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
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.)
All flights lead to the Butterfly Summit.
Road trips, too.
Butterfly guru Arthur Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, will speak on "Are Butterflies Heralds of the Insect Apocalypse?" at the third annual Butterfly Summit, an all-day event that begins 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 27 at Annie's Annuals and Perennials, 740 Market Ave., Richmond.
It's free and family friendly and co-sponsored by the Pollinator Posse, a Bay Area-based volunteer group co-founded by Tora Rocha and Terry Smith.
Shapiro, a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1972, will address the summit at 11 a.m. He recently addressed a monarch butterfly summit at UC Davis at which he declared that "California monarchs are on life support." (See his presentation.)
Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends in central California since 1972; his is the largest and oldest such dataset in North America. Shapiro, author of the book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley Regions, maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu.
Rocha lists the schedule as follows:
10 a.m.: "Bring the kids to see our caterpillars and adult butterflies, talk with our experts and share your experiences."
11 a.m.: Where have all the insects gone? Art Shapiro of UC Davis will share his thoughts on the insect apocalypse happening around the globe and discuss his research finds.
1 p.m.: Angela Laws, monarch ecologist from Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Mia Monroe, volunteer, will discuss how gardening practices can help the plight of the California monarchs
All day: Information tables.
Pollinator Posse: Tara Rocha and Terry Smith, along with Jackie Salas, horticulturist at Children's Fairyland, Oakland, will be available for questions.
Andy Liu:Liu, a landscape architect and garden designer specializing in butterfly habitat, will explain why his neighborhood is alive with Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries and many other winged wonders.
Tim Wong: Wong, an aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, is known as known as the "Pipevine Swallowtail Whisperer."
Andrea Hurd: Hurd, with the Mariposa Garden Design, will share her methods for designing meadows for butterflies. She specializes in songbird, butterfly, and pollinator habitat gardens using California native and pollinator-friendly plants.
Robin North: North, a garden designer specializing in pollinator and songbird habitat gardens in the North Bay, will share ideas for designing Sonoma County habitat gardens.
Suzanne Clarke: Clarke, a Sonoma County Master Gardener and "Butterfly Whisperer," will show how to rear caterpillars at her table and discuss the benefits of gardening for habitat.
Alameda County Master Gardeners: They will be on hand to show how to garden for native pollinators.
Rocha and Smith formed the Pollinator Posse (see their Facebook page) in Oakland in 2013 to create pollinator-friendly landscaping in urban settings and to foster appreciation of local ecosystems through outreach, education and direct action. Rocha, a retired Oakland parks supervisor, said that eco-friendly landscape techniques are at the heart of their work. "We teach respect for the creatures which keep Oakland– and the world–blooming."
"We envision a day when life-enhancing, thought-inspiring green spaces will grace every corner of the city and the world beyond," she said.
See the metamorphosis of a monarch below: from egg to caterpillar to pupa (chrysalis) to adult.
It's good to see butterflies, especially monarchs, getting so much press.
Now let's see if we can press the issue.
The Washington Post just published an article in its style section: "Butterflies Were Symbols of Rebirth. Then They Started Disappearing," chronicling the history--as we know it--of butterflies. For his in-depth piece, reporter Dan Zak interviewed butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, who has monitored the butterfly population in Central California since 1972 and maintains a research website.
The Washington Post reporter mentioned the monarch butterfly summit held Feb. 28 in the Putah Creek Lodge, UC Davis, where invited guests of the Environmental Defense Fund discussed "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
How serious is it? "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," according to the agenda.
Shapiro, one of the speakers, delivered a presentation on "What We Don't Know and What We Know That Ain't So About Monarchs" in which he declared that "monarchs are on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos." (See Bug Squad blog.) "I never saw a single wild Monarch larva in 2018—the first time since I became butterfly-aware in 4th or 5th grade!" he said.
In his Washington Post piece, published March 6, Zak wrote: "There's compelling evidence that pesticides, deforestation and habitat loss are to blame for monarch decline. Climate change sharpens every threat by altering weather patterns, extending droughts, strengthening storms. It's easy to conclude, then, that we are responsible....Shapiro says we don't fully understand what's happening to butterflies, but he can't shake a feeling of responsibility."
“I feel like a doctor who has a patient he's known his entire life, and the patient is obviously dying, and the doctor and his colleagues have been unable to determine why — so they can't recommend treatments,” Shapiro told the reporter. “It's a level of frustration where I'm watching things that I love go away, and there's nothing I can do about it but just stand there.”
We experienced that a little of that level of frustration last year in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. We saw--and reared--only 10 caterpillars in 2018. Compare that to 2016 when we reared and released more than 60 monarchs.
In 2016, we'd commonly see seven or eight at any given time all day long in the late summer and early fall. They'd stop for some flight fuel before winging it over to the California coast to overwinter. On Labor Day, 2016, we photographed a tagged migratory monarch from Ashland, Ore. nectaring in our garden. It was part of a citizen science project conducted by Washington State University entomologist David James.
Very few migratory monarchs fluttered into our garden in 2018. Where are all the monarchs? Something indeed was--and is--happening.
"For thousands of years, humans have looked to butterflies as a reassuring symbol in times of change," Zak wrote. "The Earth now is changing, and butterflies have become a symbol of something else: loss."
As Shapiro said in his presentation in the Putah Creek Lodge:
- Consider a doctor faced with a patient in rapid decline. All tests have failed to identify the cause. What is the doctor to do? You can't prescribe treatment for an undiagnosed illness, can you? You can make a wild stab at a prescription on the basis that the patient is going to die anyway, and MAYBE, just maybe, this drug will do some good. Or you can prescribe a placebo, just to reassure the patient that you are doing something. That's where things get interesting. Occasionally a patient improves drastically on a placebo. Maybe he would have improved anyway; there's no way of knowing. Suppose our patient has a complete remission despite having received only a placebo. Does our doctor convince himself the placebo cured him?
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.
We can do can do better than that!
Meanwhile, Shapiro will be teaching a UC Davis graduate student course, "The Science of the Monarch Butterfly," on Tuesday nights, starting April 2, during the spring quarter. The course is set for 8:10 to 10 p.m. every Tuesday in Room 2342 in Storer Hall, located off Kleiber Hall Drive. He's inviting citizen scientists or others interested in the science of the monarchs to audit the course, for free. No reservations are required.