But...this year ranks as the best milkweed season he's ever seen in California.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, 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.
It's been a troubling year.
"I have not seen a wild egg or caterpillar of the monarch this entire calendar year at low elevations," he said Thursday during an interview on the "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento.
"Not one." (Listen to the interview.)
Shapiro, a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1971, and author of the book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley Regions, visits his 10 sites along the Interstate 80 corridor generally every two weeks "to record what's out." 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.
How many species of butterflies has he tallied? 163. He maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/
Fast forward to next week: Shapiro will talk about butterfly population trends and how climate has affected them at a free public lecture, set from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11 at Sierra College, Grass Valley. The presentation will take 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 email@example.com.)
Shapiro's talk will zero in on climate change. "The vast majority of the butterflies we monitor are emerging earlier in the year now than they were in the 1970s," he told the second annual Butterfly Summit, held May 26 at Annie's Annuals and Perennials, Richmond. (See Bug Squad for the gist of his talk)
Got a question about monarchs or any other butterflies? About the California wildfires' effect on butterflies? Be there on Tuesday, Sept. 11. He welcomes your questions and comments.
They brought home five gold or first-place awards: three silver or second-place awards; and two bronze or third-place awards. “That was quite a haul!” commented an ACE member on Facebook.
- Diane Nelson, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, two golds
- Kathy Keatley Garvey, Department of Entomology and Nematology, one gold and one silver
- Jim Downing, California Agriculture journal, gold
- David Slipher, College of Biological Sciences, gold
- Steve Elliott, Western IPM Center, two silvers and a bronze
- Gregory Watry, College of Biological Sciences, bronze
Nelson wrote about pig personalities and polar bears. Slipher's topic was pigeons. (See other topics in the awards news story)
And me--bugs. The news story that won the gold (by yours truly) involved a visit to the Bohart Museum of Entomology by children of California migratory workers.
The piece, “Why These Youngsters Want to Become Entomologists” (https://bit.ly/2sYwhye) covered the children's tour of the insect museum, which houses some eight million insect specimens, a live "petting zoo" (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks, tarantulas and praying mantids), and a year around-gift shop. The students engaged the director, Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, in a press conference. They asked the "who, what, when, where and how come" questions like pros. It was delightful to see them so well prepared and perceptive.
The Bug Squad blog that won silver (https://bit.ly/2BrePU5) involved a late-season monarch caterpillar that we found Oct. 27, 2017 on one of our milkweeds in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. It formed a chrysalis on Nov. 4.
On Day 19, Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), it happened. The monarch eclosed. A big, strong and healthy girl.
What to do...no way could she fly three hours in the rain and cold from Vacaville to an overwintering site in Santa Cruz. And with predators abounding, survival looked bleak.
From the Bug Squad blog:
"It just so happened that a friend and pollinator advocate, Rita LeRoy, the self-described 'farm keeper' at the Vallejo City Unified School District's Loma Vista Farm, was heading to Santa Cruz on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to show her out-of-town relatives the overwintering migratory butterfly sanctuary at the Natural Bridges State Beach Park. That's about a 100-mile trip from Vallejo.
"Could Ms. Monarch hitch a ride?
"She could. And she did."
Rita is a Monarch Mom (she rears and releases monarchs) and is active in the Bay Area-Based Pollinator Posse. She teaches Vallejo City Unified School District youngsters about farming, cooking and gardening. And that includes gardening for butterflies.
So Ms. Vacaville Monarch hitched a ride with Rita and her family.
"She flew so fast that we didn't get a picture of her flying away," Rita related. "She was anxious to join her new friends."
A happy ending.
And hopefully, Ms. Vacaville Monarch provided the butterfly world with another generation.
This quote, often falsely attributed to Mark Twain, is a favorite of Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis.
Speaking at the second annual Butterfly Summit last Saturday, May 26 at Annie's Annuals and Perennials, Richmond, Shapiro discussed his research and offered his observations and views on the state of butterflies. He maintains a website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/
Shapiro has monitored butterfly population trends on a transect across central California for 46 years. 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." 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.
"The vast majority of the butterflies we monitor are emerging earlier in the year now than they were in the 1970s," Shapiro said. He mentioned the Red Admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta, which spends the winter as an adult, is "our biggest responder to global warming, coming out 21 days earlier on average that it use to, exactly the same in England, same species. It's not weird at all. It is winter active."
His research shows that not only are butterflies coming out earlier, but "we also find trends in population and species richness."
Shapiro, a member of the UC Davis faculty since 1971 and author of the book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley Regions, said that "in a nutshell, at low elevations, butterfly faunas have been declining slowly until 1999. In 1999, 17 species had an abrupt fall in abundance, spontaneously. On its face, this was a non-random event. The decline was then rapid from 1999 to the onset of the recent drought and then things went up again."
Shapiro noted that by and large, immature butterflies spend the winter underground or right at the surface. "This is the worst possible environment for overwintering butterflies in the early stages, what with the combination of warm and wet." The high humidity and temperature are very favorable for fungal and bacterial pathogens, he said, adding that "Overwintering survival in warm wet conditions is poor."
"When we have a dry winter, it's colder at night but not cold enough to be lethal, he said. "It's a healthier environment to be an overwintering caterpillar. That's what we think is going on."
In the mountains or higher elevations, changes are strongly correlated with climate. "As it gets too warm and dry down below, butterflies are moving uphill, but plant resources are moving up the slope more slowly. When resources are not available yet higher up, butterflies have a real problem. There's no where to go at all for truly alpine species; they're already at the top of the mountain. The next stop is heaven." Shapiro described the decline of butterfly populations in the mountains as "worrisome."
Neonicotinoids, which Shapiro defined as "a class of synthetic pesticides chemically derived from the chemistry of nicotine," are often targeted as a cause of butterfly decline. "Neonics are not in Scotland and there's been no butterfly decline in Scotland," he pointed out. "But, anyone who has taken a statistics course knows that Correlation Is Not Causation."
Turning to monarchs, Shapiro said "More than half of the questions I get from the public deal with monarchs."
Describing the monarch as "the poster child for conservation," Shapiro said: "There's a lot of stuff out there in the media, and it's not all to be believed." Butterfly population counts differ from summer breeding data and the overwintering data.
"If you want the scoop on monarchs--unconnected with fundraising or politics," he said, "read Anurag Agrawal's book, Monarchs and Milkweed." The book is subtitled "A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution." Agrawal, the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Science at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., received his doctorate in population biology from UC Davis in 1999.
"Monarchs in California have had a long decline, perhaps more dramatic than the decline in the Midwest and the East," Shapiro said, adding they have never been as common in California than they are in the East. "If they're relatively scare, that doesn't mean a decrease. We need to do comparisons over time. During the drought, they came back. We don't know why."
Shapiro also said that monarchs are winter-breeding in California, something they didn't do 10 years ago. "It started in southern California, maybe a decade ago and is now spreading to the inland empire. They're well established in the East and South Bay." He said he heard one report of monarchs winter-breeding in Woodland, Yolo County.
"Monarchs can't breed in the winter here under natural conditions," Shapiro said. "A non-native, non-dormant milkweed, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) allows winter breeding. These plants are often contaminated with the parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE, a problem in Southern California, but not yet in northern California. "People who are really committed to native plants would like you to get rid of your exotic tropical milkweed and replace it with native species that go dormant." He recommends "cutting them back three times a year" to allow fresh new growth.
Some of his take-home messages:
- Butterfly faunas are declining in most parts of the North Temperate Zone where monitoring is done. The most severe declines have been in European grassland faunas. By those standards, we're not that bad off (yet?).
- At low elevations in California, declines were moderate until 1999, when they accelerated abruptly. Our multivariate statistical analyses suggest (but cannot prove!) that climate change has been only a minor factor, while habitat conversion and loss, and loss of habitat connectivity share the blame equally with pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids.
- At higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada, species at tree-line have declined in response to climate change but there have been no losses attributable to habitat conversion or pesticides. Many species are moving upslope (or trying to, because they are more mobile than their essential plant resources).
- The recent “1000-year drought” had dramatic impacts. At low elevations, butterfly faunas rebounded from recent lows, probably due to a better environment for overwinter survival. In the mountains the opposite happened: lack of snow cover led to poor overwinter survival and faunas plummeted to unprecedented lows at places like Donner Summit. The heavy snow pack of winter 2016-17 did little to improve things, because the number of animals going into overwintering was already so low.
- We are already seeing low-elevation faunas slipping back into decline. Because most montane butterflies have only one generation a year, it will take several favorable years to rebound from the losses there.
- Our research revealed that California monarch populations had been in decline for decades, perhaps more so than in the East and Midwest.
- This was true even though the usual “suspect” causes – GMOs and milkweed shortages – do NOT appear to apply here.
- There was also a change in the seasonal breeding pattern of monarchs during the worst of the decline.
- During the drought, monarch populations rebounded significantly here, and their historic seasonal breeding pattern returned. But this year we seem to be going back to pre-drought patterns.
- Winter breeding by monarchs began in Southern California several years ago and has now spread to the Bay Area. Overwintering monarchs are supposed to be in reproductive diapause cued mainly by daylength. Why a growing percentage of them are not is a mystery which has not been solved as of this afternoon.
What an honor and so well-deserved!
Yang will receive the Outstanding Faculty Academic Advising Award from NACADA, also known as the Global Community for Academic Advising, at its Sept. 30-Oct. 3 conference in Phoenix, Ariz. He earlier received the 2017 Faculty Advisor Award of Excellence in NACADA's Pacific Region 9, comprised of California, Nevada and Hawaii.
The accolades flow.
“Professor Yang is dedicated to helping students link their academic studies to research and other careers,” said associate dean Susan Ebeler of Undergraduate Academic Programs, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “ He has developed innovative mentoring programs that help students develop as scholars and scientists and he is committed to enhancing diversity and retention in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. He has made exemplary contributions to student success in our college and campus-wide and it is great to see his contributions recognized.”
Yang, an associate professor who joined the UC Davis faculty in 2009, teaches Insect Ecology and Field Ecology. He holds a bachelor's degree (ecology and evolution) from Cornell University, 1999 and received his doctorate from UC Davis in 2006.
He is known for fostering creative and critical thinking, and challenging his students to succeed by linking their academic studies to research and other goals.
“Professor Yang epitomizes what makes a great professor: his command of the subject matter, his ability to stimulate discussions and involvement, and his kindly concern for their education, welfare and success,” said nematologist Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. “He engages and challenges students in his lectures, in the lab, and in the field and encourages them not only to expect success but to pursue their goals.”
“His mentees not only include undergraduate and graduate students, but high school students and postdoctoral scholars and beyond,” Nadler said. “He attends to the unique needs and interests of each student, respecting their perspectives and ideas. Mentorship, he finds, is really about helping students identify the questions that they want to ask. His success is their success."
An important part of his advising is his work in the Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIB), a campuswide program co-founded by Jay Rosenheim, Joanna Chiu and Yang. Aware that some of the most important skills for research biologists cannot be taught in big lecture halls or even in lab courses, they set out to help students learn cutting-edge research through close mentoring relationships with faculty. The program crosses numerous biological fields, including population biology; behavior and ecology; biodiversity and evolutionary ecology; agroecology; genetics and molecular biology; biochemistry and physiology; entomology; and cell biology. The goal? To provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research.
In addition to RSPIB mentoring, Yang mentors many undergraduates in his lab. He has welcomed and mentored students from UC Davis and from around the country with the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program and the UC Davis-Howard University Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Ecology and Evolution Graduate Admissions Pathways (EEGAP) program
In the past year, Yang mentored 15 undergrads in his lab in studies that included: the nonconsumptive effects on monarch development to see if parasitoid avoidance behaviors in early development have a long-term cost for monarch development; the factors that contribute to herbivory by generalist herbivores on milkweed; the effects of a recently observed plant foliar fungal pathogen on milkweed on monarch growth and development; the costs of switching milkweed species for monarch larvae; and the density dependence in larval and adult blue milkweed beetles.
Former student Allyson Earl, now a researcher in Guam, credits Yang with shaping her academic career: "I had the pleasure of working under Louie Yang for the last year of my undergraduate degree at UC Davis as one of his research assistants. I watched as he worked tirelessly with several other student assistants in the lab on personal projects focused on our study subjects, Monarch butterflies. His mentorship style in these projects was one that guided students to draw their own conclusions rather than handing them answers, leading them to ask more complex questions and develop themselves as better students and scientists. I can say with confidence, he not only nurtured my desire to study the intricacies of ecology, but also to pursue a career in this field, without his guidance and support I would not be where I am today."
Yang also launched the Monitoring Milkweed-Monarch Interactions for Learning and Conservation (MMMILC) Project in 2013 for high school students in the environmental science program at Davis Senior High School or those associated with the Center for Land-Based Learning's GreenCorps program. They monitor milkweed-monarch interactions in a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Yang and UC Davis undergraduate and graduate students serve as mentors.
Established in 1983, the NACADA Annual Awards Program for Academic Advising honors individuals and institutions making significant contributions to the improvement of academic advising within higher education. Its membership totals more than 11,000.
We first saw her at 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2017.
She was eating. That's what monarch caterpillars do best. They eat. A lot.
"Where have you been?" I asked. "Where have you been hiding? Your siblings have long gone. Your buddies passed through here in late August and September on their way to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and beyond."
How could I have missed her? This one was a fifth in-star and almost ready to pupate.
"Let's see. When your mama laid the egg, you hatched in about three to four days. You'll be a caterpillar for 10 to 14 days. Then you'll be in the pupa stage for 10 to 14 days. But that's all under normal conditions, summer conditions. This is fall, not normal conditions, little buddy."
The chubby black, yellow and white monarch caterpillar kept eating. "YOU could have been eaten, little buddy," I told her, glancing at the hungry California scrub jays vocalizing in the cherry laurels. True, milkweed contains a poisonous toxin that protects monarchs from predators, but birds do eat them. "Just not as much," says Louie Yang, associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
Then there are the other deadly encounters. Tachinid flies and braconid wasps parasitize the caterpillars and chrysalids. And some fall victim to that dreaded disease, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, caused by an obligate, protozoan parasite.
Give her a chance, just a chance...
So, awed by her unexpected appearance, we prepared the indoor butterfly habitat for its last tenant of the season. Our monarch-rearing kit features a Patron tequila bottle; the narrow neck prevents the 'cats from drowning, and the broad, heavy base assures stability (this is one bottle that doesn't get tipsy!). Just add water, milkweed stems and the caterpillar, and center the bottle in the zippered habitat. Then you wait for the caterpillar to create a silk button and form a J. And then a chrysalis. And then an adult ready to generate more generations.
This November tenant, however, chose the most fragile, overhanging milkweed stem in the bottle to pupate. No mesh ceiling for her!
When the jade-green chrysalis formed on Nov. 4, it looked like a jeweled ornament dangling from a Christmas tree. Or a mid-life chrysalis.
Now, "hurry up and wait." In ideal conditions, a monarch ecloses in 10 to 14 days. In ideal conditions.
Nothing happened for 10 days. Then 12. Then 14. Then 18.
On Day 19, Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), the chrysalis darkened, revealing the orange, black and white wings in all its transparency. The chrysalis bulged, throbbed and swayed. Out slipped the butterfly, wings flat, wings pumping. She clung to the pupal case as her wings expanded. A big, strong and healthy girl.
On Thanksgiving Day, four adults, two dogs and one butterfly celebrated in Casa de la Garvey. At least we think the butterfly celebrated. She dropped to the floor of her habitat and sipped orange juice and a honey/water mixture. Then, sustained, she fluttered up to her perch, and began searching for an opening, an escape.
She. Wanted. Out.
Hmm...No way would she be able to fly three hours to the overwintering site in Santa Cruz in the cold and rain. And then there are those hungry California scrub jays hanging out in the cherry laurels...Just waiting...
It just so happened that a friend and pollinator advocate, Rita LeRoy, the self-described "farm keeper" at the Vallejo School District's Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, was heading to Santa Cruz on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to show her out-of-town relatives the overwintering migratory butterfly sanctuary at the Natural Bridges State Beach Park. That's about a 100-mile trip from Vallejo.
Could Ms. Monarch hitch a ride?
She could. And she did.
Rita, who delights in showing area schoolchildren the monarchs that frequent Loma Vista Farm--she's also a Monarch Mom who rears and releases monarchs and is active in the Bay Area Pollinator Posse--unzipped the mesh habitat at the butterfly sanctuary.
Her sister-in-law captured an image of Miss Monarch in freedom's hands.
Wow! Just wow! From a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult. And there she was! In Rita's hands. In Santa Cruz. In the migratory butterfly sanctuary. With her buddies. Or soon-to-be buddies.
"She flew so fast that we didn't get a picture of her flying away," Rita lamented. "She was anxious to join her new friends."
"It was a beautiful day," Rita said, adding "Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of setting her free. I was so sad that my last ones (monarchs) didn't survive. It was really nice to have this happy experience."
Once upon a monarch...thanks to Rita, the ending could not have been better...