Professor Elizabeth Crone of Tufts University who researches monarchs (as well as bumble bees), drew a standing-room only crowd when she presented a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on the decline of Western monarchs.
UC Davis professor Neal Williams, a pollination ecologist who researches native bees, praised her "fearless perspective in the use of statistics; I value her insights." Williams has collaborated with her "off and on" for 20 years.
Crone, who just finished a six-month research sabbatical at UC Davis, says her work centers 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."
In her UC Davis seminar, Crone pointed out that the population of Western monarchs, which overwinter along the California coast, dropped from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to less than 30,000 in the winter of 2019.
After the monarchs leave their overwintering sites in February and head inland, "we don't really know where they are in spring," Crone lamented. "There's not a lot of records of where monarchs are in spring. That's why we're trying to draw on citizen scientists to help us find monarch butterflies in the spring."
Crone is a member of a team of researchers, led by Cheryl Schultz, biology professor at Washington State University, who are recruiting the public, aka citizen scientists, to report sightings of monarchs from Feb. 14 through April 22, Earth Day. The project is called the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge.
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.
Crone told the UC Davis crowd that "we need to understand the basic biology throughout the life cycle....So from a conservation perspective, we know that we need to protect and restore overwintering sites on the coast of California...It also helps to improve summer habitat both for its own sake and maybe to mitigate losses. It other places, this includes planting your own pollinator gardens. It includes minimizing ;pesticide use society-wide."
It's not just agriculturists who use pesticides, said Crone, noting that "California tracks pesticide use." She showed a database that indicated 25 percent of the state's total pesticide use is for non-agricultural uses. This includes pesticide applications in parks, roadsides and golf courses, she said. "That doesn't include people who go to Lowe's or Home Depot and pick up a can of insecticide to prevent the aphids from eating their roses. And read the label and it says, 'Why don't you just spray every week so you never see aphids at all?' So we should be very aware that pesticides are everywhere in our landscape, and a lot of us are using them without thinking about them. And anything we can do to minimize pesticides has got to be good for nearly all insects."
From an applied ecology perspective, Crone considers her biggest accomplishment "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."
"It's an exciting time to be an ecologist," Crone said. "Because the puzzle of linking natural history and theoretical ecology to guide conservation is really intellectually interesting, even from an academic perspective. And it also makes me optimistic."
"We did it with Fender's blue butterfly," she told the crowd. "Maybe we can help prevent other insect populations from being at risk of extinction."
To listen to her talk, access this newly uploaded video from ucdavis.edu/media. Access is free.
Take the case of a male monarch reared, released and tagged by Steven Johnson in a Washington State University citizen-science project operated by WSU entomologist David James. Johnson tagged and released the monarch on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016 in Ashland, Ore. Seven days later, on Sept. 5, it fluttered into our family's backyard pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., where we photographed it.
"So, assuming it didn't travel much on the day you saw it, it flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James said. "Pretty amazing." (See Bug Squad blog)
But how do monarchs know when to migrate? You can find out when you attend the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology open house on Saturday, Jan. 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane.
Doctoral student Yao Cai, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Joanna Chiu lab who studies circadian clocks in insects, will relate how monarchs know when to migrate. “Using Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) and Danaus plexippus (monarch butterfly), as models, we seek to understand how these insects receive environmental time cues and tell time, how they organize their daily rhythms in physiology and behavior, such as feeding, sleep and migration (in monarch butterfly)," he says.
Cai is one of six doctoral students who will be showcasing their research. The event is free and family friendly.
Visitors not only will have the opportunity to talk to graduate students about their research and glean information about insects, but will be able see their work through a microscope. In fact, eight microscopes will be set up, Yang said.
In addition to Cai, doctoral students participating and their topics:
Ants: Zachary Griebenow of the Phil Ward lab, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
Assassin flies: Charlotte Herbert Alberts, who studies with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
Bats (what insects they eat): Ecologist Ann Holmes of the Graduate Group in Ecology, Department of Animal Science, and the Genomic Variation Laboratory, who studies with major professors Andrea Schreier and Mandi Finger.
Bark Beetles: Crystal Homicz. who studies with Joanna Chiu, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and research forest entomologist Chris Fettig, Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Davis.
Forensic entomology: Alexander Dedmon, who studies with Robert Kimsey, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology
Some doctoral students also will deliver PowerPoint presentations or show slides. The projects:
“Did you know that between 1987 and 2017 bark beetles were responsible for more tree death than wildfire?” asks Crystal Homicz, a first-year doctoral student. “Bark beetles are an incredibly important feature of forests, especially as disturbance agents. My research focuses on how bark beetles and fire interact, given that these are the two most important disturbance agents of the Sierra Nevada. At my table, I will discuss how the interaction between bark beetles and fire, why bark beetles and fire are important feature of our forest ecosystem, and I will discuss more generally the importance of bark beetles in many forest systems throughout North America.
“I will have several wood samples, insect specimens and photographs to display what bark beetle damage looks like, and the landscape level effects bark beetles have. I will also have samples of wood damage caused by other wood boring beetles and insects. My table will focus widely on the subject of forest entomology and extend beyond beetle-fire interactions.”
Visitors, she said, can expect to leave with a clear understanding of what bark beetles are and what they do, as well as a deeper understanding of the importance of disturbance ecology in our temperate forests.
Charlotte Alberts, a fifth-year doctoral candidate, will display assassin flies and their relatives, as well as examples of prey they eat and/or mimic. Visitors can expect to learn about basic assassin fly ecology and evolution. Alberts studies the evolution of assassin flies (Diptera: Asilidae) and their relatives.
“Assassin flies are voracious predators on other insects and are able to overcome prey much larger than themselves,” she said. “Both adult and larval assassin flies are venomous. Their venom consists of neurotoxins that paralyze their prey, and digestive enzymes that allow assassin flies to consume their prey in a liquid form. These flies are incredibly diverse, ranging in size from 5-60mm, and can be found all over the world! With over 7,500 species, Asilidae is the third most specious family of flies. Despite assassin flies being very common, most people do not even know of their existence. This may be due to their impressive ability to mimic other insects, mainly wasps, and bees.”
For her thesis, she is trying to resolve the phylogenetic relationships of Asiloidea (Asilidae and their relatives) using Ultra Conserved Elements (UCEs), and morphology. "I am also interested in evolutionary trends of prey specificity within Asilidae, which may be one of the major driving forces leading to this family's diversity."
Ecologist Ann Holmes, a fourth-year doctoral student, is studying what insects that bats eat. "I will be talking about my research project that looks at insects eaten by bats in the Yolo Bypass. The insects eat crops such as rice, so bats provide a valuable service to farmers. Hungry bats can eat as much as their own body weight in insects each night."
"Visitors can expect to learn how DNA is used to detect insects in bat guano (poop)." "Insects in bat poop are hard to identify because they have been digested, but I can use DNA to determine which insects are there," she said. "We care about which insects bats eat because bats are natural pest controllers. With plenty of bats we can use less pesticide on farms and less mosquito repellent on ourselves."
Zachary Griebenow, a third-year doctoral student, will be showcasing or discussing specimens of the ant subfamily Leptanillinae, most of them male. “I will be showing specimens of the Leptanillinae under the microscope, emphasizing the great morphological diversity observed in males and talking about my systematic revision of the subfamily," he said. "In particular, I want to explain how the study of an extremely obscure group of ants can help us understand the process of evolution that has given rise to all organisms."
Forensic entomologist Alex Dedmon, a sixth-year doctoral student, will display tools and text and explain what forensic entomology is all about. "My research focuses on insect succession. In forensic entomology, succession uses the patterns of insects that come and go from a body. These patterns help us estimate how long a person has been dead. Visitors can expect to learn about the many different ways insects can be used as evidence, and what that evidence tells us."
Other Open House Activities
The family craft activity will be painting rocks, which can be taken home or hidden around campus. "Hopefully some kind words on rocks found by random strangers can also make for a kinder better future,” said Yang.
In addition to meeting and chatting with the researchers, visitors can see insect specimens (including butterflies and moths), meet the critters in the live “petting zoo” (including Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas) and browse the gift shop, containing books, insect-themed t-shirts and sweatshirts, jewelry, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
The Bohart Museum, directed by Professor Lynn Kimsey and founded by noted entomologist Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007), houses a global collection of nearly eight million specimens. It is also the home of the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of insect biodiversity.
The insect museum is open to the public Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m., except on holidays. More information on the Bohart Museum is available on the website at http://bohart.ucdavis.edu or by contacting (530) 752-0493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you've been finding more milkweed bugs than monarchs on your milkweed, join the crowd.
Monarchs are scarce--at least around Solano and Yolo counties--but milkweed bugs are quite plentiful. Sometimes you see them massing on milkweed pods as if they're having a family reunion and trying to figure out who's who during an all-you-can eat buffet. They're blood red, in sharp contrast to the green plants.
Have you seen the large milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus, and the small milkweed bugs Lygaeus kalmii? Both belong to the seed bug family, Lygaedidae. We recently spotted small milkweed bugs on a patch of showy milkweed (species Asclepias speciosa) in Sonoma.
Milkweed bugs are primarily seed eaters, but they're opportunistic and generalists, says Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, an insect migration biologist who also researches migratory monarchs.
"They'll get protein from wherever they can find it," said Dingle, author of the popular textbook, Animal Migration: the Biology of Life on the Move. They eat not only eat seeds, but also monarch eggs and larvae and the immature stages of other butterflies, Dingle told us back in 2016. They eat other small bugs and feed on nectar as well. Some scientists have seen them feeding on insects trapped in the sticky pollen of the showy milkweed. (Read about the opportunist Small Milkweed Bug in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.)
The bugs feed on the toxic milkweed, rendering them distasteful to predators. Their warning colors (red and black) also tell prospective predators "Leave me alone; I don't taste good. If you eat me, you'll be sorry." They sequester and store cardenolides (cardiac glycosides) from the milkweed.
In the fall, as the seed pods burst open, monarch enthusiasts scramble to collect the seeds for next year, but they usually have to compete with the red invaders.
If they're still around...
Have you ever seen the larva of a lady beetle (aka ladybug) dining on an aphid?
Lights! Camera! Action!
So here is this charming little immature lady beetle chowing down on an oleander aphid that has the audacity to infest the milkweed in our pollinator garden. Chomp! Crunch! Slurp! And then another aphid arrives on the scene. It does not flee. Aphids are not the smartest of insects.
Can you just wait! Hold on! I'm not finished eating this one, yet!
And then an adult lady beetle arrives. She ignores a fat aphid right before her very eyes. Shall we prey?
Can you just wait! Don't go away! I'll eat you when I'm hungry!
A lady beetle (it's not a bug, it's a beetle!) belongs to the family Coccinellidae. Scientists have described about 5000 species worldwide, and about 450 in North America.
How many aphids can a lady beetle eat in her lifetime of three to six weeks? An estimated 5000 aphids, according to the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
That's great pest control!
One thing is for sure: the lady beetles and their offspring patrolling our milkweed plants will never experience famine. This is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and the aphids just keep on a'coming. They do not flee. Aphids are not the smartest of insects.
Now, where are the monarchs? We have milkweed waiting./span>
No monarchs this time of year, you say?
Well, this one was little Saathiya Patel, 4, riding the shoulders of her Pollinator Posse-father, Seth Newton Patel of Oakland. When he tossed her in the air, she spread her wings!
What a joy to see!
Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, delivered his second annual presentation on butterflies, this one on "Are Butterflies Heralds of the Insect Apocalypse?" (more about that later).
Meanwhile, it's good to see the Pollinator Posse, co-founded by Tora Rocha and Terry Smith, helping out our beleaguered butterflies and native bees.
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, says 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," Rocha says.
This is a dedicated group, committed to making a difference, and what a difference they are making! Their activities include rearing monarchs and other butterflies; encouraging folks to plant the host plant and nectar sources; showing children how to make bee condos or bee hotels--AirBeeNBees--for native bees; and hosting "Tees for Bees," at which youths visit golf courses to hit pollinator friendly seed balls "which help make the courses more habitable for beneficial insects," Rocha says. (See news story on Best Garden Whiz and Butterfly Savior: Victoria 'Tora' Rocha.)
Tora Rocha and her fellow Pollinator Posse love it when monarchs take flight. So do we. And so does Pollinator Posse member Seth Newton Patel and his daughter, Saathiya, already a monarch enthusiast at age 4.