Rising from the Ashes--Some Day
People ask me all the time where butterflies go when it rains. Now they're asking me where they go when it burns.
In a word, to the Elysian fields. They have nowhere else to go!
The unprecedented wildfires have destroyed very important butterfly habitats in 2020, particularly in the High North Coast Range where a million acres – mostly in the Mendocino National Forest – have burned. We have been doing biogeographical survey of the butterfly faunas of this region beginning in 1974. Earlier fires largely removed the fir forest from the upper reaches of Snow Mountain (summit 7056'), leaving it covered in successional montane chaparral. But Goat Mountain (6112'), Hull Mountain (6831'), Anthony Peak (6958'), and Black Butte/Mendocino Pass (7455') still had many intact plant communities containing rare and relict species (many of which were isolated and far-removed from their core ranges in the Sierra Nevada and/or the Klamath Mountains). These included very rare wet meadows (as at Plaskett Meadows near Mendocino Pass) and treeless “balds” on rocky summits, usually facing southwest, producing a simulacrum of alpine fell-fields typically found several thousand feet higher.
We had documented roughly 115 species of butterflies in these places. Some, like the Nevada Arctic (Oeneis nevadensis) and the Arctic Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) were at their southernmost range limits, not just in the Coast Range, but globally. One butterfly new to science, the Bald Hills Satyr (Cercyonis incognita), was discovered at mid-elevation on Goat Mountain (100% of which burned) and in a few spots farther north. All of its known habitats may have burned—we won't know until we can get in, not before next year—and it is possible that it is extinct. In addition, we discovered that the widespread, familiar Pine White (Neophasia menapia) was apparently two sibling species on Goat Mountain and near Seven Troughs Spring in the Mendo Pass area, flying several weeks apart and with morphological differences. We did publish that one! All the known localities for the late-season entity have burned, too. This situation is of special interest because the idea that species could originate through temporal isolation has been discussed for many decades, but rarely if ever firmly documented. (The classic case, in field crickets, has been falsified by DNA analysis.) We have to be thankful that we got the data we did before the holocaust. Now, of course, the pressure is on to digest it.
Recovery of the butterfly faunas cannot occur until the vegetation resources they depend on come back—and they may never do so. Glacial relics, like the unique four-petaled Plaskett-Snow Basin race of the bog shooting-star Dodecatheon jeffreyi –personally, I think it deserves species status—may never come back. Nor many of the stranded alpine and edaphic (soil-specialist) species, because they are so far from any conceivable seed source. We have to hope they have persisted in the soil seed bank and may in time recover. Only then can the butterflies re-establish—if there are sources of potential colonizers. The farther any unburned sources and the weaker the dispersal capabilities of the butterflies, the longer the lag times to recolonization. Only the most vagile and broadly-adapted species are likely to recolonize a burned area of a million acres anytime in the next half-century or more.
The fires of 2020 were fed by the combination of 60 percent of recent mean precipitation in the 2019-2020 rainfall year and extraordinary evapotranspiration demand on the vegetation resulting from the hottest late summer on record. Yes, climate change is real. And our Coast Range butterfly faunas may never be the same again.
- Sympatric, temporally isolated populations of the pine white butterfly Neophasia menapia, are morphologically and genetically differentiated, PLOS ONE, published May 31, 2007. Authors: Katherine L. Bell, Christopher A. Hamm, Arthur M. Shapiro and Chris C. Nice, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176989
- A New Species of Cercyonis (Lepidoptera: Satyridae) from Northern California, Bulletin of the Allyn Museum, Florida Museum of Natural History, published Sept. 5, 2012. Authors: John F. Emmel, Thomas C. Emmel and Sterling O. Mattoon
Contact: Art Shapiro at email@example.com
UC Davis alumnus and bee expert Elizabeth Frost, a technical specialist for bees with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, sadly knows the fire scene well.
Frost, a 13-year beekeeper, recently authored "24 Million Acres: Reports from Australia's Massive Fire Scar," published in the quarterly magazine, 2 Million Blossoms. The informative piece tackles the subject of Australian bushfires and it provides insight into the kind of scorched path lying ahead for California beekeepers.
"Bees don't abscond but stay with the hives as far as I can tell from beekeeper anecdotal evidence," Frost told us this week. "Where a 'cool' burn runs quickly through the bee yard, hives generally suffer from radiant heat. Post-fire, they should should be fed supplementally if there are no natural food sources where they can be moved to, and requeened. Otherwise, ongoing queen/productivity issues result."
At UC Davis, Frost worked with bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey (now at Washington State University) at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. The two colleagues are closely following the California wildfire disaster. "This is devastating--it will take years to recover," Cobey said.
An integral part of what's occurring both here and Australia, the colleagues said, is climate change. "Prolonged and potentially extreme bushfire seasons in Australia due to climate change is our present reality, not our future," wrote Frost in 2 Million Blossoms.
Meanwhile, the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council is keying on rebuilding the bushfire-devastated honey bee and pollination industry.
Frost described the 2019-20 bush fires in 2 Million Blossoms: "24 million acres were burnt in Australia's 2019-2020 bushfire season. In Australia's biggest beekeeping state, New South Wales (NSW), the 2019-20 bush-fires burnt through 13 million acres, 7% of the state's area, including 37% of NSW National Parks and 50% of State forests. NSW Apiarists' Association President Stephen Targett noted, “NSW Bushfires have burnt over 9,809 hives and wiped out the field of over 88,094 hives and burnt just over 5 million hectares of forests. With minimal autumn prospects, a small percentage of these affected hives will be suitable for almond pollination. While the mature almond orchards in Australia don't cover anywhere near as much land as in the United States, they still require around 220,000 hives in August, when mass bloom occurs in the Southern Hemisphere."
"This bushfire disaster was unprecedented in its impact on the Australian beekeeping industry which relies on native tall timber forests of nectar and pollen yielding trees to produce 30,000 tons of honey in a good year," Frost wrote. "Most of these species flower once every 3 to 4 years, unless soil moisture is below average for extended periods in which case some trees may not flower for up to 10 years. Australia's unique flora and dispersed bloom times means beekeepers must pay keen attention to botanical detail in order to effectively migrate to nectar flows that are not annual or even biannual. Australia lost vast swathes of vital natural sources of nutrition, species that provide car- bohydrates, proteins, amino and fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. The bushfires destroyed prime habitat that functioned as a safe haven far from the threat of pesticides to honey bees and native pollinators alike."
Frost called attention to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a leading Australian federal government scientific agency, that has been conducting bushfire research for almost 70 years. "Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian landscape, necessary for the regeneration of many endemic plant species that evolved with the harsh climatic conditions of the world's lowest, flattest and (apart from Antarctica) driest continents," Frost pointed out. CSIRO reports that “bushfires are the result of a combination of weather and vegetation (which acts as a fuel for the fire), together with a way for the fire to begin – most commonly due to a lightning strike and sometimes human-influences (mostly accidental such as the use of machinery which produces a spark).”
The impact of climate change has led to longer, more intense fire seasons, Frost related, and an increase in the average number of elevated fire weather days, as measured by the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). Last year saw the highest annual accumulated FFDI on record.
"Climate change doesn't cause fires directly, but has caused an increase in the occurrence of extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia since the 1950s," Frost wrote. "In addition to 2019 being the driest year since records began in 1900, it was Australia's warmest year. In 2019 the annual mean temperature was 1.52 °C above average.”
Frost asked: "In the short term, how will the beekeeping industry evolve to cope with millions of acres of its floral resource burnt and unproductive, providing no bee forage for at least the next few years? Supplemental feeding, previously practiced sparingly in Australia, will have to become the norm for the country if beekeepers hope to bring colonies up to required colony strength as agreed in their almond pollination contracts."
Sadly, it's a long singed recovery as well for the California beekeepers victimized by the wildfires. (To offer financial support for Caroline Yelle, owner of Pope Canyon Queens, access the Gofundme account.)
Our hearts are with the victims and what we can do to help.
But we briefly stepped out in the backyard yesterday (Oct. 10) in Vacaville to see a sun and sky we did not recognize. Nearby, the brightly colored orange Gulf Fritillary butterlifes (Agraulis vanillae) continued their life cycle on the passionflower vine (Passiflora), their host plant. So unreal to see:
- An egg on the tendrils.
- A caterpillar munching leaves.
- A newly eclosed Gulf Fritillary clinging to its pupal case.
- An adult spreading its wings in the eerie light, ready to start the process all over again.
Mother Nature is not kind. Neither is Father Time./span>