A couple of days ago (in that stretch of dry autumnal light and weather last week), I saw a good-sized (layperson’s term) orange-red butterfly in my Bernal/Mission/Noe backyard, zipping back and forth for awhile. It caught my eye because I’ve never seen anything that color here, or maybe anywhere out in the world. From what I could see, the description seems to fit a Gulf fritillary…but it wasn’t clear to me that it was reasonable to expect seeing one here and now. What do you think? Thanks. — Nicholas D., San Francisco
Nicholas, it has, indeed, been quite reasonable for a Bay Area resident to see this species since about 1950, when the caterpillar hitched a ride north into our region on its ornamental host plant, passion vine. (We have no Passiflora sp. native to California.)
Another cool factoid: The butterfly’s Latin name, Agraulis vanillae, is based upon an illustration that got it wrong! The butterfly was seen landing on a vanilla orchid, which was then assumed to be its host. The butterfly has nothing to do with the famous, flavorful seed pod, but since Linnaeus’s day, its name has never been corrected.
Usually late into the fall is when they’re seen bulleting about madly here. Butterflies that host on vines (our other, the pipevine swallowtail, feasts on Dutchman’s pipevine) are remnant jungle creatures that exhibit a frantic, frenetic flight (say that three times fast….).