Butterflies and moths totally fascinate entomologist Jeff Smith, the 32-year volunteer curator of the Bohart Museum of Entomology's Lepidoptera collection.
Smith loves talking about them, engaging folks face-to-face, and answering their questions. He is a fixture at the Bohart Museum open houses and other events, including the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day and the annual UC Davis Picnic Day.
But this year's Picnic Day, the 107th annual, went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to be deterred, Smith hosted a one-hour Zoom session. "Mimicry in the Butterflies and Moths with Jeff Smith," now available online on YouTube at https://youtu.be/8ZccezxhhK4.
Smith prefaced his talk by recommending the 375-page book, Insects and Other Arthropods of Tropical America by Paul E. Hanson and Kenji Nishida. "I didn't write it," he added, "and we (Bohart Museum) do not sell it (in the gift shop)." The book is an introduction to arthropods in North America--not just butterflies and moths but beetles, wasps, flies, true bugs and others.
"I've always been fascinated by the mimicry of butterflies and moths," said Smith, who won a 2015 Award of Distinction from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for his volunteer service (see news story). "I've had the opportunity to make 10 to 12 trips to South and Central America. What I found there are great examples of how they can mimic each other or other things in order to survive."
Smith defined mimicry as "the close resemblance of an animal to some other animal, some other a plant or some inanimate object." Müllerian mimicry, named for Johann Friedrich Theodor "Fritz" Müller, is "where two or more species have similar appearances as a shared protecting device," Smith told this audience. "Batesian mimicry, named for Henry Walter Bates, is the resemblance of an edible species to other species that are noxious and avoided by predators."
"The monarch and the viceroy are good Batesian mimics," Smith said, "because until recently, it was believed that the monarch is distasteful and slightly toxic and that the viceroy was an edible species but it looked so much like the monarch that it was protected as well. It turns out--I don't know if somebody ate it or if they just tested the chemicals in the insect--but it turns out the viceroy is also a distasteful and toxic butterfly so we've now switched this from Batesian and mimics to Müllerian mimics, but the fact is, that they they look very much alike. Predators may have tried one and didn't care for it so now they leave alone anything that kind of looks like that."
"In order for mimicry to work," Smith pointed out, "the two different species need to be living in the same general habitat as each other. So if the monarch lived in Asia and the viceroy lived in North America, predators would never learn to associate these things with each other, and with that bad experience of trying to eat them."
"It's also important, I think, for us to understand that everything about every insect, in particular every butterfly and moth, that every pattern, every color, and every shape is meant to protect it. These things have evolved over many millions of years and that's what's worked for them."
Smith also drew attention to predator avoidance of butterflies with eye spots, such as the buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia, and the owl butterflies, Caligo. Some bumble bees have beetle and fly mimics, including the longhorned wood-boring beetles and robber flies. "They look like something that could sting and they get protection from that."
Smith estimated that of the 17,500 described species of butterflies in the world, about 750 of those occur in North America. "However, in North America there's 160,000, easily, species of moths. Moths are far more numerous than butterflies, and in particular, with the little tiny moths, it's estimated by experts in those groups, that at least 90 percent of the species still have not been described. They are sitting waiting for someone to identify them and give a name to them. So if anybody is interested in insects and wondering if there's still something left to do, the answer is absolutely yes."
The Lepidoptera curator also discussed host plants: how milkweed offers toxicity to monarch caterpillars, and how passionflower offers toxicity to Gulf Fritillaries. "And they sequester it. They use it for their own defenses. It's kind of curious that in the monarch butterflies, the male may pass on some of those toxic chemicals to the female when they mate, and the female then stores those chemicals into the eggs, and gives the eggs some level of protection once they're placed on a plant. So they call it a nuptial gift."
Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's education and outreach coordinator, helped field the questions. Smith said Lawrence Allen's book, Butterflies of the Western States, available in the Bohart Museum's online gift shop, is a good resource.
When asked his favorite butterfly, Smith acknowledged that "it's kind of hard to pick a favorite butterfly. It may very well be, I mean as far as the thing that gets me the most excited, the big Morphos, the big blue Morpho butterflies that you find in tropical America. There are about 30 different species. They're almost all brilliant metallic blue on top, with wing spans of four to six inches across, and brown on the underside so they're camouflaged when they're landing with those wings closed. But when you see one of those fly by you, and when you're walking around in a trail in the rain forest in Central or South America, it's pretty exciting. Once in a while, it'll even land on your arm and sip the the sweat."
Many people don't want to know this, Smith said, but butterflies also feed on the nutrients in "rotten bananas, dead animals, and urine and feces." That includes human waste.
Lamenting the plunging population of monarchs, Smith advocated that folks plant milkweed and nectar sources in their gardens. Urbanization is one of the causes of the decline, he said.
The Bohart Museum, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, but is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology, it houses nearly eight million insect specimens and is the seventh largest insect museum in North America. In addition to its online gift shop, the Bohart Museum maintains a live "petting zoo" comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas.
In 2019, UC Davis hosted the international Lepidopterists' Society's 65th annual conference. The scientists visited the Bohart Museum twice. Kimsey participated with senior museum scientist Steve Heydon; and Bohart associates retired research entomologist John De Benedictus, naturalist Greg Kareofelas, and Smith. (See Bug Squad blog)
If so, then when the 107th annual UC Davis Picnic Day, themed "Discovering Silver Linings," takes place virtually on Saturday, April 17, better wear your sunglasses with all that silver blasting at you.
A silver lining is a sign of hope in a negative situation, like the COVID-19 pandemic. So positivity blocks such negativity as "every rose has its thorn" or "there's a fly in every ointment" or "all that glitters is not gold."
All that glitters is silver now.
On April 17, you can discover scores of silver linings at this "all virtual" family-oriented event, which promises to be informative, educational and entertaining.
Picnic Day officials have released the schedule of events and they include entomological exhibits and talks. Think UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, Bohart Museum of Entomology and the UC Davis Graduate Student Association. (See yesterday's Bug Squad blog)
Don't miss the pre-recorded talk on the Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, by Greg Kareofelas, Bohart Museum associate and naturalist. These orange-reddish butterflies, with their silver-spangled underwings, are glorious. (See what UC Davis butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, says about them on his website.) Kareofelas will showcase them and show you how to rear them, which is what he did last year during the pandemic.
Entomologist Jeff Smith, the volunteer curator of the Lepidoptera collection at the Bohart, will present a live Zoom event from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday on mimicry in Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). "I will briefly mention camouflage," Smith says, "and spend most of the time on mimicry for defense--mimics of toxic or distasteful species, mimicry using odors or sounds, mimics of snakes or spiders, and mimics of non-food materials such as bird feces."
To connect, access https://ucdavis.zoom.us/j/92841203978?pwd=ay91SUpFZnl5MEdnVmlzOUxmMFFZQT09
Zoom Meeting ID: 928 4120 3978
Zoom Passcode: 160485
"People who want to submit their questions to Jeff or request to see certain species from the collection can email their requests to firstname.lastname@example.org with Picnic Day in the subject," says Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's education and outreach coordinator. "We won't have the time or capacity to access the collection during the event for any requests. Instead, we will pull the items that are requested or relevant to the talk and have those prepared to show. Of course we may not be able to honor everyone's request, but we will do our best."
The Bohart Museum, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane (the museum is closed now due to the pandemic), is directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology. It houses nearly eight million insect specimens, plus a year-around gift shop and a live "petting zoo," comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas.
That's a question that nematologists are frequently asked.
Well, just in time for the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Month (that would be our month of February!), nematologist Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, answers that very question in his 11-minute YouTube video, https://youtu.be/3fhv-P_O8I8. .
Nematodes are known as "round worms" and most are microscopic, he says in his family friendly, easy-to-understand video.
"The famous naturalist E. O. Wilson who studies ants notes that 80 of the individual animals living on the earth are nematodes," Nadler says. "They are clearly important to the earth's ecosystems, even if we don't fully understand all the things that they do, and as parasites they affect human health, the health of other animals, and reduce our food production so they're clearly important in that respect."
You'll want to watch the rest of it.
Nematodes are just one of the topics of videos posted on the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Month website. Others affiliated with the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology focus on butterflies, moths, arachnids, millipedes, and how to collect, preserve and identify insects.
Other videos posted on this site for free, public viewing include:
- "Virtual Tour of the Bohart's Lepidoptera Collection," a 13-minute Aggie Video by Diane Ullman, professor and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. She describes the natural history and ecology of several colorful and toxic species in the Bohart Museum of Entomology. See https://bit.ly/2LHYFzL
- "Insect Collection, Preservation and Identification," a 15-minute Aggie Video by Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist, Bohart Museum of Entomology. Heydon, the curator and collections manager of the Bohart Museum, gives an overview of how the museum collects, preserves and identifies some of its nearly 8 million specimens. See https://bit.ly/375eXdC
- "Common Millipedes of the Sacramento-San Francisco Region," a 23-minute YouTube video by Xavier Zahnle, a doctoral student in the lab of Professor Jason Bond lab, the Schlinger Chair in Systematics. Zahnle reviews the major groups of millipedes that are commonly found in the region, the diversity, and what makes them unique. See https://youtu.be/ZMAzm3A95VE
- "Demonstration of Insect Preparation: Butterflies and Moths," a 9-minute Aggie Video featuring Jeff Smith, curator of the Lepidoptera collection at the Bohart Museum of Entomology. He describes how to pin and spread moths and butterflies. This technique is the most common method that museums and researchers use to display adult Lepidopterans, allowing scientists to identify and study this diverse group of insects. See https://video.ucdavis.edu/media/0_9nymgt3c
- "All About Arachnids," a 24-minute YouTube video by Lacie Newton, a doctoral student in the lab of Professor Jason Bond lab, the Schlinger Chair in Systematics. She talks about the diversity of arachnids (spiders, scorpions, ticks, mites etc.) and their unique characteristics. https://youtu.be/FM_ANqARkI0
Other topics range from the Phaff Yeast Collection, California Raptor Center and the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology to the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. More videos, including one on the diversity of bees by Chris Casey, manager of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden, the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, are being loaded throughout the month of February. To access all of the pre-recorded videos and activities, click here. To access the schedule of live talks and demonstrations, click here.
About the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Month
The 10th annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Month program is all virtual this year via webinars and pre-recorded presentations. All take place throughout the month of February. The science-based event traditionally occurs on only one day--the Saturday of Presidents' Weekend, when families and friends gather on campus to learn first-hand about the UC Davis museums and collections.
This year's biodiversity event focuses on 12 museums or collections:
- Anthropology Museum
- Arboretum and Public Garden
- Bohart Museum of Entomology
- Botanical Conservatory
- California Raptor Center
- Center for Plant Diversity
- Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven
- Nematode Collection
- Marine Invertebrate Collection
- Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology
- Paleontology Collection
- Phaff Yeast Culture Collection
One of the activities listed in the pre-recorded talks and activities is a 10-page coloring book on plant-insect interactions. It's the work of Molly Barber, Fernanda Guizar, Collin Gross and Jasen Liu of the Santiago Ramirez lab, UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology. Ramirez is a global authority on orchid bees. Download the PDF of the coloring book here.
To help support the Biodiversity Museum event, contributions are being accepted through a month-long crowdfunding campaign program at https://crowdfund.ucdavis.edu/project/24310.
Are you counting down until the much-awaited Virtual Moth Open House, hosted by the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology?
The free and family friendly-event is set from 1 to 2 p.m., on Saturday, July 25, coming to you live on the Bohart Museum's Facebook page. You don't have to have a Facebook account to watch the program.
Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the Bohart's Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) collection, will display moths, talk about moths and answer your questions.
And it's all in keeping with National Moth Week.
Curious as to how he pins and spreads the moth and butterfly specimens? Be sure to check out Sarah Stinson's newly recorded video in which Smith demonstrates how to Pin and Spread Moths and Butterflies. The link is on the Bohart Museum's home page.
"I've been managing the butterfly moth collection for the last 32 years," he says. "And much of what I do has to do with spreading the wings of butterflies and moths so that they're ready and available to be identified."
You'll learn about spreading boards, pins, forceps, and yes, why you should use kitty litter. And you'll learn why you should keep "little bugs" away from your specimens "before you get around to working on them."
"I've done these spreading demonstrations for many, many groups including the (UC Davis) entomology club," he relates. "And as I tell them as I start, I'm going to show you how simple this is. But the first time you do it, you're going to be very, very frustrated."
Smith, who was singled out for the prestigious Friend of the College Award in 2015 by the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is in one word: "incredible." (See news story)
He makes it look easy. It's not.
"Personally, I am astounded by the thousands upon thousands of butterflies and moths that Jeff has prepared for display or scientific study," research entomologist Tom Zavorink, a Bohart Museum associate, told us. "This is no small task because butterfly and moth specimens are usually brought from the field in envelopes or boxes with their wings folded over their backs or around their bodies, and preparing them for display or scientific study involves relaxing them in a humid chamber so their wings and legs can be manipulated, carefully spreading open the wings, positioning them on a flat surface, and securing them in that position until the specimen dries again. This is an onerous task that many entomologists, myself included, shun because we don't have the time, manual dexterity, or patience it takes to prepare quality specimens."
At the Virtual Moth Open House, there's an extra bonus: learn how to set up a blacklighting trap to collect night-flying insects. (See previous Bug Squad blog)
The Bohart Museum is directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, and is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus. It houses nearly 8 million insect specimens, and about 500,000 of them are butterflies and moths. The museum also houses a live petting zoo (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas) and an insect-themed gift shop, stocked with T-shirts,jewelry, books, stuffed animals, posters and insect-collecting equipment. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the museum is temporarily closed until further notice.
Are you the moth and the insect museum is the flame? Or are you the flame and the insect museum is the moth?
Either way, it promises to be fun, fast-paced and educational.
The free and family friendly event, held in observance of National Moth Week (July 18-26), will take place from 1 to 2 p.m. (Pacific Time) on Saturday, July 25 on Facebook Live (Bohart Museum Facebook page).
Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the 500,000 Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) collection, will show specimens and answer questions.
"Due to circumstances, the annual Moth Night at the Bohart Museum of Entomology will be a 'virtual tour' this year, and we hope it offers the same fun and interest as in past years," said Jeff Smith. "In addition to a live video tour of one of the aisles of moths in this huge research collection, we also will have video on how to set up equipment for attracting moths at night, the most productive time for observing these nocturnal animals. A new addition will be video on how to 'spread' the wings of moths and butterflies, an important step in preparing Lepidoptera for research and study."
Want to know just how impressive moths are?
"The live portion of our virtual tour will be spent in the collection itself, and we will show and talk about some of the most impressive moths in the world, including the Death Head Sphinx Moth, the highly toxic Slug Moths, and the largest moths in the world, the Atlas Moths," Smith said. "There will be examples of some of the many species of wasp mimic moths in the families Erebidae and Sesiidae, a hummingbird moth with a proboscis, its feeding tube, that is nearly 12 inches long! We will show the extraordinary Sunset Moth from Madagascar with its splash of amazing and metallic colors on its wings. There will be Black Witch and White Witch moths with wingspans up to 1 foot across. The diversity and beauty of moths easily rivals that of the better known butterflies."
Want to know how destructive some moths are?
"In addition to the moths known for their attractive appearance, we also need to show some of the destructive kinds, including the Gypsy Moth that has destroyed millions of acres of forest in the U.S., tussock and tent-worm moths that can defoliate entire trees, and the California Oak Moth that ravages oak trees along the California coast," Smith said. "There are moths with wingspans up to 12 inches and others so small you need a microscope to observe them."
All in all, this is a wonderful and diverse order of insects, Smith said, "and we hope everyone will join us on July 25th, for the 2020 Open House at the Bohart Museum of Entomology." Smith was named a 2015 "Friend of the College
by the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
The Bohart Museum is directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. It is headquartered in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane (but temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic). The insect museum houses a global collection of nearly eight million insects, as well as a live "petting zoo" (think Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas) and a gift shop stocked with insect-themed clothing, jewelry, posters and books, as well as collecting equipment.