UC Davis Professor Art Shapiro, of the UC Davis Evolution and Ecology (EVE) Department, offers a pitcher of any kind of beer to the first person who catches the first cabbage white butterfly of each new year.
The official flyers for the competition regard any participants as being an essential part of a 43-year study of climate and butterfly seasonality.
Spring is commonly associated with the emergence of the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae). For Shapiro, it means one more step to his research.
“I study phenology, which is the timing of biological cycles and why organisms do what they do at different times of the year. I study the variation from year to year and if it correlates to weather,” Shapiro said.
Another species that follows an annual biological cycle and blooms at specific times of the year is the cherry blossom tree in Washington, D.C.
“If you go to the other side of Wickson Hall, there is a cherry blossom tree of the same kind as in Washington, D.C., the species called a Piunus mume,” Shapiro said. “This tree should be blooming around early March, but it is blooming now, which is its earliest ever.”
The question then arises of the reasoning behind this biological shift. The same mystery applies to these cabbage white butterflies. This competition enables Shapiro to have eyes all over the area to identify emergence patterns.
Shapiro is studying physiological responses to environmental cues and if they have a genetic basis. Concerning the cabbage white butterfly, he has found that the cues are a combination of night length and temperature.
“He has actually based his research on life cycles of the cabbage white butterfly. It is his study organism,” said Ivana Li, former president of the UC Davis Entomology Club and currently working with Shapiro on his Biological Sciences 2B course.
Particular emergence times depend on location and climate, so the competition is open to everyone in the local area, specifically Solano, Yolo and Sacramento counties.
According to Shapiro, people notice the cabbage white butterflies. They are easy to recognize as well as being the most common and most ubiquitous species of butterfly.
“I thought, obviously I can’t be everywhere, so I came up with the idea to involve everyone. This way, I am less likely to miss the first one,” Shapiro said.
Unfortunately, the competition is at a close for 2014. The first cabbage white butterfly of 2014 was caught by Shapiro on Jan. 14 at 12:20 p.m. in West Sacramento. It was flying eastward along the edge of the service road and Shapiro caught it with a self-proclaimed jump shot.
There are only a few rules regarding the competition itself. The specimen must be captured alive, outdoors within the three counties and after Jan. 1. Only adult members of the species Pieris rapae are eligible, excluding pupae or caterpillars. Refrigeration is recommended to retain the health of the specimen if kept in captivity for an elongated amount of time.
“[Shapiro] usually beats me by at least half a month. I always get excited when I find one,” said Nick McMurray, the UC Davis Entomology Club president.
According to Shapiro, he has been running this competition annually since the early 1970s and has only been beaten three times and tied once within 20 minutes.
“Rumor is that Art has never lost, so I have never tried,” said Nick Fabina, a UC Davis graduate student with the EVE Department. “I’ve heard that Art has a secret place where he reliably finds them.”
Shapiro hinted that a common place that he has been successful is in West Sacramento or in various warm microhabitats. However, he will not disclose a specific location.
“Shapiro spends over 200 days of the year outside and he has been doing this for 30 years,” said Alex Nguyen, UC Davis Entomology Club secretary.
This dedication may seem daunting, but over the years, several undergraduates, graduates, faculty and members of the public have tried hopefully and ardently to succeed.
“I think that I will never catch one,” said Professor Sebastian Schrieber of the EVE Department. “I’m co-teaching with Art and I think he is amazing at what he does.”
If you are able to find a cabbage white butterfly before Shapiro or any of your county-wide competitors, you will gain notoriety but also the task of deciding what kind of beer you will celebrate with.
“There is a long tradition in this department to get Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Shapiro said.
However, some may have a more upscale beer in mind. The possibilities are endless.
“I would get a Firestone or a nice IPA (India Pale Ale),” said Alex Dedman, a UC Davis Entomology Club member.
Those who are able to catch this coveted bug should bring it promptly to Shapiro’s office in Storer Hall. Unfortunately, the competition is now over, but students are encouraged to still be on the lookout next year.