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
Shapiro says that "Although it is a significant alfalfa pest, this butterfly overwinters as a larva almost entirely in annual vetch at low altitudes, and colonizes alfalfa only as the vetch senesces in May-June. Aside from alfalfa and annual vetches, it also breeds on a variety of clovers and sweet clovers and occasionally on lupines."
"Caterpillar populations usually result from a flight of butterflies into the field when the alfalfa is less than 6 inches tall," according to UC IPM. "Extremely large numbers of adults migrating between fields are often present from June to September in the Central Valley and from May to October in the southern desert. Factors contributing to economically significant caterpillar numbers are:
- Slow and uneven growth of the crop
- Lack of natural enemies
- Hyperparasites (other parasitoid wasps attacking the natural enemy wasps reducing their numbers)
- Hot, dry weather.
"There are four to seven generations per year of alfalfa caterpillar, and each generation is closely synchronized with the hay-cutting cycle so that the caterpillar pupates before cutting occurs." See more information on the UC IPM website.
It's Thursday afternoon, Aug. 20, and it seems like a good time to run a photo of a Gulf Fritilliary.
Because it just is.
It is a joy to see, especially when joy seems elusive as out-of-control wildfires ravage California.
As butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis says about Agraulis vanillae on his website:
"This dazzling bit of the New World Tropics was introduced into southern California in the 19th Century--we don't know how-- and was first recorded in the Bay Area before 1908, though it seems to have become established there only in the 1950s. It can be quite common in the East and South Bay --particularly in Berkeley-- and has been found breeding spontaneously as far inland as Fairfield where, however, it is not established. There are scattered records in the Central Valley and even up to Folsom, perhaps resulting from people breeding the species for amusement or to release at social occasions. According to Hal Michael, who grew up in South Sacramento, this species bred there in abundance on garden Passiflora in the early 1960s. It seems to have died out by the early 1970s, however. Intolerant of hard freezes, it still managed to survive the record cold snap of 1990 that largely exterminated the Buckeye regionally!"
Its host plant: genus Passiflora or passion flower vine.
"In the Bay Area this species can be seen flying any day of the year, if it is warm and sunny enough," says Shapiro, who has been monitoring the butterfly populations of Central California since 1972 and posts the information on his website.
And if it's "warm and sunny enough," and you're growing Mexican sunflower (genus Tithonia rotundifolia), be sure to capture an image of a dazzling Gulf Fritillary nectaring on that equally dazzling blossom.
Both are a joy to see.
Scientists, conservationists and citizen scientists were there to discuss "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
"The western population of the monarch butterfly has garnered widespread attention because of its dramatic decline in recent decades," the Environmental Defense Fund said in its opening statements. "The latest population surveys indicate that monarchs overwintering on the central coast have declined 86% since last winter and now total 0.5% of their historical average. Population declines have spurred greater scientific study, funding, and coordination around the western monarch. California legislators appropriated $3 million in funding to the California Wildlife Conservation Board to establish the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program."
In his presentation, Shapiro told the group: "As of right now, the monarch is on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos. If our patient comes back from the brink—as history suggests it may well—will we convince ourselves that our placebos worked? Probably. And that's not how to do science. That's what philosophers call the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc." (See Shapiro's other comments)
Shapiro, who has monitored the butterfly populations of central California for more than four decades, posts his research on his website, Art's Butterfly World.
Meanwhile, the widespread interest in monarchs continues to widen. What's happening with the monarchs this year?
If you're a University of California Master Gardener and want an update on the status of Western monarchs, be sure to attend Shapiro's presentation at the UC Master Gardeners' Fall Conference on Saturday, Oct. 26 in the Veterans Memorial Senior Center, 1455 Madison Ave., Redwood City.
The event, to take place from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., includes a talk by Shapiro from 1:15 to 2:45 p.m. on "The Controversy on the Western Monarch Monarch Butterfly."
- 9:30-9:45: Welcome and Introductions, Shirley Melnicoe, president and Kali Burke, new program coordinator
- 9:35-10: Recognition, Ginny Piazza, membership chair
- 10 to 11: Soils Group presentation by Master Gardeners Joe Lees and Nick Landolfi
- 11 to 11:15: Break
- 11:15 to 11:45: Igor Lacan, UC Cooperative Extension Advisor for San Francisco Bay Area, The Odonata Order – The Mystery of Dragonflies
- 11:45 to noon: Sheena Sidhu, staff biologist, San Mateo County Department of Agriculture on Pests and Diseases, Latest Pests & Diseases in San Mateo County
- 12 to 1: Lunch
- 1 to 1:15: Master Gardeners leading some exercises, to be announced
- 1:15 to 2:45: Arthur M. Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, The Controversy on the Western Monarch Butterfly
- 2:45-3: Closing comments/wrap-up
Where are you, Gulf Fritillaries?
The Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) population seems to be diminishing this year around Solano and Yolo counties.
A few here, a few there, but not in the large numbers of last year.
Last summer the Gulf Frits overwhelmed our passionflower vine (Passiflora), their host plant, and skeletonized it.
Which is what we want them to do. We plant Passiflora for them, not for the fruit or the blossoms. On a good year, they eat it all--blossoms, fruit, leaves and stems--and look for more.
The history of the butterfly in California is as striking as its silver-spangled, reddish-orange coloring.
“It first appeared in California in the vicinity of San Diego in the 1870s,” says noted butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis. “It spread through Southern California in urban settings and was first recorded in the Bay Area about 1908. It became a persistent breeding resident in the East and South Bay in the 1950s and has been there since.”
Shapiro, who has monitored butterflies in central California since 1972 and maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu, says the Gulf Frit “apparently bred in the Sacramento area and possibly in Davis in the 1960s, becoming extinct in the early 1970s, then recolonizing again throughout the area since 2000.”
It's making a comeback, but this year it doesn't seem to be "coming back" so much.
Want to attract the Gulf Frit? Plant its host plant and some of its favorite nectar plants. In our pollinator garden in Vacaville, their favorite nectar sources include the butterfly bush (Buddleia), Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lantana (genus Lantana.)
Plant them and they will come--if they're around!