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.
A member of the UC Davis faculty since 1980, Hammock received his doctorate in entomology and toxicology from UC Berkeley, where he studied insect science. He now devotes his research to human health.
What many people do not know, however, is that he began his career studying how caterpillars turn into butterflies.
That morphed into human health research.
“The work led to the discovery that many regulatory molecules are controlled as much by degradation and biosynthesis,” Hammock related. “The epoxy fatty acids control blood pressure, fibrosis, immunity, tissue growth, pain and inflammation to name a few processes.”
Fast forward to today.
An enzyme inhibitor developed in the Hammock lab and tested in mice by a team of international researchers shows promise that it could lead to a drug to prevent or reduce the disabilities associated with the neurodevelopmental disorders of autism and schizophrenia.
What the Inhibitor Did
"We discovered that soluble epoxide hydrolase (sEH) plays a key role in inflammation associated with neurodevelopmental disorders. Inhibiting that enzyme stops the inflammation and the development of autism-like and schizophrenia-like symptoms in animal models,” said collaborator Kenji Hashimoto, a professor with the Chiba University Center for Forensic Mental Health, Japan. The scientists found higher levels of sEH in a key region of the brain—the prefrontal cortex of juvenile offspring-- after maternal immune activation (MIA).
The news embargo lifted today (March 18) on their research, to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). (Link will be here: https://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1819234116.) It's the work of 14 researchers from Chiba University Center for Forensic Mental Health; the Laboratory for Molecular Psychiatry, RIKEN Center for Brain Science, in Wako, Saitama, Japan; and the Hammock laboratory.
Reversed Cognitive and Sciatl Interaction Deficiencies
By inhibiting sEH, the researchers reversed cognitive and social interaction deficiencies in the mice pups. They hypothesize that this is due to increasing natural chemicals, which prevent brain inflammation. In people, this could reduce the disabilities associated with autism, such as anxiety, gastrointestinal disturbances and epilepsy.
Earlier studies have indicated a genetic disposition to the disorders. The team also studied postmortem brain samples from autism patients that confirmed the alterations.
“In the case of both autism and schizophrenia, the epidemiology suggests that both genetics and environment are contributing factors,” said neuroscientist and associate professor Amy Ramsey of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study. “In both cases, maternal infection is a risk factor that might tip the scales for a fetus with a genetic vulnerability. This study is important because it shows that their drug can effectively prevent some of the negative outcomes that occur with prenatal infections. While there are many studies that must be done to ensure its safe use in pregnant women, it could mitigate the neurological impacts of infection during pregnancy.”
Neuroscientist Lawrence David, professor and chair of the School of Public Health, University of Albany, N.Y., who was not involved in the research, said that the study might lead to “an important therapeutic intervention for neurodevelopment disorders.”
“There is increasing evidence that maternal immune activation activities (MIA) during fetal development can lead to aberrant neurobehaviors, including autistic-like activities,” said Lawrence, who studies neuroimmunology and immunotoxicology. The study “suggests that enzymatic control of fatty acid metabolism is implicated in neuroinflammation associated with schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. The expression of Ephx2 giving rise to soluble epoxide hydrolase (sEH) influences production of fatty acid metabolites, which elevate inflammation in the experimental model of mice after MIA; the sEH inhibitor TPPU (N-[1-(1-oxopropyl)-4-piperidinyl]-N'-[4-(trifluoromethoxy)phenyl)-urea) was postnatally used to improved behaviors. Analysis of cadaver brains from individuals with ASD also expressed increased sEH. Fatty acid metabolites have been known to affect fetal development, especially that of the brain; therefore, TPPU might be an important therapeutic intervention for neurodevelopmental disorders.”
Molecular bioscientist Isaac Pessah of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, distinguished professor and associate dean of research and graduate education in the Department of Molecular Biosciences, described the findings as “significant” and called for more detailed and expanded studies.
Autism: 1 of 68 Children
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States have autism, commonly diagnosed around age 3. It is four times more common in boys than girls. CDC defines autism spectrum disorder as a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” The disorder impairs the ability to communicate and interact.
Schizophrenia: 1.2 Percent of Population
Approximately 3.5 million people or 1.2 percent of the population in the United States are diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of the leading causes of disability, according to the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA). Scores more go unreported. Approximately three-quarters of persons with schizophrenia develop the illness between 16 and 25 years of age. Statistics also show that between one-third and one half of all homeless adults have schizophrenia, and 50 percent of people diagnosed have received no treatment. Among the symptoms: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized or catatonic behavior, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as hoarding, according to SARDAA.
In their research paper, titled “Key Role of Soluble Epoxide Hydrolase in the Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Offspring After Maternal Immune Activation,” the scientists described sEH as “a promising prophylactic or therapeutic target for neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring after MIA.”
First author Min Ma and second Qian Ren of the Hashimoto lab conducted the animal and biochemical work, while chemists Jun Yang and Sung Hee Hwang of the Hammock lab performed the chemistry and analytical chemistry. Takeo Yoshikawa, a team leader with the RIKEN's Molecular Psychiatry Laboratory, performed measurements of gene expression in the neurospheres from iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cells) from schizophrenia patients and postmortem brain samples from autism patients.
Exciting and Productive
Hashimoto described the international collaboration as “exciting and productive.” This is their third PNAS paper in a series leading to endoplasmic reticulum stress. “We report discovery of a biochemical axis that leads to multiple neurological disorders, including depression, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders and similar diseases,” he said.
William Schmidt, vice president of clinical development at EicOsis, a Davis-based company developing inhibitors to sEH to treat unmet medical needs in humans and companion animals, said the company is developing a first-in-class therapy for neuropathic and inflammatory pain. “EicOsis is in the process of finalizing our first human trials on the inhibitors of the soluble epoxide hydrolase, originally reported from UC Davis,” Schmidt said. “We are targeting the compounds as opioid replacements to treat peripheral neuropathic pain. It is exciting that the same compound series may be used to prevent or treat diseases of the central nervous system.”
Several grants from the National Institutes of Health, awarded to Hammock, supported the research. Hammock praised the many collaborators and students he has worked with on the project. “This work illustrates the value of research universities in bringing together the diverse talent needed to address complex problems,” Hammock said. “It also illustrates the value of fundamental science. This autism research can be traced directly to the fundamental question of how caterpillars turn into butterflies.”
But if you're not a graduate student?
You're in luck.
If you're a citizen scientist or just someone who wants to know more about this iconic butterfly, you can audit the course--for free, Shapiro says. And you don't need special permission.
In a recent email announcing the course, Shapiro wrote "Many of you know we had a 'Monarch summit' on campus recently to discuss the seemingly dire condition of the West Coast Monarch butterfly population. This seminar will take a broad view of what we do and don't know about Monarch biology, ecology, behavior, and genetics. It can be taken for seminar credit in Population Biology, Ecology, or Geography as it is X-listed."
Note that there's a requirement of graduate students who take the two-unit course: each has to present a seminar.
"People may sit in ("audit") without special permission," Shapiro emphasized.
In his flier, Shapiro wrote:
"You've certainly noticed all the media attention to the possibly endangered western Monarch population. We will address the scientific issues, including
- Is the Monarch in trouble?
- If so, why?
- What is the history of the Monarch migrations on a "paleo" scale?
- Biology of Monarchs in the Pacific, the Canary Islands and tropical America
- ..And much more"
The course will meet on Tuesday nights from 8:10 to 10, starting April 2 in Room 2342 of Storer Hall, located off Kleiber Hall Drive, near the UC Davis police and fire departments. The spring quarter beings March 30 and ends June 15. For more information, contact Shapiro at email@example.com.
The Monarch Summit, hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund on Feb. 28 in the Putah Creek Lodge, UC Davis, centered around "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
The Environmental Defense Fund, in its invitation to the summit, wrote that "The western population of the monarch butterfly has garnered widespread attention because of its dramatic decline in recent decades. 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 CA Wildlife Conservation Board to establish the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program."
"Additionally, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released a Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan calling for an additional 50,000 acres of monarch-friendly habitat in the California Central Valley and adjacent foothills by 2029. Join Environmental Defense Fund along with farmers, restoration practitioners, and scientists for an invitation-only workshop to share expert knowledge and identify strategic opportunities for restoring monarch butterfly habitat across the Central Valley. We will discuss important topics including opportunities for monarch habitat in the food production landscape, incentivizing monarch habitat restoration using limited resources, production and distribution of native plants, and other subjects that will put the western monarch butterfly population on the path to recovery. We will use the results of the workshop to inform conservation initiatives and effectively and efficiently allocate funds and resources for optimal conservation outcomes."
Shapiro, one of the invited speakers, has been monitoring Central Valley's butterfly population since 1972 and maintains a website on his research. In his presentation, "What We Don't Know and What We Know That Ain't So About Monarchs," Shapiro commented that "right now, the Monarch is on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos."
His entire presentation appears on the March 4th Bug Squad blog.