Meanwhile, scientists want to know where the monarchs are in the early spring. When the iconic butterflies head inland from their coastal overwintering sites, where do they go?
To participate in the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge:
- If you see a monarch outside of overwintering groves, take a picture! (Don't worry, it can be far away and blurry.)
- Report it to iNaturalist (the app is free) OR email MonarchMystery@wsu.edu and be sure to include date, species and location for both methods
- You will automatically be entered to win a variety of prizes every week you report a sighting.
All data will be added to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, a year-round community science project tracking milkweeds and monarchs in the West.
UC Davis alumnus Christopher Jason, a technician in the Schultz lab, said WSU researchers are collaborating with the Elizabeth Crone lab at Tufts University; Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation; and UC Santa Cruz. Crone, a biology professor recently on a research sabbatical at UC Davis, told the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology at a seminar Jan. 30 (the same day that Shapiro sighted a monarch in Sacramento) that more research needs to be done on where monarchs are in the spring, as that is a "critical point in their life cycle." Monarch populations are at their lowest at this time of year, Crone said, and individual butterflies may be at their "weakest right after their long overwintering diapause.”In an email, Jason reiterated that "The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge is a campaign to find out where western monarch butterflies are in early spring. We know they spend the winter months (November to February) in groves along the California coast, and start breeding in central California in May, and in some cases, as early as February. However, we know a lot less about where they are and what they're up to in February, March, and April. Solving the mystery of where western monarchs spend the spring is central to conserving and restoring the phenomenon of monarch migration in the West."
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reported this week that its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count shows a decline for the second consecutive year. “Sadly, fewer than 30,000 monarchs were counted—29,418 to be exact—for the second year in a row, so the western monarch population remains at a critical level,” according to Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach. (See Xerces press release and blog about the population count for this winter.)
Researcher Elizabeth Crone, a professor at Tufts University, Medford, Ma., will shed some light on the issue when she delivers a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on "Why Are the Monarch Butterflies Declining in the West?" from 4:10 to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 29 in 122 Briggs Hall, off Kleiber Hall Drive, UC Davis campus. Her longtime collaborator, pollination ecologist and professor Neal Williams, will introduce her.
"Ecologists now face the dual challenge of documenting changes in the environment, and figuring out appropriate strategies for conserving and recovering natural resources in changing environments," says Crone, who is completing a research sabbatical at UC Davis. In her talk, she will focus on “using the tools of population ecology to address both sides of this challenge: quantifying changes in the abundance of western monarch butterflies (and factors associated with these changes), and using theory and data to design strategies and targets for restoration and recovery.”
“Analyses of past dynamics (1980-2017) showed that western monarch butterflies have declined more quickly than their eastern counterparts, and that these declines were most strongly associated with loss of overwintering habitat, and more weakly (but significantly) associated with increased pesticide use and warmer breeding season temperatures,” Crone writes in her abstract. “Analyses of current conditions (2018-2019) suggest that a recent dramatic drop in abundance occurred in spring, between when monarch butterflies leave coastal overwintering sites and arrive in the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills.”
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation reported this week that its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count shows a decline for the second consecutive year. “Sadly, fewer than 30,000 monarchs were counted—29,418 to be exact—for the second year in a row, so the western monarch population remains at a critical level,” according to Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach. (See press release and a blog article about the population count for this winter.)
A native of Alexandria, Va., Crone received her bachelor's degree in biology, summa cum laude, from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., in 1991, and her doctorate in botany from Duke University in 1995. She served as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, from 1996-1997. Her career encompasses academic appointments at Harvard University, University of Montana, and the University of Calgary.
No stranger to UC Davis, Crone has collaborated with Neal Williams "on and off" for the past 20 years. “We had a National Science Foundation grant to study bumble bee populations from 2014-2019, so I have been visiting regularly since he got here. Starting in winter 2019, I have also had funding to take partial research leave from Tufts and work on western monarchs. I have been about half-time at Tufts and half-time at UC Davis." "I am grateful to Neal and the Entomology Department for hosting me during this extended stay!" she added.
Crone is a co-principal investigator (PI) with PI Cheryl Schultz, associate professor of biological sciences at Washington State University and co-PI Sarina Jepson, endangered species program director, Xerces Society, on a federal grant, "Western Monarch Breeding Phenology" (awarded May 2017-June 2020, with the potential for annual renewal). The grant was funded through the Department of Defense's (DoD) Natural Resources Program, DoD Legacy Program.
Of her research, Crone says "My research focuses on population ecology, especially of plants and insects, and plant-animal interactions. Specifically, I am interested in how environmental changes translate to changes in population dynamics: For example, is there a simple, linear matching of changes in resources to abundance of consumers, or do interactions among individuals and species moderate these responses? Much of my research also involves developing novel quantitative approaches to predict long-term dynamics from small scale observations and experiments. Current projects include studies of butterflies, bees, perennial wildflowers, sugar maples, and acorn-granivore interactions. Past projects include some of the best documented examples of cyclical dynamics in plant populations and spatial metapopulation dynamics in animal populations. I was also one of the first ecologists to adapt generalized linear mixed models to estimate variance terms for stochastic population models."
Her honors and awards are many and varied:
- Project of the Year Award, SERDP (Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program) 2018
- Foreign Member, Finnish Academy of Science and Letters (elected 2017)
- Vice Chair / Chair, Theoretical Ecology Section, Ecological Society of America, 2010-2012
- Ecological Research Award, Ecological Society of Japan, 2014
- Fulbright Fellowship, 2007-2008
- National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biosciences Related to the Environment (1996-1997)
- U.S. Department of Energy Graduate Fellowship for Global Change (1991-1995)
- Baldwin Speece Award (College of William and Mary, for scholarship/service in ecology, 1991)
How did you get interested in science? Was there an "ah ha" moment?
I was in an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program studying plant-insect interactions in 1990. The thing that made me want to go to grad school was the fun puzzle of designing an experiment AND figuring out how to interpret the data - I had collected data on beetle feeding rates, and when I didn't know how to analyze them my advisor said "read a statistics book" ... so I did--since then I have always especially loved the puzzle of matching models to data.
From an earlier age, I have always enjoyed being outdoors, which is probably why I chose to study biology. But that was the moment when I knew I would enjoy a life of research.
Some of your major accomplishments?
From an applied ecology perspective, the biggest is helping the Fender's blue butterfly move from being listed as endangered to nearly ready for down-listing. From a basic ecology perspective, I figured out the ecological interpretation of variance terms in mixed models as estimates of spatial heterogeneity and environmental stochasticity, and worked out one of the best examples of how mast-seeding species are synchronized by their pollinators.
What fascinates you about monarchs?
The possibility that we can recover the western monarch population from its recent steep decline to being abundant again. This should be a problem we can fix.
What do you like best about science?
The puzzle of matching models to data and the possibility of saving species from extinction.
Any scientists in the family?
My sister is an astronomer. My dad was a math professor. Before him, though, no one in the extended family had even gone to college.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I once gut-renovated a house (with help from carpenters, but doing some of the work myself), I am very proud of my urban pollinator garden in Somerville (near Boston, Mass., and I am a good enough trombonist to (just barely) keep up with my trombonist friends.
I am waiting to find out whether our monarch funding will be extended or whether I will go back to a regular teaching schedule at Tufts. Even if I go back to "full-time" teaching, I am sure I will be doing western monarch and bumble bee research for the indefinite future, and will continue to be at least partly bicoastal.
(Editor's Note: the Xerces Society's site-by-site monarch count data is available at https://www.westernmonarchcount.org/data/. This covers all years since the first count in 1997.)
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.)