Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It's Science, Baby!

Let's switch it up a little - here's what's going on in my backyard:

I know it is technically autumn now, but my South Carolina backyard still thinks it is summer.

I planted a sprig of Passiflora incarnata (Passionflower) in my backyard over 15 years ago, not knowing that it was highly invasive, and you know what? I'm glad I didn't know (although I quickly learned!) - because I probably never would have planted it, and I would have missed out on a lot.

 Passiflora incarnata blooms (Passionflower)

These are a couple of the passionflower blooms, a few weeks ago - surrounded by their pretty, abundant, 5-lobed leaves and their graspy, grabby tendrils. The tendrils will grab anything, and wind around them tightly - so fast, you can actually see it happen if you settle down with a good book, and hold out a finger (not that I've ever done that).

I've blogged about my passion for passionflower before; but what's going on now is new! Let me lay a little groundwork for you, first.

At the time I purchased my little sprig of Passionflower, I was told that it was the only natural food source for the caterpillar of the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) butterfly:
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Sure enough; the year after I planted it, I started seeing these pretty orange and black butterflies; more and more of them each year - but nothing like this year! There are hundreds and hundreds of them! Just gorgeous!

And where there are hundreds of butterflies, you can bet their are hundreds of caterpillars. And did I mention - their offspring are voraciously hungry?

The passionflower vines are covering at least 50% of the other foliage in my yard, as well as my entire deck - so pretty! But within a few days of hatching, the caterpillars start to decimated the vine's foliage, leaving it pretty "moth-eaten."

Compare the picture of the passionflower foliage above, with one I took yesterday:

Decimated foliage of Passiflora incarnata

The leaves you see to the right are from the obviously non-tasty forsythia - a hardy shrub with pretty yellow blooms in the Spring. This particular portion of the passionflower is covering my deck, and the forsythia, and a couple of hydrangeas - and all the passionflower blooms are gone. In this area.

And look what I found when I inspected a little closer:

caterpillar of the Gulf Fritillary

This hungry varmint is trying to hide behind a forsythia leaf.

caterpillar of the Gulf Fritillary

Mere inches away from the first caterpillar, another one tries to find a few molecules of sustenance. And these caterpillars aren't hard to find - the vine is covered in them.

The new thing that is happening now is that these caterpillars have decided to use my HOUSE for the next phase in their life cycle.

Starting a few weeks ago, every time I'd open the back door to let Bailey out, I see 2 or 3 of the caterpillars dangling upside down in the door jamb. Weird. And the next day, there'd be what looked to be a dried-up leaf in their place, but in actuality it was their chrysalis.

So I took the camera home from the shop with me yesterday, hoping to catch this process. And as I quickly discovered, it's not just the door jamb - it's the whole back of the house!

Here is one of the caterpillars soon after attaching to the house (they apparently have some way to drill into the house (or tree, or whatever) with their back end, and then they hang upside down like a bat. These are 2 different caterpillars:

 early stage of pupation, Gulf Fritillary

early stage of pupation, Gulf Fritillary

Within less than 18 hours, they start to visibly change:

Early pupation, Gulf Fritillary

See the white areas near the head of the caterpillar? If not, allow me to point them out:

Chrysalis formation, Gulf Fritillary

[BTW - pay NO attention to the mold growing on my house - I certainly don't.]

Within another 24 hours, the chrysalis has completely formed - here are 2 of the hundreds attached to my house:

Gulf Fritillary chrysalis

Gulf Fritillary chrysalis

I don't know how long they stay like this - I assume until next spring, since there is no foliage for hungry newly-hatched caterpillars to eat in the late fall and winter. And I wonder what creatures find these chrysalises good eating?

Over to the far right of my deck, I have a Chaste tree (Vitex sp.) that the passionflower vine just discovered this year - yesterday I saw that the tree is partially covered in passionflower, with some gorgeous blooms, and none of the foliage has been eaten. I guess it takes  a year or so for the butterflies to lay their eggs, and for the eggs to then hatch, before the caterpillars can start eating the new portions of the vine. According to the Internet (motto: "We'd never lie to you."), Passiflora incarnata can grow 15 or more feet in one season. I am going with "more," since it discovered and completely took over this tall tree just since this Spring.

Passiflora incarnata blooming on Chaste tree

This was a difficult shot for me to get; the blooms are about 20 feet away from me, and about 20 feet off the ground, so I used the telephoto lens. The arrow is pointing to the large 5-lobed leaves of the vine, completely untouched by hungry caterpillars. To the right of the arrow, and a little below it, is one of the purple passionflower blossoms. There are a few more blooms in there, but they are lost in the setting sun coming in from behind the tree.

 Butterfly life cycle

So, there's today's science lesson!

And on a more jewelry-related note: After 1 full day and 2 half days of steel wooling, here is my pile of polished oxidized copper components (following the Liver of Sulfur treatment a few days ago), ready to go into the tumbler. I was surprised at how heavy this little pile is - I had to split in in 2 for the tumbler runs. The first half is in now, and the rest will go in tomorrow. Now that this chore is basically done, I can set up the torch for enameling (on a different batch of components)! After I teach a beadweaving class tomorrow, though.

ready for the tumbler, finally!


Leanne Kirsch said...

Cool....I have milkweed that invaded my flower beds....monarch' is fascinating to have them in your yard. Thanks for sharing. Leanne

Christine Altmiller said...

What a fascinating read. The passionflower looks like it is pulsating and the butterfly is so vivid and beautiful. To have that many chrysalis' hanging on your house is cool and a bit unnerving to think about.
(your jewelry components are pretty darn cool too!)