'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
--Clement Clarke Moore
We never tire of hearing that immortal poem, but this year let's offer another version:
'Twas the night before chrysalis when all through the land
Not a monarch was stirring, can you give us a hand?
That's because those iconic monarchs, Danaus plexippus, are in trouble.
"An epic migration, on the verge of collapse," says the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on its website.
"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, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only a fraction of the population remains, a decline of more than 80% has been seen in central Mexico and a decline of 97% has been seen in coastal California."
We're all accustomed to seeing and reading about the migratory monarchs traveling from the Pacific Northwest to coastal California. Entomologist David James of Washington State University studies the migratory monarchs and engages citizen scientists in his program.
Statistics show that 10 million monarchs overwintered in coastal California in the 1980s. The latest count this year: about 300,000. They seem to be as scarce as goodwill on earth.
There are some things we can do:
- Plant milkweed, their host plant
- Plant nectar-rich flowers, such as Tithonia (Mexican sunflower), purple coneflowers, zinnias, verbena, lantana, asters, butterfly bush and bottlebrush (Check out the Xerces Society's nectar guide for your area.)
- Don't use pesticides
'Twas the night before chrysalis when all through the land
Not a monarch was stirring, can you give us a hand?
...Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love
When Cole Porter wrote “Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love” in 1928, he wasn't thinking about butterflies. He was thinking of birds, bees and...well, educated fleas. As opposed to uneducated?
“The Birds and Bees” soon became a euphemism for courtship and reproduction. "The Talk."
Well, Cole Porter could have—should have--added "butterflies."
Monarch butterflies. Especially considering the dwindling number of overwintering monarchs along coastal California.
According to a Dec. 8 article in The Guardian, in the 1980s some 4.5 million monarchs overwintered in California, but today the number has dropped to about 30,000. That's a drop of some 97 percent, The Guardian noted.
Earlier, on Nov. 30, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (which organizes the Thanksgiving count) reported:
"We currently have preliminary count results from 97 sites, which includes many of the most important overwintering sites. In 2017, these sites accounted for 77% of the total monarch overwintering population, hosting approximately 148,000 monarchs. In 2018, the same sites have only 20,456 monarchs. This represents an 86% decline since last year."
"We will not have final numbers until the count is over and all the data are in and vetted (usually late January)—and we will keep our fingers crossed that other sites are hosting more monarchs."
Speaking of The Birds and The Bees, when migrating monarchs from the Pacific Northwest and inland California were fluttering to coastal California--and some were just eclosing--we encountered a courtship in Vacaville, Calif.
The date: Sept. 29, 2018
- A bird: A metal sculpture nailed to a post.
- Bees: Dozens of honey bees foraging on Spanish lavender beneath the post
- Butterflies: Two monarchs, Danaus plexippus...well...getting acquainted.
- Educated Fleas: No where in sight. (No uneducated fleas in sight, either.)
Sadly, the statistics indicate--with or without educated fleas--a dismal spring for monarchs.
It was a dismal year in Vacaville (and other parts of California) for monarch-rearing. Of the 10 caterpillars we collected from milkweed in our pollinator garden in early September and tried to rear, only eight made it.
One caterpillar died when a sibling attacked it. Another caterpillar made it to the chrysalis stage, and then it succumbed.
"The intersegmental membranes are showing," observed butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has researched butterflies for more than four decades and maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu. "Whatever caused that, it opens the door to severe water loss, so the pupa will probably die."
Yes, it did.
Black lines rimmed the non-viable chrysalis, and then it deteriorated almost beyond recognition.
Lynn Epstein, UC Davis emeritus professor of plant pathology, photographed it under a Leica DVM6 microscope on Nov. 2. An amazing image.
Meanwhile, perhaps the eight monarchs we reared and released made it to an overwintering site along the California coast...maybe to the eucalyptus grove at the Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz.
Or maybe they encountered a predator--a praying mantis or a bird.
Regardless, the declining monarch populations at the overwintering sites along coastal California are troubling.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, based in Portland, Ore., noted in a news release Feb. 2, 2018 that the "annual census of monarch butterflies overwintering along California's coast reveals that populations in western North America are at their lowest point in five years, despite recovery efforts. Volunteers with the Xerces Society's Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count visited more sites this past year than have ever been counted since the survey began in 1997, yet they tallied fewer than 200,000 monarchs."
“This year's numbers indicate a continuing decline in the monarch population,” noted Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society's endangered species program director. “Two decades ago, more than 1.2 million monarchs were recorded from far fewer coastal sites, and just last year nearly 300,000 monarchs were observed at almost the same number of sites.” Population estimates at individual sites also suggest that the western monarch population has continued to shrink. Of the 15 sites which have been monitored annually for more than two decades, 11 had lower counts than last year."
Also in the news release, Emma Pelton, conservation biologist with Xerces, said: “Counts at some of the state's largest sites were dramatically lower. Pismo Beach State Park was down by 38 percent, a private site in Big Sur was down by 50 percent, and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove was down 57 percent, from 17,100 to just 7,350 butterflies.”
Xerces Society officials also noted that "the few sites in which monarch numbers remained stable or increased compared to 2016, include Natural Bridges State Park, Moran Lake, and Lighthouse Field State Park, all in Santa Cruz County."
We like to think that The Vacaville Eight were The Lucky Eight.
Ask away at the Science Café.
This is an informative scientific presentation held the second Wednesday of each month in the G St. Wunderbar, 228 G St., Davis. The scientist delivers a brief talk and then engages the public.
Next Wednesday, Oct. 10, biodemography expert James R. Carey, a UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology and an expert on human aging (as well as insects!) will speak at 5:30 p.m. on "Are There Upper Limits to Human Lifespan?"
How long can humans live? Well, supercentarian Jeanne Calment of France (1875-1997), lived to be 122. Born Feb. 21, 1875, she died Aug. 4, 1997. She enjoyed a healthy lifestyle, prayed and exercised daily, and lived a basically stress-free life. But yes, she drank a little wine and smoked a little. She outlived her husband, daughter and grandson.
“Why do we live as long as we do (evolutionary question), why do we age (mechanisms question) and why do we die (closure question)?” Carey asks.
Some of the topics to be discussed at the event, billed as “a conversation and dialogue with a scientist,” include:
- The trends in aging research on extending human lifespan.
- Theoretical arguments for upper limits and empirical evidence in humans
- The impact of disease elimination and organ replacement on longevity
- With the changes in human life expectancy, humans are now being given a second chance-- somewhat like the proverbial cat with nine lives--after an otherwise life-ending disease or incident
- Look to nature for perspectives on the limits of “life duration,” for example 40,000-year-old frozen nematodes; hibernation and dormancy) and limits to “active lifespan.”
An internationally recognized leader and distinguished scholar in insect demography and invasion biology, spanning three decades, Carey also researches health demography, biology of aging, and lifespan theory. He is the author of a landmark study published in the journal Science in 1992 that showed mortality of Mediterranean fruit flies (medflies) slows at older ages. Earlier this year scientists confirmed that this also occurs in humans, citing the study of 105-year-old Italian women.
Carey, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 1980, directed an 11-university, $10 million, 10-year study on biodemography of aging from 2003-2013. He is also known for discovering Carey's Equality or the death distribution in a life table population equals its age structure. He teaches a popular longevity course that draws 250 to 300 students year, and recently authored a book on biodemography, to be published by Princeton University next year.
And, if you want to ask Professor Carey about medflies, he can answer those, too. He was a recent recipient of a UC Davis Academic Senate Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award for his “outstanding research, outreach and advocacy program involving invasion biology, specifically his significant contributions on two California insect pest invaders, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly (medfly) and the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM).”
Professor Jared Shaw, interim chair of the UC Davis Department of Chemistry and founder of the Science Café series, will host the Oct. 10th presentation. Launched in 2012 and initially supported by the National Science Foundation, the popular series now draws support from the Department of Chemistry and Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and is promoted by Capital Science Communicators.
See schedule on the UC Davis Department of Chemistry website.
Thar's gold in them thar hills?
Probably not. But thar's definitely gold in that there pollinator garden--our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
Gold, black and white--as in the iconic monarch caterpillars.
We've been waiting all year for Mama Monarchs to lay some eggs on our milkweed. We planted four different species, watered them and watched them bloom, fade, and go to seed. The bees sipped nectar from the blossoms, aphids sucked the juices from the stems, lady beetles (aka lady bugs) ate the aphids, and milkweed bugs chewed on the seeds.
All was not going well.
At 9 a.m., we saw FOUR monarch caterpillars munching away on our potted narrow-leaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis. Then at 6 tonight, FIVE more on the same batch of narrow-leaf milkweed.
Just when I was thinking I wouldn't be rearing any monarchs this year (in 2016 the tally totaled 60 plus), one or more Monarch Mamas proved me wrong.
I placed the 'cats in a netted butterfly habitat from the Bohart Museum of Entomology to protect them from predators and give them a chance at life, a chance for another generation.
What's going on with monarchs in this area is not good.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, who has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California for 46 years, from the Sacramento River Delta through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains to the high desert of the Western Great Basin, has not seen a single egg or caterpillar this entire calendar year at his low elevation sites.
"Not one!" he told Beth Ruyak on her "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento, last week.
Shapiro, who maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu, will talk about butterfly population trends (including monarchs) and how climate has affected them at a free public presentation from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Sierra College, Grass Valley. The event takes place in the Multipurpose Center Building, N-12, Room 103. Parking is $3; permits can be purchased at the kiosk machine at the main entrance to the campus. (For more information, contact the series coordinator, Jason Giuliani at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
And news flash: Shapiro spotted one monarch today, an adult female, in West Sacramento.