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Buckaroos and Buckeyes




It rained the day before and the sky hung low and menacing over the warm, muggy, quiet clearing. Strangely, at that moment there were very few insects in a place I expected to see many. I was reminded of an old jungle movie. The words "It's quiet — too quiet!" ran through my mind. Where were the bugs?

Just for something to do I took a shot of a thistle in perfect full bloom and my eye caught a dark spot behind a leaf axil. It moved, so I looked harder. It was a fairly large ant, nearly half an inch long, herding a flock of aphids. I had read about this behavior. The ants diligently protect and care for their charges. In return, the aphids secrete a sweet substance called honeydew, which the ants eat.

If the ant workers are all female and the aphids are their cows, that makes them "Cowgirl ants." Menace them with your finger and the ants will take a threatening pose, even attacking if you push it.

I took a few photos using the flash as supplemental illumination, finally returning my little camera to my pocket. It occurred to me to take another photo from a different angle. As I was retrieving the camera there was a flash. I thought I might have left it on until the flash I saw was followed by a very loud crack of thunder. Alone in an open clearing, I decided to let that last shot go and hustled out of there only to get drenched by rain on the way.

I guess the rest of those insects knew the storm was coming.

Different strategies

I can be sure it's summer now that I've seen two of my favorite butterflies. Considered as a pair, they show two very different survival strategies. One is gaudy, covered by nature with large clown eyes, the other is a very "plain Jane" butterfly. You can see them both on any sunny summer or fall day.

Look for the buckeye (Junonia coenia) on Shasta daisies or almost any patch of blooming Himalaya berries. Their vivid eye spots may serve to protect them from predators, especially birds, by startling them. The size of those eyes is that of a much larger creature, and there are a lot of them. Fortunately, most birds can't count. So, when it comes to eyes, I guess bigger and more is better. This species does not hide, but patrols and displays its vivid markings wherever it lands. It is common throughout North America.

At the other end of the spectrum is the least obtrusive butterfly I know, the California ringlet (Coenonympha tullia California). The upper side is a cream or sand color, which matches the tall dry grass where it usually hides. Every live photo I've seen of this small butterfly has its wings closed, showing pale gray-brown underside. Unlike the buckeye, its survival strategy seems to be camouflage rather than intimidation.

The species Coenonympha tullia is a widespread species throughout the northern hemisphere. The california appellation indicates our local subspecies. When I posted a photo from my backyard of the Ringlet on an entomological Facebook page, a fellow from Scotland posted one from there, which was indistinguishable from our locals.

Both are members of the family Nymphalidae so presumably had a common ancestor not too far back on the evolutionary tree. But they have obviously taken very different paths to success.


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