Melissa and the Monarchs

Melissa is a 7-year-old, entomologist. While the other children are throwing pots on the wheel, making clay figures or building bird houses, Melissa is puttering about in the Dianthus searching for slugs. She is culling the ground for beetle larva, or searching for aphids and lady bugs. She usually has a few slugs on her chest and an inchworm or caterpillar in hand. She has learned to identify metallic wood-boring beetle larva, cut worm larva (which usually turn into moths) and slug eggs.

 Most of us remember from science class (if I may be so bold as to be a spokesperson for the human race) that Arthropods; insects, Crustaceans and Arachnids have exo (exteriors) skeletons.

And that humans and other mammals, birds, fish and things that go bump in the night have endo (inside) skeletons.  Actually many things that go bump in the night have exoskeletons too.

 Inside we contain a hard, erect sculpture of bone, wrapped neatly in tissues, muscles, flesh and fat. If, like arthropods we had soft insides and hard outsides, there would be no weight watchers or Jenny Craig. Liposuction and lap bands would never have been invented.

Arthropods are limited by their external skeleton. It’s like wearing a corset 24 hours a day. If they can’t control their appetites, they must take extreme measures; usually involving something dramatic like splitting their backs open or turning into liquid and reforming.

We of the soft outsides can grow and grow until we can’t leave the house.

We think of caterpillars as soft squishy things that transform into chrysalis (or   pupae) and emerge as butterflies. But this is not really true. Caterpillars are arthropods too. They may appear soft and squishy, but even they are encased in a hard(ish) shell. If you don’t believe me just squash one!

When caterpillars emerge from eggs they are small, very, very small, about 1/8” ( 2-6 mm) long. Before they can become a chrysalis they must grow between 30-50 times their original size.

 They eat and eat and eat and eat, like Orson Wells on a bender. But unlike Orson their flesh cannot expand indefinitely. Eventually their outside gets hard and tight. They’re not comfortable in their own skin.

They spit some silk from their lower lip (if caterpillars have lips) and attach it to a branch. They appear still, but inside they’re wriggling. About 24 hours later, they have managed to scrunch down inside their skin and their head pops off! Or so it seems, but actually it’s only the shell of their head. Caterpillars don’t like living in their heads, so out they crawl, to eat and eat some more.

First they eat their old skin, then they move onto milkweed (Asclepias). Milkweed is slightly toxic and gives them a nasty taste. A bird who snacks on a caterpillar will not try that snack again!

Before they are ready to begin the grand metamorphosis into butterflies monarchs caterpillars must molt five times. Each of these stages is called an instar.

 Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar has dissolved into goo and its body is reformed, becoming a butterfly. This process takes 10 – 14 days.  The cooler it is, the longer it takes.

When the adult is ready to emerge, the chrysalis fades from green and gold to black and transparent, through the chrysalis you can see the pattern of wings.

 The chrysalis splits open and the butterfly wriggles out. Out drips a blood-like substance. It is meconium, liquid waste mixed with extra pigment, yum.

 Its delicate wings are crinkled and wet. The butterfly hangs upside-down and pumps blood into its wings, inflating them. It waits several hours for its wings to dry before flying.

Females begin laying eggs immediately after their first mating.

 Adults that emerge in the summer live for two to five weeks.

But when the weather begins to turn cold, butterflies, like birds and retired folk go south.

 The last generation of monarchs to hatch at summer’s end flies to central Mexico or California. (Depending on their milkweed accounts.)

This is the Methuselah generation– which can survive for 9 months— outliving the combined lifespan of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. It is this generation of butterflies that migrates from Canada and the United States to either Mexico (if they are east of the Rocky Mountains) or to the Southern California coast (if they are west of the Rocky Mountains.) This last generation of summer enters a non-reproductive phase known as diapause.  This generation winters in the sun and generally does not reproduce until it leaves the winter site sometime in February or March.

No single individual makes the entire round trip. Female monarchs deposit eggs for the next generation during these migrations. The first generation may reach as far north as Texas and Oklahoma during the spring migration. It is the second, third and fourth generations that return to their northern locations in the United States and Canada in the spring.

Using a genetic GPS based in their antennae the monarchs are able to determine the angle of the sun and head due south. Thus they travel a journey that neither they, nor their parents, grand parents, great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents have ever made before.

Monarch butterflies are one of the few insects capable of making trans-Atlantic crossings and they don’t have to pay for any extra baggage.

The Mystery of the Pumpkin in the Garden

I just got 12 new kids in the program, 3 of whom I have wanted for a long time. They live in Alegria. They have been watching me for years, with shy, wistful eyes. Their father is an alcoholic who beats them and their mother, who in turn beats them. Now they are in my class and happy children for at least a small time. They confess to me that they found a rotting pumpkin and secretly carried it to the garden to see if it would grow. We wondered where that pumpkin had come from! Now it is sprouting everywhere. The redemptive power of gardens, art and growth, that’s what I should be thinking of.

 Today I was planting in the gardens with my kids. The kids are so excited to see their pumpkins growing!

Jesus (names have been mostly changed to protect the guilty) and I were weeding and watering and disturbed an ant’s nest. We watched as the ants began rescuing their milky, clear eggs from a watery grave. I described the life of the ant. How ants milk aphids, (sometimes called ant cows) how they grow mushrooms underground and how they live as a society, queen, workers, nursemaids and soldiers.

Jesus’s eyes grew wide, “Weird.”

 Sometimes the trust and belief in a child’s eyes makes my breath catch. We looked for aphids and I repeated the oft told tale of these parthenogenetic insects. Female that reproduce females, that reproduce females. Then at summer’s end some grow wings and morph into males.

 “Weird.” We went looking for aphids. We discovered small flies of unknown species and a lady bug larva. Lady bug larval bear no resemblance to lady bugs. They look rather like a black and orange creepy, rubber Halloween bugs.

These kids love to plant and even like weeding!

I wanted to pull up some of the very, very, very large deep rooted grain plants that had grown from bird seed. They are OK, but now our garden is crowded with sprouting corn, pumpkins, squash and myriad wildflowers.

Jesus got into it. (I had heard that either he or his older brother had an “anger problem.” Well who could blame them?) At any rate he beat the chlorophyll out of that plant! He was an inspiration to a small army of children who took to the grains with a single minded ferocity. He and his older sister Azalea set upon the weeds with a fierce cry of “Team work!” They were so enthusiastic I set them lose on the uncleared parkways, dry and woven with crab grass. “Team work!”

There was a party at the apartment across the way. “Miss Elizabeth!” I recognized a father from Villa Esperanza where I had taught years before, but I did not recognize Daisy. She had been an adorable 5 year old. Now she was a delicate, long 19. She was starting Junior College with plans to transfer to Northridge.

They gave us large plates of food, cake and some muti-colored jello dish that would have been the envy of Salt Lake City. (Mormons are very fond of jello.)

It was about 8:40, time to go home. But where were my car keys? They had been hooked onto my belt loop…. The entire neighborhood turned out with key ring lights, flashlights that you had to turn just so and shake gently while humming a soothing “please light up.” House lamps on super, super double plus long connections of extension cords snaked in patterns of black and white down the street and into houses, nesting in outlets and flooding the parkway.

I finally called AAA and told them to come rescue me. I’d need a new key. It was going to cost a lot.

“What will you do Miss?” Jesus asked.

“Well, I’ll get the key. I have to” I said, but it’s very expensive.”

 “Don’t they pay you to teach art Miss?”

 “Well yes, but …”

“You could make some stuff and sell it…. We’ll help you.” The love was palpable.

Finally on a final hopeless 3rd time ‘round the basement search I saw the key, floating on a shallow sea of garbage. Earlier in the day I had wrestled a mattress into the garbage can. The key must have been knocked in. We all cheered and every one got a chocolate marshmallow bunny. Tomorrow we Easter egg hunt!

“I can’t pick up the eggs.” said Genesis. She is a smart, funny spunky child without legs and only one thumb. “You and mom can be my egg retrieval team, pick up the eggs, when I call them.”

“I’ll help!” chimed in Madelia, a dirty, wild 5 year old.

 Very sweet, although I doubt that Genesis will get to eat many from that collection. Those eggs don’t have a chance!

Pumpkins in the Garden

kids defination of hippies “they like peace and have lava lamps”
– Hide quoted text –

On Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 12:22 PM, Evie King> wrote:

I just got 12 new kids in the program, 3 of whom I have wanted for a long time.
They live in Alegria. They have been watching me for years, with shy, wistful eyes.
Their father is an alcoholic who beats them and their mother, who in turn beats them.
Now they are in my class and happy children for at least a small time.
They confess to me that they found a rotting pumpkin and secretly carried it to the garden to see if it would grow. We wondered where that pumpkin had come from!
Now it is sprouting everywhere.
The redemptive power of gardens, art and growth, that’s what I should be thinking of.


I have been reading about fish behavior and coral reef formation .The first attempt to describe the forces at work was by Darwin,”On the structure and distribution of coral reefs.” It rivals Origin of the Species in its biological perceptions & timelessness of theory.

I went to a lecture at the natural history museum “Do files have emotion?” The first person to find similarities of emotional display common among species… Darwin. He was also the first to posit that insects could display emotion.

On the ride home I listened to “Science Friday.” They were interviewing a geologist, specializing in seismic activity. Guess who observed the last great Chilean Earthquake?

Darwin went ashore and noticed a stench. It was formed by 100,000’s of dried sea creatures. Either the sea had sunk, or the earth had risen. The seas are all connected and could not sink. So the earth must have risen… Thus he was the father of geology… It was he who figured out that the earth must be billions of years old, due to the size of the mountains. He who explained why fossils are discovered in mountain tops. The marine biologists and geologists are filing a class action against the biologists. Darwin is the father of modern…..

I bet he developed quantum theory in another dimension. 

On the other hand, fossils could be explained by from the Great flood. However I have never understood how they explain the radioactive dating of Billions of years.

Of Aphids and Ants; Continuing tales fron Esperanza

People don’t like aphid, but they have a remarkable life cycle and fascinating history.
So before you look down upon the lowly aphid read on…

The Manna from Heaven that the Israelites ate while strolling through the desert might well have been honeydew from aphids or other insects!
Aphids produce a sweet sticky substance called honey dew, if you don’t believe me, go feel the plants where they have been… sticky.
If you are still skeptical, lick your fingers (euee gross.) In the ancient Oaks and Olives, large quantities of honey dew would freeze in the night. When the sun arose and warmed the frozen dew…, bonk!
Manna, right on your noggin! It’s a wonder that the Jews didn’t come up with the idea of gravity. (Was Newton Jewish?)
Man” is the common Arabic name for aphids, and man es simma (the “manna of heaven”) for honeydew.
In the Mideast, people still collect the sweet excretions (which is a nice word for phoo) of scale insects that feed on tamarisk. They call it “man” and make halva out of it. (Lest we feel superior in our culinary habits, a large portion of bee honey is actually honeydew harvested from the surface of plants.)
Aphids pierce the phloem tubes of plants with their sharp mouthparts and suck out the sugary goodies in transit there. (Phloem is the tube that transports food, mostly sugar to all parts of the plant. Xylem transports water.)
Aphids process this food and excrete drops (honeydew) rich in sugars, free amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), proteins, minerals and vitamins. Move over Whole Foods!

Some aphids shoot this waste away from their bodies, but other species of aphids have learned to excrete a drop on from their rear end when an ant taps them with foreleg or antennae. Then the ant eats it (and you thought humans were kinky!) Later, the ant will regurgitate part of the honeydew for it’s nest mates.
You could try this if you’re not worried about what the neighbors might think.
Sometimes aphids are called “ant cows”.
Ants like honeydew as much as the Israelites did. Through the winter, some ants take aphid eggs down into their colonies to protect them, bringing them up to graze in the springtime. If you look closely, you may see small cowboy hats on the ants… or maybe not.
Each aphid species has its own life cycle, but there are some features uniting nearly all of them.
One feature most species share is that they are incredibly prolific, worse than rabbits!
Wingless adult female aphids can produce 50 to 100 offspring. A newly born aphid becomes a reproducing adult within about a week and then can produce up to 5 offspring per day for up to 30 days!
If all the descendants of a single aphid survived the summer and were arranged four abreast, their line would exceed the circumference of the earth at the equator! Now that’s a lot of honeydew! Dentists LOVE them.
Even more amazing is that most of this reproduction takes place without the interference of males!
This is known as parthenogenesis. (From the Greek parthenos, “virgin”, + genesis, “creation”.)
When mother aphids reproduce parthenogenetically, instead of laying eggs they give birth directly to smaller editions of themselves. An “average” aphid life cycle goes a little something like this: (stop me if you’ve heard this one.)
In spring, an egg hatches, producing a wingless female aphid who almost immediately begins parthenogenetically producing new wingless females. Generation follows generation of wingless females; I think I saw one wearing “an aphid without a male is like a fish without a bicycle” tee shirt. Then hot weather arrives, or maybe the plant they are living on dies, some of the females grow wings and fly off. I wish I could do that!
This new generation of female winged aphid find a plant host of a completely different species from that on which their spring generations have developed.
Typically, when it’s time to move back to the plant species on which aphid winters, (kind of like wintering in the Hamptons) some aphids develop into males.
Sexual reproduction takes place, but apparently, it’s nothing to write home about because when the eggs hatch (in the spring) there are no males in sight.
Try explaining that in Spanish! The kids take this in stride.
But the dads don’t like it. One said, “Thank God I’m not an aphid.”
Usually parthenogenesis is followed by a brief bout of sexual reproduction just to keep the gene pool fresh.

Of Ladybugs and Larva, continuing tale from the Esperanza garden

  (The sunflowers have taken over!)


Then someone  cut the heads from some of our largest sunflowers
Alex my 15 year old birder put up signs all over.

“Don’t Cut the Flowers! We are watching you!”

Oddly enough, it appears to have worked.
Still, someone has been taking the green tomatoes, crushing them, and removing melons before they can ripen.

… We put out this message in English and Spanish
 Dear folks who are taking green tomatoes and unripe melons from our garden.

We know you must be very sad and angry to want to hurt our plants.

We are very sorry that you feel so bad.

If you will just let everything ripen, then you could eat it.

We’d MUCH rather you enjoyed it rather than destroyed it…

We want you to enjoy the garden too!

Thanks, The Children Gardeners

The Spanish version is MUCH longer and more elaborately worded.
However, we have some very exciting developments.

First, not only do we have myriad ladybug, we also have lady bug eggs and larva!
 We have actually seen ladybugs emerge from the pupas!

In the spring, the adults lay up to three hundred eggs in an aphid colony.  The eggs hatch in two to five days.  The time it takes for a ladybug egg to hatch and become an adult takes about 3 to 6 weeks.

Ladybug eggs are very small, yellow ovals. Ladybugs lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves to keep them protected from predators.
Baby ladybugs (ladybug larvae) are rather creepy looking, but now that the kids know what they are they love ‘em.

Lady bug life cycle

 Baby ladybugs spend their days eating and eating and eating, then they have a snack and eat some more! They can eat up to 400 aphids in 2 to 3 weeks .  The newly hatched larvae feed on aphids for up to three weeks, and then they enter the pupa stage. After the babies have filled their little bellies and grown a bit, they attach themselves to a leaf and pupate. This is the transition stage when in about a week they will turn into a beautiful little adult ladybug the adult ladybug emerges about a week later.  However, they usually do not have their spots for their first 24 hours of adulthood. So, if you see one without spots, you may have found a brand new adult.

Genesis is a brilliant, sweet child. She is lacking legs and a thumb, but her warmth, humor and intelligence win all. She discovered our first hatchling. It was very pale.


There may be as many as six generations of ladybugs hatched in a year. 


Ladybugs are a kind of beetle.  The female ladybug is usually larger than the male.  Most of them have red, orange, or yellow elytra (wing covers) and black spots. Some are black with red spots and some ladybugs have no spots at all!  The number of spots helps to identify the kind of ladybug. The elytra is a hard wing cover that protects the ladybug’s fragile wings. All beetles have elytra. Ladybug’s wings are so thin that you can see through them. 

The pronotum is found just behind the ladybug’s head and it often has spots on it.  It helps to hide and protect the head. Like all insects, the ladybug has six jointed legs. There are special organs on their feet to help them smell.  (Butterflies & Bees smell with their feet too.) The ladybug uses its antennae to touch, smell and taste.  


We also have aphids. I have found that if you have milkweed (which I always do as it is the host plant for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies.) The aphids remain there. We have Oleander aphids, which are orange. There are many species of aphids… and I imagine they are numerous as the stars that shine & twinkle in the milky way… ours slime & stinkle on the milky weed. (That’s poetic license actually, they don’t smell.)

Host plants are restricted to oleander, butterfly weed and milkweed. Aphids spend most of their lives with their straw-like beaks stuck into leaves and stems, sucking out sweet plant juices. But, aphids do not usually cause plant health to suffer. The up side is, is that if you have aphids ladybugs will follow.

When I showed up at the garden yesterday, many of the sunflowers were beheaded. I was feeling a tad depressed when I ran into one of the dads.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he exclaimed with pride. “I cut the flowers so they will be healthy and branch more!”

Well, while that works for some plants sunflowers aren’t one of them. Still, it’s better than vandals!

The kids and I ate some of the seed that were ripe.

We gathered tropic oregano, rosemary, lemon balm, spearmint and chocolate mint for them to take home for cooking and tea.

Tropical oregano org
Plectranthus amboinicus is a succulent that smells and tastes like very strong oregano. The leaves have also had many traditional medicinal uses; treatment of coughs, sore throats, nasal congestion, infections, rheumatism and flatulence.  In Indonesia Plectranthus amboinicus is a used in soup to stimulate lactation for the month or so following childbirth.

A Journalism student from USC stopped by and wants to do a story on us (YEAH!) He promised to return Saturday. He had a British accent, so the kids were properly impressed.

The Budgie in the Birdhouse; Or Continuing tales from Esperanza

Our Garden is amazing!

Contrary to dire prediction, the neighborhood is respecting it. Our vegetables are allowed to ripen.

Yesterday Chris presented me with a despondent chrysanthemum to plant.

 Because we have scattered much bird seed in the garden, we have a fine crop of sunflowers and grain as well as veggies, salvias, milkweed and mints.

We weeded and thinned the grains and seeded vibrant varieties of wildflowers.

 Do you remember, Alex, a 14 year old boy asked me if he could build a bird house? He even brought in food for the birds. (It was actually small animal food, but the concept was there.) He built two, one with a plastic bottle designed to gradually release seed, the other an open box he painted baby blue.

He’s been wondering why no birds come to his feeders?

“Be patient: First, we have seed all over and many birds are eating from the ground. Second, let them get used to it.” 

Well Guess what?!

A small blue budgie has moved into the blue bird house!

I think I’m more excited than the kids!

It’s obviously an escapee looking for a safe home.

The blue bird house is just his shade and size.

Perfect move in-condition.

 Casey and I made a bird food run yesterday.

She is an adorable girl, a good artist a dedicated gardener and a lousy navigator!

She was planning a trip to Vegas (“only 2 hours from the city.”) for bird seed.

I guess that high desert seed is the best.

 Alex is in a camp for a week so he doesn’t yet know the budgie broadcast.


Last week  we enjoyed 2 kings games… 65 community residents who would otherwise not be able to afford the tickets enjoyed a game in style… and on Halloween 4 of our community members attended premium seats complete with parking passes at another Kings game.
Tonight Thursday the 6th 78 happy fans are again going to a game, thanks to the generosity of Jennifer Lynch and John Eberhard  at Staples and the wonderful community organization and enthusiasm of our fabulous Jesus Garcia.
Thanks to all who make happy time possible! We need them!
Arts & Science Director