, so some of the adult butterflies will emerge pretty quickly – in a couple of weeks, but others hang out for much longer.  You can tell that they’re still alive by touching them gently – they move.

This photo collage I did for the butterfly exhibit in the El Cerrito Library shows the caterpillar getting ready to become a chrysalis (pupate) – that’s the top left. The bottom left and top right show how different the chrysalises can look, some bright green, and some drab brown. The bottom right one shows what the empty chrysalis looks like after the adult butterfly emerges. Anyway, we were so excited to see that the beautiful female that emerged today became a chrysalis way back in 2006!

She must have come out sometime during the night, because she was ready to go this morning. Since the weather is so nice, we put her outside on a yampah plant, that’s the native larval food source for anise swallowtails. While she was resting happily in the sun, I got this photo of her from the side, showing her head, including her eyes, proboscis (that’s what they sip liquid food through), and antennae.

We always hope that the females we raise and release will remember the plant and come back to lay eggs, so we can continue the cycle.