Butterflies and moths totally fascinate entomologist Jeff Smith, the 32-year volunteer curator of the Bohart Museum of Entomology's Lepidoptera collection.
Smith loves talking about them, engaging folks face-to-face, and answering their questions. He is a fixture at the Bohart Museum open houses and other events, including the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day and the annual UC Davis Picnic Day.
But this year's Picnic Day, the 107th annual, went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to be deterred, Smith hosted a one-hour Zoom session. "Mimicry in the Butterflies and Moths with Jeff Smith," now available online on YouTube at https://youtu.be/8ZccezxhhK4.
Smith prefaced his talk by recommending the 375-page book, Insects and Other Arthropods of Tropical America by Paul E. Hanson and Kenji Nishida. "I didn't write it," he added, "and we (Bohart Museum) do not sell it (in the gift shop)." The book is an introduction to arthropods in North America--not just butterflies and moths but beetles, wasps, flies, true bugs and others.
"I've always been fascinated by the mimicry of butterflies and moths," said Smith, who won a 2015 Award of Distinction from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for his volunteer service (see news story). "I've had the opportunity to make 10 to 12 trips to South and Central America. What I found there are great examples of how they can mimic each other or other things in order to survive."
Smith defined mimicry as "the close resemblance of an animal to some other animal, some other a plant or some inanimate object." Müllerian mimicry, named for Johann Friedrich Theodor "Fritz" Müller, is "where two or more species have similar appearances as a shared protecting device," Smith told this audience. "Batesian mimicry, named for Henry Walter Bates, is the resemblance of an edible species to other species that are noxious and avoided by predators."
"The monarch and the viceroy are good Batesian mimics," Smith said, "because until recently, it was believed that the monarch is distasteful and slightly toxic and that the viceroy was an edible species but it looked so much like the monarch that it was protected as well. It turns out--I don't know if somebody ate it or if they just tested the chemicals in the insect--but it turns out the viceroy is also a distasteful and toxic butterfly so we've now switched this from Batesian and mimics to Müllerian mimics, but the fact is, that they they look very much alike. Predators may have tried one and didn't care for it so now they leave alone anything that kind of looks like that."
"In order for mimicry to work," Smith pointed out, "the two different species need to be living in the same general habitat as each other. So if the monarch lived in Asia and the viceroy lived in North America, predators would never learn to associate these things with each other, and with that bad experience of trying to eat them."
"It's also important, I think, for us to understand that everything about every insect, in particular every butterfly and moth, that every pattern, every color, and every shape is meant to protect it. These things have evolved over many millions of years and that's what's worked for them."
Smith also drew attention to predator avoidance of butterflies with eye spots, such as the buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia, and the owl butterflies, Caligo. Some bumble bees have beetle and fly mimics, including the longhorned wood-boring beetles and robber flies. "They look like something that could sting and they get protection from that."
Smith estimated that of the 17,500 described species of butterflies in the world, about 750 of those occur in North America. "However, in North America there's 160,000, easily, species of moths. Moths are far more numerous than butterflies, and in particular, with the little tiny moths, it's estimated by experts in those groups, that at least 90 percent of the species still have not been described. They are sitting waiting for someone to identify them and give a name to them. So if anybody is interested in insects and wondering if there's still something left to do, the answer is absolutely yes."
The Lepidoptera curator also discussed host plants: how milkweed offers toxicity to monarch caterpillars, and how passionflower offers toxicity to Gulf Fritillaries. "And they sequester it. They use it for their own defenses. It's kind of curious that in the monarch butterflies, the male may pass on some of those toxic chemicals to the female when they mate, and the female then stores those chemicals into the eggs, and gives the eggs some level of protection once they're placed on a plant. So they call it a nuptial gift."
Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's education and outreach coordinator, helped field the questions. Smith said Lawrence Allen's book, Butterflies of the Western States, available in the Bohart Museum's online gift shop, is a good resource.
When asked his favorite butterfly, Smith acknowledged that "it's kind of hard to pick a favorite butterfly. It may very well be, I mean as far as the thing that gets me the most excited, the big Morphos, the big blue Morpho butterflies that you find in tropical America. There are about 30 different species. They're almost all brilliant metallic blue on top, with wing spans of four to six inches across, and brown on the underside so they're camouflaged when they're landing with those wings closed. But when you see one of those fly by you, and when you're walking around in a trail in the rain forest in Central or South America, it's pretty exciting. Once in a while, it'll even land on your arm and sip the the sweat."
Many people don't want to know this, Smith said, but butterflies also feed on the nutrients in "rotten bananas, dead animals, and urine and feces." That includes human waste.
Lamenting the plunging population of monarchs, Smith advocated that folks plant milkweed and nectar sources in their gardens. Urbanization is one of the causes of the decline, he said.
The Bohart Museum, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, but is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology, it houses nearly eight million insect specimens and is the seventh largest insect museum in North America. In addition to its online gift shop, the Bohart Museum maintains a live "petting zoo" comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas.
In 2019, UC Davis hosted the international Lepidopterists' Society's 65th annual conference. The scientists visited the Bohart Museum twice. Kimsey participated with senior museum scientist Steve Heydon; and Bohart associates retired research entomologist John De Benedictus, naturalist Greg Kareofelas, and Smith. (See Bug Squad blog)
And when the 107th annual UC Davis Picnic Day goes virtual on Saturday, April 17, the insects will go virtual, too.
The UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and the Bohart Museum of Entomology will be participating with virtual cockroach races and a series of talks. Among them: Bohart Museum associate and natural historian Greg Kareofelas will present a pre-recorded video on Gulf Fritillary butterflies and entomologist Jeff Smith, the Bohart's volunteer curator of the Lepidoptera collection, will deliver a live (Zoom) talk from 1 to 2 p.m. on butterfly and moth mimicry.
"For my presentation on mimicry within Lepidoptera, it will briefly mention camouflage and spend most of the time on mimicry for defense--mimics of toxic or distasteful species, mimicry using odors or sounds, mimics of snakes or spiders, and mimics of non-food materials such as bird feces," Smith said.
More events are pending.
The Bohart Museum, temporarily closed, is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building. Directed by Professor Lynn Kimsey, the Bohart Museum includes nearly eight million insect specimens, a live "petting zoo" (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects and tarantulas) and an online gift shop stocked with insect-themed t-shirts, jewlery, hoodies, books and posters.
The UC Davis Entomology Graduate Student Association is selling t-shirts on its website (including shirts featuring Roach Races), and soon will be offering face masks and stickers.
Discovering Silver Linings
This year's theme is “Discovering Silver Linings.” Despite all that has happened this year, the UC Davis community has continued to find silver linings everywhere, the Picnic Day officials reported on their website. "Our campus always strives to inspire hope and works towards a better and brighter tomorrow."
It all began, according to the UC Davis Picnic Day website, "when the University Farm invited the surrounding community to view their new dairy barn. Two thousand visitors attended, bringing picnics to complement the coffee, cream, and sugar provided by the University. Following the success of the 1909 picnic, the faculty of the University Farm continued to plan and sponsor the event until a student committee took over the task in 1912. Through the years of Picnic Day history, the event has only been canceled five times. In 1924, an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease among the cowherds caused the first cancellation. In 1938, delayed construction of the gymnasium, which was needed to accommodate the ever-increasing number of participants, led to a second cancellation. During World War II, the Army Signal Corps controlled the campus, and Picnic Day disappeared from 1943 to 1945. Since 1946, Picnic Day has been growing strong and now boasts an annual attendance of more than 70,000 people. This year, there will be more than 200 events on campus and an estimated 75,000 visitors attending this special event. Since 1959, the parade was extended to include downtown Davis to celebrate the fact that Davis became a separate UC campus and not just the Farm School for UC Berkeley."
This year's Picnic Day won't look like the traditional Picnic Day, but it will include insects!
The Bohart Museum will live-stream the free open house on Facebook. Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the 500,000 Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) collection, will show specimens and answer questions.
"We started holding a moth-themed open house near Mother's Day in May, because people who are enthusiasts for moths are called moth-ers,” said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator for the Bohart Museum. “We then switched our programming to align with National Moth Week. This year's Moth Week is July 18-26. The annual event is celebrated throughout the world with private and public events.
Bohart Museum officials are preparing videos on black-lighting and how to spread and pin moths.
During the Facebook Live program, viewers can type in their questions on moths.
Smith is expected to answer questions such as:
- What is the largest moth?
- How do butterflies and moths differ?
- What is so unique about moths?
- Why should we be concerned with moth diversity?
LynnKimsey, director oftheBohart Museum and UC Davis professor of entomology, nominated Smith for the award. “You could not ask for a better friend than Jeff Smith,” she said, noting that he has “brought us international acclaim and saved us $160,000 through donations of specimens and materials, identification skills and his professional woodworking skills. This does not include the thousands of hours he has donated in outreach programs that draw attention to the museum, the college and the university.”
Kimsey, who has directed the museum since 1989, remembers when Smith joined the museum. “When Jeff was working for Univar Environmental Services, a 35-year career until his retirement in 2013, he would spend some of his vacation days at the museum. Over the years Jeff took over more and more of the curation of the butterfly and moth collection. He took home literally thousands of field pinned specimens and spread their wings at home, bringing them back to the museum perfectly mounted. To date he has spread the wings on more than 200,000 butterflies and moths. This translates into something like 33,000 hours of work!” The numbers have since increased.
“About a decade ago, Jeff began helping us by assembling specimen drawers from kits that we purchased,” Kimsey related. “This substantially lowered our curatorial costs, from $50/drawer to $16/drawer. We use several hundred drawers a year to accommodate donated specimens, research vouchers and specimens resulting from research grants and inventories. More recently, he's been accumulating scrap lumber and making the drawers from scratch at no cost to us. Overall, he has made more than 2000 drawers. Additionally, he makes smaller specimen boxes with the leftover scrap wood, which are used by students taking various field courses in the department. We simply could not curate the collection without his contributions.”
Kimsey praised Smith for completely reorganizing the butterfly and moth collection. “It's no small feat to rearrange this many specimens, housed in roughly one thousand drawers,” she said. “Many thousands of the specimens needed to be identified, and the taxonomy required extensive updating and reorganization.”
The Bohart Museum, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus, 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 the insect biodiversity. Noted entomologist Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007) founded the museum.
The Bohart Museum is the home of a “live” petting zoo featuring Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas, and a gift shop stocked with T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
Entomologists at the University of California, Davis, will share their love of insects with fairgoers at the 144th annual Dixon May Fair, which opened today (Thursday, May 9) and continues through Sunday, May 12.
Have a question about insects?
Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the Lepitopdera (butterfly and moth) section at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, and Alex Dedmon, a forensic entomologist and doctoral student at UC Davis, will be showing bee, butterfly, dragonfly and other specimens, and live insects from the "petting zoo," including walking sticks and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Fairgoers are encouraged to hold them, photograph them and ask questions.
Smith and Dedmon will be at the fair on Saturday, May 11 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Floriculture Building. Smith was honored in 2015 as a "Friend of the College," a coveted award presented by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He saved the museum some $160,000 over a 27-year period through his volunteer service (See news story.)
Dedmon studies with forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey, an adjunct professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Neamtology.
The Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology, is the home of nearly eight million insect specimens, plus a year-around gift shop and a petting zoo. The gift shop is stocked with books, jewelry, t-shirts, insect-collecting equipment, insect-themed candy, and stuffed animals.
The Bohart Museum, founded in 1946 by UC Davis entomologist Richard “Doc” Bohart (1913-2007), is open to the general public Mondays through Thursdays, from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m., plus occasional, weekend open houses. Admission is free. The next weekend event will be "Moth Night" on Saturday, Aug. 3 from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Further information is available on the Bohart Museum website or contact (530) 753-0493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The scientists and butterfly/moth enthusiasts who gathered Saturday, Feb. 9 for the Northern California Lepidoptera Society meeting in the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis, did all that: identify specimens and engage in collaboration and camaraderie.
They ranged from those early in their career, to mid-point, to the height of their career, to retired.
The group meets for a mid-winter gathering once a year, alternating between the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis and the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley.
Senior museum scientist Steve Heydon, Bohart associate John "Moth Man" DeBenedictis; and Jeff Smith, curator of the butterfly/moth section at the Bohart hosted the event, assisted by Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and Bohart associate and naturalist Greg Kareofelas.
In their meeting notice, Heydon, DeBenedictis and Smith noted that those attending could bring specimens, photos, PowerPoint presentations "or slides from collecting trips and tales of collecting triumphs to share with others
and that "attending lepidopterists may be able to help you identify specimens and the museum collection will be open for yoour inspection."
Retired public health entomologist and Bohart associate Dick Meyer of Bakersfield, known as "the mosquito guy," was there. He recently retired as assistant manager of the Orange County Vector Control Agency. He did not bring any of his collection, but he did tell us that he has 225 drawers of insects at home, including 71 drawers of butterflies. "Did you know that the highest diversity of butterflies in the country is in Kern County?" he asked. Meyer, who holds a doctorate in entomology, studied with major professor Richard M. Bohart Jr., for whom the Bohart Museum is named.
Among those participating:
- Bohart associate Jerry Powell, emeritus director of the Essig Museum, and co-author of California Insects.
- Marc Epstein, senior insect biosystematist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture and author of the book, Moths, Myths and Mosquitoes: the Eccentric life of Harrison G. Dyer Jr.
- Kelly Richers, treasurer of the Lepitopterists Society and an affiliate of Essig Museum of Entomology who is also afield associate with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and member of board of directors of the Wedge Entomological Research Foundation
- Lawrence "Larry" Allen of Calaveras County, author of A Field Guide to the West Coast Butterflies of the United States, one of the books available in the Bohart Museum's gift shop (he donated all sales of his book that day to the Bohart).
- Arthur Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology and author of Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley Regions.
- Entomologist Rick Kelson, who directs the butterfly habitat at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo
- Bohart associate Bill Patterson, former graduate student of Richard Bohart
- Rosser Garrison, research associate with the California State Collection of Arthropods, retired senior insect biosystematist, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and co-author of Dragonfly Genera of the New World: An Illustrated and Annotated Key to the Anisoptera
- Don Miller, professor at Chico State University who teaches entomology in the Department of Biological Sciences
- Ryan Hill, professor at University of Pacific, Stockton
- Chris Tenney, retired educator from Pacific Grove
- Jeffrey Caldwell, known for his ecological restoration
- John Lane, one of first graduate students of Art Shapiro (Lane received his master's degree)
- Paul Johnson, biologist with the National Parks Service
- Hobbyist Jeff Baier of Napa
- Physician Val Albu of Fresno
- And many more...
At the last gathering in the Bohart, Kelly Richers, who compiles the California Moth Specimen Database, maintained at the Essig Museum since 1996 as a resource to better survey and understand California moths, said of the systematists: "We're a dying breed."
This year self-described "aspiring entomologist" Madison Cunha of Modesto attended with her mother, Christine Cunha. True to her love of insects, Madison wore a dress adorned with a beetle pattern.
Scientists say that 180,000 species of the Lepidoptera are described, in 126 families and 46 superfamilies.
"The Lepidoptera are among the most successful groups of insects. They are found on all continents, except Antarctica, and inhabit all terrestrial habitats ranging from desert to rainforest, from lowland grasslands to mountain plateaus, but almost always associated with higher plants, especially angiosperms (flowering plants). Among the most northern dwelling species of butterflies and moths is the Arctic Apollo (Parnassius arcticus), which is found in the Arctic Circle in northeastern Yakutia, at an altitude of 1500 m above sea level. In the Himalayas, various Apollo species such as Parnassius epaphus have been recorded to occur up to an altitude of 6,000 miles above sea level."--Wikipedia.