That's the sound of success.
It finally happened. The beleaguered rusty-patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, is now listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species, the first bee in the continental United States to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
So many folks helped spearhead this project. Bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University) helped sound the alarm.
Thorp co-authored a 2010 petition seeking an endangered status for Bombus affinis. The Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, along with Thorp and others, submitted the petition to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. In 2015, agency officials agreed to consider it. In 2016, they proposed protection. Then on Jan. 10, 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty-patched bumble bee as an endangered species. (See Xerces press release.)
Other key players in making this all happen included natural history photographer/filmmaker Clay Bolt and his friends at the Day's Edge Productions, which created the award-winning film, A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee with support from the Xerces Society and others. The result: nearly 200,000 persons signed a petition seeking endangered status for the bee.
The rusty-patched bumble bee was once found in 28 states in the eastern and upper midwest United States, along with the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces. Since the late 1990s, however, its population has declined by nearly 90 percent, according to Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species for the Xerces Society.
"The rusty patched bumble bee is threatened with extinction," Jepsen wrote in the petition. "Possible causes of its decline include pathogens, habitat loss or degradation, pesticide use, and climate change. Reduced genetic diversity, which could be a result of declining, isolated populations caused by any of the aforementioned factors, likely also threatens this species with extinction. Furthermore, existing regulations are wholly inadequate to protect this species."
Jepsen described bumble bees as "iconic pollinators that contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems."
Enter Clay Bolt who set out to find, photograph and document the critically imperiled bumble bee. He moved from state to state, habitat to habitat, museum to museum, meeting with scientists and conservationists. Finally, he found the living breathing rusty-patched bumble bee in the University of Wisconsin arboretum. You can see his excitement and learn about his incredible journey in the amazing Ghost in the Making.
Bolt related that he first became aware of the plight of the rusty-patched bumble bee while looking at specimens in the collection at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "There was a stuffed passenger pigeon in the same room, frozen in time, but no longer among us in nature," he told us. "It was once the most numerous bird on the planet and then it was no more. This has always haunted me. I decided then that I had to do everything in my power to attempt to bring more attention to this beautiful little bee before it went the same way."
With friends from Day's Edge Productions and the Xerces Society, Bolt made the film about the bee, helped develop the petition, and spoke on Capitol Hill and other high-profile events to spotlight its plight. "Through all of this, I kept thinking back to seeing this amazing little animal in the field," Bolt said. "Watching it fly. Witnessing it do what it had been doing for thousands of years. It had no idea that its fate was in our hands."
"I am just so encouraged and grateful for the public's outcry in support of this species," Bolt said. "This was an effort that would have never been possible without so many people working together to see it through. I am grateful that my images played even a small part in this historic occasion. These are the moments that make all of the hours of work and worry worthwhile."
One observation in Ghost in the Making particularly resonates: "We spend so much time and effort making life better for ourselves, the least we can do is make life possible for this bee." The film advocates that we all do our part: provide flowers, a safe place to nest, and a pesticide-free environment.
How many other bumble bees should be listed as endangered? "That's difficult to answer, mainly due to a lack of good information," said Thorp. "Most of our bumble bee species seem to be doing well according to our most recent assessments. But at least one eastern cuckoo bumble bee may be declining because its host bumble bees have declined. About a quarter of our bumble bees may be at risk, but we need more information. One that used to be common here in the Central Valley, Bombus sonorus, basically disappeared from our area about a dozen years ago, but it is doing well in the southern part of its range in southern California and Arizona."
Meanwhile the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing three other species of bees for possible inclusion as endangered. They include Franklin's bumble bee, the western bumble bee and the yellow-banded bumble bee.
Thorp, who has been monitoring Franklin's bumble bee, Bombus franklini, since 1998 (See Dec. 12 Bug Squad), hasn't seen the bumble bee in 10 years within its five-county range of southern Oregon and northern California. He doesn't want to say the "E" word--extinct. Not yet. He thinks this may be the year he'll find it.
This week, however, is a cause for celebration. The rusty-patched bumble bee is now an endangered species, in danger of extinction, and we can now begin the process to protect it and recover it.
We walked into our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., this afternoon to cut a few tropical milkweed stems to feed the indoor caterpillars, and there, hidden beneath a leaf, was a tiny caterpillar.
Well, hello, there! Aren't you a little late? The monarchs have been overwintering along coastal California for a couple of months. Your parents did not get the memo.
This uncharacteristic weather we're having--autumn temperatures soaring into the 70s here in recent weeks--means the milkweed is still growing and the caterpillars are, too.
We've pruned all of the tropical milkweed down to the ground except for one plant that's still flowering. We're keeping it. Food is scarce for the honey bees, syrphid flies and other pollinators.
Meanwhile, Tiny Caterpillar is a new addition to our indoor habitat. Ours is just a small-scale conservation project of rearing and releasing monarchs to help boost the declining monarch population. So far this season, our total is 54. That's 54 that may have been eaten by birds or consumed inside-and-out by parasitoids such as the tachinid flies, which lay their eggs inside the caterpillars or chrysalids. Overall, about 2 or 3 percent of the monarchs make it all the way through their life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, scientists estimate.
Here are the basics of how we rear them, but all Monarch Moms and Monarch Dads do it differently.
- Grow milkweed species, the host plant of the monarchs. We have four different species in our pollinator garden:
--Asclepias fascicularis, narrowleafed milkweed
--Asclepias speciosa, broadleaf milkweed
--Asclepias tuberosa, a Midwest favorite
--Asclepias curassavica, tropical milkweed
- In addition to milkweed, plant other nectar-producing plants for your monarchs and other pollinators. The monarch favorites, at least in our yard, include Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), an annual that grows here from April through November (in fact it's still blooming), butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana.
- When you see caterpillars on the milkweed, you'll need to protect them from predators, such as birds, tachinid flies and wasps by bringing them indoors. Add water to a heavy, narrow-necked, flat-bottomed bottle (we use Patron tequila bottles, compliments of our friends). Tuck the milkweed stems, with the 'cats still on the stems, in the tequila bottle. Then place the bottle in a meshed, zippered butterfly habitat, such as the ones from the Bohart Museum of Entomology. You can also buy meshed, zippered laundry bags from stores.
- Be sure to keep the milkweed fresh. Mist it lightly, and add new milkweed daily. Clean the frass from the bottom of the habitat.
- Watch caterpillars eat their fill and then pupate. You'll see the jade-green chrysalids, rimmed in gold, hanging from the top of the habitat.
- When the monarchs eclose, wait for their wings to dry before releasing them. We usually release them after four or five hours--if it's not cold or rainy. Food? They usually won't eat for 24 hours. If the weather is inclement and we can't release them right away, we feed them. We dip a cotton ball into a mixture of honey and water, and place it on a tray, along with a fresh flower or a slice of fruit, such as cantaloupe or watermelon. Some folks feed them a sugar and water mixture. Some use sports drinks such as Gatorade. Mona Miller, administrator of the Facebook page, Raising Butterflies and Moths for Conservation, tells how to feed monarchs on her YouTube channel. She uses 2 tablespoons of water (heated) and 1/2 teaspoon of raw organic honey (more amino acids and protein). She cools the mixture and places in a colorful cap lid (yellow, red, orange).
- When it's time to release a monarch, we just unzip the container. Sometimes we gently cradle the monarch, and then open our hands and watch it go. Some monarchs take off immediately. Others linger on our hands or head for a nearby plant.
- After you release each batch of monarchs, clean the container with soapy water and a little bleach.
Some excellent resources to get you started and keep you going:
- Xerces Society: Monarchs for Conservation and Project Milkweed
- The Beautiful Monarch, Facebook page administered by Holli Webb Hearn
- Raising Butterflies and Moths for Conservation, Facebook page administered by Mona Miller
Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover campaigned for "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." (Now we have free-range organic chicken on every barbecue grill, and as many as three fuel-efficient cars with sophisticated high-tech gadgets in every multi-car garage.)
Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group "Latinos for Trump," warned that we might have a "#taco truck on every corner." (That's a slogan that backfired; who doesn't love tacos?)
So, "chicken in every pot," "car in every garage" and "taco truck on every corner."
What about a slogan for our monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? If we all planted milkweed, the monarch's host plant (monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and their caterpillars eat only milkweed), that would be ideal. And even more ideal, if we all provided some flight fuel (floral nectar) for migrating monarchs.
In the 1990s, nearly 700 million monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only a fraction of the population remains, a decline of more than 80% has been seen in central Mexico and a decline of 74% has been seen in coastal California.--Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Public awareness could go a long way in helping to boost our monarch population:
- "Milkweed on every corner" or hashtag it: #MilkweedOnEveryCorner.
- "Tithonia in every garden" or hashtag it: #TithoniaInEveryGarden.
Meanwhile, you can't go wrong with Mexican sunflower or Tithonia, which anchors many pollinator gardens in California from early spring through fall. In addition to monarchs, we've seen Gulf Fritillaries, Western tiger swallowtails, mourning cloaks, pipevine swallowtails, skippers, buckeyes, acmon blues, painted ladies and other butterflies sipping nectar from Tithonia. That's not to mention the other pollinators drawn to the colorful orange flower. Among them: bumble bees, carpenter bees, sunflower bees, leafcutter bees, blue orchard bees, sweat bees, syrphid flies or hover flies, and hummingbirds.
Imagine a world with #MilkweedOnEveryCorner" and "TithoniaInEveryGarden." Imagine more monarchs...
Oh, the joy of rearing monarchs...from an egg to a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult...
However, the ultimate joy is not in rearing them, but releasing them--from their confined and well-protected indoor habitat to that Spectacular Spacious World Without Boundaries. Some soar majestically 80 feet into the air, never looking back. Some decline to leave your hand and just cling there on your finger. And some leave your hands only to hang around the yard for five hours. Hey, do I have to go? Can't I just stay awhile?
It's been said that in Nature, 97 percent of monarch eggs don't reach adulthood. Or, to put it another way, the survival rate is 3 percent. Conservation, even on a mini-scale (we've reared and released 22 this year) is what it's all about.
Another joy is this: documenting them as they fly off or nectar on nearby flowers. Monarchs may live from minutes to hours to several weeks, depending on predators, diseases, deformities, food supply and migratory mishaps. Some live several months as they overwinter along coastal California and in Central Mexico.
Speaking of life span, we were rather surprised that a video of a monarch being released--and then eaten by a diving bird--emerged as one of three $100,000 America's Funniest Videos. Funniest? Not funny. True, that's what birds do, and do well, but the humor escapes many of us. It was more of an "Oh, No!" moment.
On a more pleasant note, it's good to see an increasing number of citizen scientists planting milkweed. They know that milkweed is the host plant of monarchs; that monarchs will lay their eggs only on milkweed; and caterpillars will eat only milkweed. No milkweed. No monarchs.
For more information on monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and planting milkweed, check out the wealth of information on the Xerces Society's monarch website. And read the news release by the Xerces Society's Emma Pelton on the 74 percent decline in the monarch in the number of monarch butterflies overwintering in coastal California.
Last December the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation released preliminary figures. Now they've announced the final tally: almost 272,000 monarchs (Danaus plexippus).
The good news is that it's a little up from last year. Yes! But the not-so-good news is that the total is 39 percent lower than the long-term average.
The Xerces Society has sponsored and spearheaded the count since 1997. The project spans 16 counties along the California coast. It's called the “Thanksgiving Count” but it's a three-week project centered around the holiday. Who surveys them? Volunteers. It's a massive and important endeavor.
"Results from a survey of monarch butterfly overwintering sites in California show that there are more monarchs overwintering in the state this year than last," wrote Sarina Jepsen, director of Xerces Endangered Species Program, and Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces executive director, on their website. "Volunteers with the Xerces Society's Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count visited 187 sites and tallied a total of 271,924 monarchs. Although more monarchs were counted, the average number of monarchs per site is not significantly different than last year's count, and this year's population estimate represents a 39% decline from the long term average. The number of monarchs counted this year is but a fraction of the 1.2 million monarchs recorded in the late 90s."
They noted some promising data. "Fifteen sites that have been continuously monitored had the highest numbers of butterflies in a decade. Several sites that had not seen monarchs for years were occupied, and there were a number of sites, such as the Berkeley Aquatic Park, that hosted overwintering monarchs for the first time. In Marin County in the northern extent of the overwintering range, 11 sites had increased numbers and two new sites each supported more than 8,000 butterflies."
Unfortunately, the sites surveyed in southern California showed fewer monarchs than last year.
Xerces is working feverishly to save the monarchs and is encouraging others to do so, too. “The monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels,” Xerces wrote on their website. “In the 1990s, estimates of up to one billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80% from the 21 year average across North America.”
Personally, we were delighted to see monarchs overwintering in the Berkeley Aquatic Park and the gathering--though sparse--near St. Peter's Chapel on the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, Solano County. Monarchs used to overwinter in the eucalyptus trees near the Solano County Juvenile Hall, Fairfield, but someone felled the trees.
Meanwhile, what can we do to conserve the monarchs? Xerces lists these excellent points:
- Plant native milkweed and nectar plants. Find sources of local, native milkweed seed in your state using our Milkweed Seed Finder.
- Learn more about growing milkweeds on our Project Milkweed page.
- Avoid using insecticides and herbicides.
- Support agriculture that is organic or free of Genetically Modified ingredients.
- Become a citizen scientist and contribute to research efforts to track the monarch population in its breeding and overwintering range.
- Support the Xerces Society's monarch conservation efforts
Another thing we can do is become "Monarch Moms" and "Monarch Dads." Rear them for conservation purposes. Then release them and watch them soar. It's a feeling like no other. If you look on Facebook, you can network with the Monarch Moms and Monarch Dads out there.
The Beautiful Monarch
Public group administered by Holli Webb Hearn
"The Beautiful Monarch group was created to teach members how to raise and properly care for the monarch butterfly from egg to flying adult along with learning about their predators, diseases and other monarch facts. It is my hope that as a collective group we will help and teach one another along with any new members that join us."
Raising Butterflies and Moths for Conservation (+All Pollinators)
Closed group monitored by Mona L. Miller (apply to join)
"Our focus is the preservation and protection of North American butterflies, moths and pollinators, particularly the Monarch Butterfly."
There's even a Monarch Teacher Network. (Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies)