Monarchs and milkweed are in the news again.
As well they should be.
The declining monarch population, coupled with the decreasing scarcity of their host plant, the milkweed, is disturbing. The larvae of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feed exclusively on milkweeds. No milkweed, no monarchs.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, says the problem hasn't totally reached California yet. "The 'dearth of milkweed' problem is primarily an East/Midwest problem, due to increased use of Roundup since the introduction of 'Roundup-ready' GM crops. It's quite real. There is no such problem out here--at least yet--but there is a new milkweed pathogen that may cause one! Dave Rizzo (UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology) and I hope to publish on it shortly. No harm in planting milkweeds, but the problem isn't a California one, at least not yet."
Journalist-photographer Alessandra Bergamin, writing in the Feb. 18 edition of Bay Nature: Exploring Nature in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that "the number of monarchs overwintering in Mexico's Oyamel fir forest has reached an all-time low," quoting the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico. "The reports suggest that factors such as loss of habitat, climate change and use of insecticides have contributed to the decline."
The situation in California, however, looked better than bleak last year. A little better. "Monarch butterfly populations in California's coastal overwintering sites showed a slight — and surprising — rebound in 2013 after more than a decade of dwindling numbers," Bergamin wrote. "The 2013 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count tallied 211,275 monarchs at 162 sites from Sonoma County to San Diego County, up from 144,812 the year before."
Over the past two decades, however, the Western monarch population has dramatically declined in California, she pointed out in her article, "Western Monarch Population Hanging On." The downward trend is expected to continue.
Meanwhile, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, headquartered in Portland, Ore., has posted a seed finder resource so folks can find milkweed seed in their state and plant the seeds in their gardens, parks, landscapes, restoration areas and on farms.
Oakland parks supervisor Tora Rocha is taking it one step further. She is collecting the monarch caterpillars, rearing them, and releasing the adults in the Lakeside Gardens at Lake Merritt. Her newly formed Pollinator Posse has sparked the interest of volunteers, who range from school children to city council members. They all want to save the monarchs.
Rocha bans pesticides and herbicides from her pollinator gardens. “For the past fifteen years the gardens have had a pesticide-and herbicide-free policy,” Rocha told writer Constance Taylor of Wild Oakland, which offers free, Oakland-centered environmental education. “We also rely on volunteers contributing thousands of hours to keep our parks maintained--about 75% of the work is done by volunteers.”
Rocha says it's not enough to be a custodian of the land: it's important to be a steward of the land and protect the pollinators. She's created a video, posted on YouTube, that explains what she and the other Pollinator Posse members do.
Rocha and colleague Eddie Dunbar of the Insect Sciences Museum of California and a fellow Pollinator Posse member, recently visited UC Davis to share information with Shapiro and native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology.
Another person keen on butterflies is Sally Levinson of Berkeley, who writes a blog on butterflies and is publishing educational videos, including "Secret Lives of Monarchs" and "In the Company of Wild Butterflies." As a graduate student at UC Riverside, Levinson studied with major professor Bruce Hammock, now a distinguished professor of entomology at UC Davis. (He maintains a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.)
As an aside, the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis offers a "Got Milkweed?" t-shirt spotlighting the monarch and its host plant. The work of doctoral candidate Fran Keller and Bohart volunteer/naturalist Greg Kareofelas, the t-shirt is available online or at the museum, located in Room 1122 of the Academic Surge building on Crocker Lane.
Want monarchs? Plant milkweed.
As the world mourned the Jan. 27th death of 94-year-old folk singer Pete Seeger and hummed his signature song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", the question has now turned to: "Where Have All the Monarchs Gone?"
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is in trouble.
It has been in trouble for a long time.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, says the monarch situation is not surprising, really, due to "changing ag practices, urbanization and drought/freezing."
Monarchwatch.org reported today that "the overwintering numbers are in from Mexico and once again it's bad news."
In his blog, Chip Taylor mentions three factors have "contributed significantly to the loss of monarch and pollinator habitats: the adoption of herbicide tolerant (HT) crops, the ethanol mandate, and development."
"In much of the corn-belt," Taylor wrote, "farming is from road to road with little habitat for any form of wildlife remaining. Grasslands--including some of the last remaining native prairies, rangelands, wetlands, and 11.2 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land--have been plowed under to produce more corn and soybeans. Most of these acres formerly contained milkweeds, monarchs, pollinators and other forms of wildlife. They are gone and the total loss of these habitats since 2008 exceeds 24 million acres (an area about equal to the state of Indiana)."
Milkweed is the monarchs' host plant.
"Development consumes about a million acres of farmland a year," Taylor noted, "and the conversion of woodlands and other landscapes to shopping malls, housing and roadways consumes another million acres a year. Overall, the loss of various habitats due to development probably exceeded 34 million acres since 1996."
Taylor estimates that "that at least 167 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost since 1996."
"Not all of the corn and soybean acreage occurs within the summer breeding range for monarchs so the total loss of monarch habitat due to HT crops is lower (150 million) than the total area (174.5 million) planted in 2013. The 24 million acres of grasslands, etc. converted to croplands since 2008 have been included in the estimated loss to HT crops. Add to this number the estimated loss due to development and the total is 167 million acres lost but this could easily be an underestimate since there are losses such as roadside management that we can't account for."
Be sure to read his informative blog, and his charts. Taylor ends with "...let's plant milkweed--lots and lots of it."
The Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation's Project Milkweed is raising public awareness and promoting the use of milkweeds in restoration habitats. Xerces' role also includes developing milkweed seed production guidelines and building new markets for milkweed seed, according to its website.
If you think people don't care about monarch butterflies, think again.
A recent survey published in Conservation Letters showed that Americans are willing to spend at least $4.78 billion to help conserve monarchs (Danaus plexippus), one of the most recognizable of all insects. Indeed, what is more spectacular than the multigenerational migration of monarchs heading from their breeding grounds in northern United States and southern Canada to their wintering grounds in central Mexico and coastal California?
The study of 2,289 U.S. households, led by Jay Diffendorfer of the U.S. Geological Survey, Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center, Denver, found that we Americans love monarchs so much that we're more than willing to plant milkweed, their larval host plant, to save them.
The article, published Oct. 28 and titled National Valuation of Monarch Butterflies Indicates an Untapped Potential for Incentive-Based Conservation, calls attention to the destruction of the monarch's habitat and the importance of conservation.
"Since 1999, the size of the overwintering colonies in Mexico and California have declined, and the 2012 survey in Mexico showed the lowest colony size yet recorded, which prompted wide-scale media reports," the authors wrote. "Habitat loss in the overwintering sites in Mexico and California is well-documented, although no direct empirical link between declining overwintering habitat and monarch numbers exists. In addition, the growing use of glyphosate-tolerant genetically modified crops has reduced larval host plant (milkweed, Asclepias spp) abundances in farm fields across United States and Canada. Increasing acreage of glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybeans are negatively correlated to monarch numbers, with the area of milkweed in farm fields in the United States declining from an estimated 213,000 to 40,300 ha."
Biologist Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, is among those studying their migration. (Read his quotes in the National Geographic cover story, "Mysteries of Great Migrations," published in November 2010. Dingle is now working on a much-anticipated book on migration from his headquarters in the Sharon Lawler lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, monitors butterflies in Central California. Here's what he has to say about monarchs on his website, Art's Butterfly World.
Meanwhile, a day before Conservation Letters published the survey, a lone monarch butterfly fluttered into our backyard to sip nectar from lantana. It lingered for 10 minutes.
What a treat to see!
It happened so quickly.
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) fluttered to the lantana for a sip of nectar when the unexpected happened.
A praying mantis, lying in wait, leaped high and grabbed it by its wings.
Unable to fly, the monarch struggled to right itself. The praying mantis kept its viselike grip.
At the time, I was focusing on the butterfly and didn't see the predator. When I saw the butterfly struggling, I walked over to it and lifted it out of the lantana, only to find a praying mantis attached to it.
The butterfly did not make it. The praying mantis, a female about to lay eggs, did. She will be shown at the Bohart Museum of Entomology's open house on Saturday, Sept. 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. and then released.
Theme of the Bohart open house is "Live at the Bohart!" Live? That's because the open house will feature live insects, such as cabbage white and Gulf Fritillary butterflies, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks, a rose-haired tarantula and a “Harry Potter bug,” which is an amblypygid commonly known as a whip spider or tailless whip scorpion.
The Bohart, located on the UC Davis campus in Room 1124 of Academic Surge on Crocker Lane, formerly California Drive, is home to nearly eight million insect specimens, collected throughout the world.
At the open house, museum officials will tell you how to rear a cabbage white butterfly and other butterflies, such as Gulf Fritllaries. You can talk insects with director Lynn Kimsey; senior museum scientist Steve Heydon; public education/outreach coordinator Tabatha Yang, and others. The gift shop will be open for the purchase of t-shirts, jewelry, posters, books, insect nets and other items.
As for the praying mantis, on Saturday she will be freed to catch more prey.
Let's hope it is a cabbage white instead of a monarch./span>
The mighty Monarch butterfly and the industrious honey bee.
How rare we see them together on the same flower.
But that was the case last Friday at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden planted next to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis.
The butterfly touched down on a brilliant orange Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and began nectaring. A honey bee crawled up the petals. So there they were, sharing nectar. They saw one another. They acknowledged one another. And they ignored one another.
Finally, the bee buzzed off to forage on her very own Mexican sunflower.
It was a butterfly-bee moment. Or more technically, a Danaus plexippus/Apis mellifera moment.
Two may be company, but sometimes it's best to get your own flower.