Today was a Monarch Kind of Day...in Vacaville.
When Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, searched for butterfly species today at one of his field sites--Gates Canyon in Vacaville--he spotted not one, but two monarchs.
He spotted them separately, both near the bottom of the Brazelton property, and recorded "Two Danaus plexippus: one large, fresh-looking male; one small, unfresh-looking female."
Shapiro, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World (he's monitored the butterfly population in central California since 1972), knows just how scarce monarchs are this year.
Yes, they are. In the fall of 2016, we'd see seven or eight monarchs at a time flutter in for nectar or lay eggs on our milkweed in our Vacaville pollinator garden. This year they're as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. However, over the last two weeks, they're starting to appear, one sighting at a time, one monarch a day. They are mostly huge, fresh-looking males seeking nectar from our patch of Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). A few are females that head over to the tropical milkweed or Tithonia. Solo sightings.
But today was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Around noon, two monarchs arrived at the same time and they both sipped nectar from the Tithonia at the same time. In tandem. Inches away.
It was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Where are all the monarch butterflies?
There's good news and bad news.
First, the bad news:
"An Epic Migration on the Verge of Collapse," wrote the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on its website detailing monarch conservation.
"Both the eastern and western migrations have experienced significant decline in a matter of decades," they wrote. "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. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that there has been a decline of more than 80% in the east. In the west, the news is more dire. Monarchs have experienced a decline of 99.4% in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to 28,429 as of January 2019."
In our pollinator garden in Vacaville, I've seen only two monarchs this year. One, a female, lingered on the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) for about 30 minutes on Sunday.
But as luck would have it, a family member spotted a monarch this morning in the garden section of a home improvement store in Vacaville and captured this video (below). It was laying eggs on tropical milkweeds, Asclepias curassavica.
That's three. That's a far cry from the 60 we reared in 2016.
Now the good news:
Brookings, Ore., is fluttering with monarchs.
From the Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, covering Washington State University entomologist David James' research and the work of his many citizen scientists, comes the remarkable story of a female monarch named Ovaltine (since passed) and her progeny:
Aug. 23: "The biggest Monarch story on the west coast right now has to be the population explosion in the far southern Oregon coastal town of Brookings! From a single female (that we know about) 'dumping' more than 700 eggs at one Monarch Waystation in late June, there is now such an abundance of Monarchs in Brookings that every patch of Milkweed seems to have eggs on it! It's quite likely that a few other Monarchs also laid a lot of eggs in Brookings in June, but what has been surprising is the way that females have targeted single Milkweed patches for egg 'dumping'. Egg 'dumping' has been observed in other Brookings Milkweed patches, some of them very small. Holly Beyer, whose Waystation hosted the first egg 'dumping' female, has now had to limit egglaying by the new generation of 'egg dumpers' by enclosing her milkweed in netting cages, for fear of the larvae running out of food! I have never heard of anybody needing to do this before! Brookings is an official 'Monarch City' so its certainly living up to its name and the Monarch festival to be held there in early September should be graced by plenty of Monarchs dropping in!"
Aug. 29: "Holly has counted more than 1800 eggs laid by Ovaltine's tagged daughters in her garden! Ovaltine's 'grandchildren' will soon begin eclosing (from mid-September to mid-October) and of course will be the migratory generation. Their numbers will be limited by milkweed availability in Brookings but I expect significant numbers of fresh, migrant monarchs to be milling around Brookings in the coming weeks, feeding on nectar before they depart southward. If Holly had not captive-reared Ovaltine's progeny, there would not be monarchs flying around Brookings in the numbers we are currently seeing! We do not generally consider captive-rearing to be a good conservation strategy for monarchs but in this instance it has demonstrably contributed to monarch conservation. If you want to see monarchs flying, then a trip to Brookings, Oregon in September could be in order!"
If you see any WSU-tagged monarchs migrating through California to their overwintering sites along the coast, photograph them and contact David James at firstname.lastname@example.org. We distinctly remember the tagged monarch from Ashland, Ore. (tagged by Steve Johnson and part of the David James' citizen science project) that passed through our garden on Labor Day, 2016. (See Bug Squad post.)
Logan, a visitor at the Bohart Museum of Entomology's recent open house on spiders and other arachnids, wowed the crowd with his knowledge of scorpions.
“Logan is only in kindergarten but he was showing his mom our arachnid drawer and describing the differences between the Emperor Scorpion, Pandinus imperator, and the Dictator Scorpion, Pandinus dictator,” said Bohart associate and scorpion scientist Wade Spencer, an undergraduate student at Bohart Museum. “Thankfully, he wasn't at all shy when I asked him to repeat what he had just said to the crowd.”
“He loved sharing his knowledge with those interested,” Spencer said. “And his mom is an arachnid saint as she supports his endeavors even while she still gets the willies from just looking at them. She told me she finds it important to keep her cool so that he may never lose his enthusiasm.”
The Bohart Museum's three-hour open house included a presentation on spiders by Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. Scientists in both the Bond lab and the Bohart lab led arachnid activities, including "Eat Like a Spider" and "Catch a Moth."
Spencer and fellow Bohart associate and entomology undergraduate student Lohit Garikipati, tabled the scorpion display. The guests asked questions, gingerly touched them, and took cell phone photos.
Spencer currently has 37 scorpions of various species. Scorpions are venomous, not poisonous, he pointed out. As Professor Bond said in his talk: "Poisonous is what you eat it make you sick. Venomous means it takes toxin and it injects it into you."
"Fun fact about scorpions, Spencer said, "is that all of them are safe to eat as none of them are poisonous (toxins ingested or absorbed), but all of them (as far as we know) are venomous (containing poison(s) which are injected by some means)."
"I use the term 'medically significant' because it has the most potent venoms we know of, but I refrain and even discourage the use of the term 'dangerous' when describing scorpions and other venomous creatures," Spencer said. "It's often our own carelessness which makes them dangerous. If you live in in scorpion country, shake out your boots if you leave them outside and buy a $20 UV flashlight on Amazon. Those are simple ways to detect them and avoid being stung."
Spencer said he handles "my little Leiurus q. to show just how gentle and adorable she is so that people can have visual confirmation to back my claim that there is no such thing as a dangerous scorpion--though it should be clear I am not saying they're cuddly or friendly like a puppy. I advocate for them to be treated with caution and respect.
The UC Davis student attributes his interest in scorpions to his great-grandmother.
"My great-grandmother would always take me on afternoon picnics in the Big Tujunga Canyon Wash, a mostly dry river bed in the San Gabriel mountains in my home town of Sunland. She was a naturalist at heart and taught me about the native plants, geology, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and my favorite: the bugs. If ever we encountered a scorpion, she would stop and show me, but wouldn't kill them. Instead, starting when I was 3, she taught me that they were nothing to fear and showed me how to gently handle them. I've handled thousands ever since and not once been stung."
"I'm often asked why I'm not stung, and my response is always the same: 'It's not a cat!' By that, I mean, there's no risk of it randomly attacking me. I have scars all over my body from dogs and cats."
Spencer loves scorpions for three primary reasons:
- "Knowing their ancestors were the first animals on land about 450 million years ago."
- "Many of their venoms are being studied for use in shrinking brain tumors, sending fluorescent dyes to tumors with such specificities as to view 200 cancerous cell clusters--whereas MRIs can view 500,000 cell clusters. And some--to regulate insulin, treat arthritis, and antimicrobial components--have been used in mice with MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureas), completely curing them in 4 days."
- "Working with them directly and seeing how many people we have helped get over their fears has me simply head-over-heels for them."
The scorpion display drew the interest of adults and children alike. Three Brownie Girl Scouts from Vacaville giggled and comforted one another when they experienced the "Virtual Reality Spiders" demonstration conducted by medical entomologist Geoffrey Attardo, assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. But not so the scorpion display.
"When it came to the live stuff, the girls (Kendl Macklin, 7, Jayda Navarette, 8, and Keira Yu, 8) were more calm than nervous," said Spencer, adding "I thanked them for their bravery and showing the adults that there was nothing to fear."
The Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology, is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane. It houses nearly 8 million insect specimens, a gift shop, and a live "petting zoo" of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects or walking sticks, and tarantulas. The insect museum is open to the public Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon, and from 1 to 5 p.m.
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?"
The late folksinger and social activist Pete Seeger (1919-2014) sounded many alarms, but a recent article in the New York Times Magazine struck a different but somewhat similar chord: the declining population of insects worldwide.
Brooke Jarvis's piece on "The Insect Apocalypse Is Here," published Nov. 27, should be required reading.
Basically: Where have all the insects gone? What does it mean? Why haven't we noticed? And what are we going to do about it?
Well, butterfly guru/entomologist Art Shapiro, distinguished emeritus professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, has noticed. Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California for 46 years and maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/. The 10 sites stretch from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin. Shapiro visits his sites every two weeks "to record what's out" from spring to fall. The largest and oldest database in North America, it was recently cited by British conservation biologist Chris Thomas in a worldwide study of insect biomass.
In her article, Jarvis related: "In October, an entomologist sent me an email with the subject line, “Holy [expletive]!” and an attachment: a study just out from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he labeled, “Krefeld comes to Puerto Rico.” (See news article on Krefeld's "Insect Armageddon.")
That entomologist was Art Shapiro.
Pesticides, loss of habitat, diseases, climate change, and human encroachment--and more--are some of the reasons why our global population of insects is dwindling.
Shapiro, who engaged in a 90-minute conversation with author Jarvis (and suggested topics and interviews for the piece), is quoted as having one of the few long-term data sets about insect abundance in the United States.
"In 1972, he began walking transects in the Central Valley and the Sierras, counting butterflies," Jarvis wrote. "He planned to do a study on how short-term weather variations affected butterfly populations. But the longer he sampled, the more valuable his data became, offering a signal through the noise of seasonal ups and downs. 'And so here I am in Year 46,' he said, nearly half a century of spending five days a week, from late spring to the end of autumn, observing butterflies. In that time he has watched overall numbers decline and seen some species that used to be everywhere — even species that 'everyone regarded as a junk species' only a few decades ago — all but disappear. Shapiro believes that Krefeld-level declines are likely to be happening all over the globe. 'But, of course, I don't cover the entire globe,' he added. 'I cover I-80.'"
Jarvis quotes plant ecologist Hans de Kroon of Radboud University, the Netherlands, as characterizing the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with “a desert in between, and at worst it's a poisonous desert.”
Why should we care? As Jarvis succinctly points out: "Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere."
Now the concern should not only be "Where have all the insects gone?" but "What are we going to do about it?"
You're heard these idioms:
- The early bird gets the worm
- First come, first served.
- The second mouse gets the cheese.
But have you ever seen a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) eclose and then see her...well...engaged?
Such was the case on Labor Day, Sept. 3 in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
The female (we'll call her "Bride-to-Be") finishes eclosing and is hanging from her empty chrysalis, just drying her wings on the passionflower vine (aptly named) and getting acquainted with her new life stage and leafy surroundings.
Then, whoosh. A suitor (we'll call him "Groom-to-Be") appears out of nowhere. Well, from somewhere, but somewhere quite threatening. He looks tired and worn out, too fragile to fly. (As a colleague said: "He's accumulated a lot of frequent flier miles.") His ragged wings indicate a recent encounter with one or more predators, maybe a bird or a praying mantis. But he lucked out in the Predator-Prey tally: the final score, Butterfly, 1: Predator 0.
He lucks out again. He's the first to arrive at the altar. Our camera catches the action.
"In some Heliconius, the males locate female pupae and may even copulate with the female before she ecloses!" commented butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology. "They are related."
Labor Day, 2018.