For the past three decades, woolly bear caterpillars have accurately predicted a Republican or Democrat win in the U.S. Presidential elections.
This year, despite the pollsters, pundits and political fervor, the woollies again successfully predicted the outcome.
Just as noted UC Davis ecologist Richard “Rick” Karban and his lab prognosticated.
Karban and his fifth-year doctoral student, Eric LoPresti, study the woolly bear caterpillars, which populate the cliffs of the Bodega Marine Reserve, above the Bodega Marine Laboratory, Sonoma County. The fuzzy reddish-black caterpillars, which feed primarily on lupine, are the immature form of the Ranchman's Tiger Moth, Platyprepia virginalis.
Sometimes the population booms; other times, it's a bust, said Karban, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In their 30-year census of the same lupine patch, they noticed that when the population thrives, a Democrat heads to the White House. When the population dives, the Republicans take over.
And why not? “Paul the Octopus had a pretty good run predicting soccer matches in 2012, so perhaps the woolly bears have earned as much credibility at forecasting this presidential election,” Karban said last May.
Although most polls forecast a Democratic win, the UC Davis Woolly Bear Presidential Election Outlook did not.
However, they are not all that pleased with the outcome. “We're kind of bummed,” Karban said. “We didn't want to believe that the woolly bears were predicting a red outcome.”
The scientists, who study insect-plant interactions, first announced their presidential outcome predictions in a poster displayed at the 2014 Ecology Society of America meeting, held in Sacramento. Then this year, on April 25, they expanded on the concept, complete with intricate charts plotted in red and blue, in LoPresti's Natural Musings blog, “The Woolly Bear Presidential Election Outlook 2016,” co-written by scientists in the Karban lab.
“Each March, Karban censuses the same patches of lupine that he has for over 30 years,” LoPresti explained in Natural Musings. “The study asks a vexing question: Why are there are so many caterpillars in some years and so few in others? Many insects, including pests cycle like this, therefore it is of keen interest to many. Dozens of papers later, Karban, his students, and his collaborators have answered a great many questions, including how caterpillars deal with parasites, whether population cycles are influenced by rain, whether caterpillars enjoy eating plant hairs, and how caterpillars avoid their predators.”
The woolly bears, as presidential forecasters, drew national attention. Washington Post reporter Karin Bruilliard ran with it in a piece published April 26: “These Fuzzy Little Caterpillars Are Better at Predicting Elections Than Most Pundits.”
“Who's going to win the presidential election?” Bruilliard asked. “Heck if we know. Try to answer that question without a crystal ball and you'll run head-on into a dizzying array of national polls and state polls, fundraising tables and delegate counts, endorsements and prediction markets.”
LoPresti posted in his Natural Musings blog on April 25 that the woollies “seem to be leaning Republican.”
“Given their (pollsters') wildly erroneous predictions thus far for both primaries, trusting their predictions for the general election seems ill-advised,” LoPresti wrote. “The woolly bears, on the other hand, have a 100% accurate prediction record over the past 30 years. In years of low abundance, a Republican is elected, and in years of high abundance, a Democrat.”
“A superficial examination suggests that 2016 will be a Republican year – woolly bear abundance is not particularly high,” LoPresti noted. “However, looking a little closer, it may not be. The number of woolly bears per lupine bush in 2016 (0.53) is higher than the average Republican year by 152% and is 36% above the highest Republican year ever recorded (1988). However, it is only 27% of an average Democratic year and still only 36% of the lowest Democratic year (2008). This result is without presidential precedent in the last 30 years.”
What about the next presidential election, now that Vice President Joe Biden has indicated he might run?
“The woolly bears have not weighed in on Joe Biden,” Karban said.
Karban, internationally known for his work on plant communication, is the author of the book, Plant Sensing and Communication (University of Chicago Press), hailed as a landmark in its field. He has researched plant communication in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) on the east side of the Sierra since 1995.
Plants can eavesdrop, sense danger in the environment, and can distinguish friend from foe, Karban says. A plant under a predatory attack will emit volatile chemical cues, enabling its neighboring plants to adjust their defenses to better protect themselves.
Karban is featured in the Dec. 23-30, 2013 edition of The New Yorker in Michael Pollan's piece, “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Plants."
Specifically, California bees and blooms.
Even more specifically, undomesticated bees (that is, not honey bees).
Did you know that:
- Of the 4000 undomesticated bee species in the United States, some 1600 species are found in California?
- Seventy percent of bees nest in the ground, and 30 percent in pre-existing cavities?
Like honey bees, native bees are declining due to pesticides, habitat destruction and fragmentation, global climate change, drought and other extreme weather events, and lack of nutrition.
Native pollinator specialist Thorp, a Bohart Museum associate, is a distinguished emeritus professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and also the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press). He retired in 1994 after 30 years of teaching, research and mentoring graduate students but continues his research on pollination biology and ecology, systematics, biodiversity, and conservation of bees, especially bumble bees. Among his special interests: native bees of the vernal pool ecosystem.He maintains his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus.
Native bee expert Frankie is a professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley. His specialty is behavioral ecology of solitary bees in wildland, agricultural, and urban environments of California and Costa Rica. More information on his projects can be found at www.helpabee.org. See also the Bay Nature interview.
Coville, who holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley, is a noted insect and spider photographer. Check out the photos on his website. Coville also has a strong interest in the biology and behavior of Hymenoptera and has published papers on Trypoxylon wasps and Centris bees.
Ertter is curator of Western North American Botany at the University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley. Primary research interests include western floristics (including the East Bay), systematics of several members of the rose family (that is,, Potentilla, Ivesia, Rosa), and the history of western botany.
California Bees and Blooms showcases 22 of the most common genera (and six species of cuckoo bees). You can learn about their distinctive behavior, social structure, flight season, preferred flowers (there are more than 6500 flowering species or angiosperms in California), and enemies, such as praying mantids.
The some 200 photos in the book will help you identify native bees, such as the bumble bee and carpenter bee below. We found these foraging in our backyard pollinator garden.
All summer and into fall, we spotted the familiar reddish, black and white bugs scurrying around on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.
Showy bugs on showy milkweed.
The ones we saw: the Small Milkweed Bug, Lygaeus kalmii. Like its name implies, it's small, about half an inch long.
They're primarily seed eaters, but they're opportunistic and generalists, says insect migration biologist Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, author of the popular textbook, Animal Migration: the Biology of Life on the Move. "They'll get protein from wherever they can find it," he said. Dingle, whose research includes migratory monarchs, said the milkweed bugs not only eat seeds, but they also eat monarch eggs and larvae and the immature stages of other butterflies. Forever the opportunists, they eat other small bugs as well--if the opportunity arises. And they feed on nectar, too.
Some scientists have seen them feeding on insects trapped in the sticky pollen of the showy milkweed.
The bugs, it seem, have few predators. They feed on the toxic milkweed, which makes them distasteful to predators, prey to avoid. Their warning colors (red and black) strike home that fact.
In the fall, as the seed pods burst open, it's a horticulture/culinary war between the milkweed growers and the milkweed bugs. Both want the seeds: the humans to plant them and the bugs to eat them.
(Note: Research shows that the milkweed bug also feeds on other plants. Read about the opportunist Small Milkweed Bug in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.)
That's the topic that Francis Ratnieks, professor of apiculture, University of Sussex, United Kingdom, will cover when he presents a seminar on Wednesday, Dec. 7 at the University of California, Davis.
He'll deliver the seminar, "How Can We Help Bees Via Research? The Sussex Plan for Honey Bee Health and Well Being" from 4:10 to 5 p.m., in 122 Briggs Hall. He is a leading researcher on kin selection and social evolution. Ratnieks will be introduced by assistant professor Brian Johnson, who studies the behavior, evolution, and genetics of honey bees.
Ratnieks focuses his research on honey bees and social insects and addresses both basic and applied questions. One current area of research is aimed at helping bees by carrying out research with practical benefits to bees and beekeepers:
- The control of honey bee diseases, including natural disease resistance via hygienic behavior in honey bees and stingless bees and the setting up of a research spin-off business, LASI Queen Bees, to supply bees bred for high levels of hygienic behavior to beekeepers and
- How to improve foraging, including using the honey bee waggle dance to investigate foraging ecology and how to put the process of recommending bee friendly plants onto a stronger scientific basis.
The seminar, open to all interested persons, will be recorded for later viewing on UCTV. Here's where to access the Department of Entomology and Nematology's recorded seminars.
It's buggin' ya.
No worries. The UC Davis Entomology Graduate Students' Association (EGSA) to the rescue. Every year EGSA conducts a t-shirt contest and the faculty, staff and students pick the winner. The t-shirts--past, present, and most popular--are for sale, with proceeds going to support the many activities of EGSA.
EGSA treasurer and graduate student Cindy Preto of the Frank Zalom lab is coordinating the t-shirt sales. The themes include honey bees, beetles, a wasp, a moth, weevils (“See No Weevil, Hear No Weevil and Speak No Weevil") and “Entomology's Most Wanted” (malaria mosquito, red-imported fire ant, bed bug and house fly). One of the best sellers is “The Beetles,” mimicking The Beatles' album cover, “Abbey Road.”
EGSA, Preto said, is "run by and for graduate students who study insect systems. Our objectives are to connect students from across disciplines, inform students of and provide opportunities for academic success, and to serve as a bridge between the students and administration. We also plan social and academic events for students, faculty, and staff to enhance social and intellectual cohesion and to connect our department with the community at large."