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Davis, California

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A beer for a butterfly

DEVIN McHUGH / AGGIE
DEVIN McHUGH / AGGIE

Contest raises public involvement in science.

UC Davis is home to traditions that range from Pajamarino to kissing Eggheads on campus before finals, but possibly the most interesting one yet is set to begin this month. Once a year for the last 44 years, the Department of Evolution and Ecology has found a unique way of bringing together beer and science in the hopes of projecting future life cycles of insects.

Dr. Arthur Shapiro, entomologist and professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology, created the Beer for a Butterfly Contest in 1972. Shapiro conducts extensive research on insects and has been studying butterfly populations for the past 35 years.

As a pioneer of public science, Shapiro aims to increase public involvement in scientific research, especially by means of simple field observation. One way he has achieved that goal is through his annual Beer for a Butterfly contest at UC Davis, which begins every year in January and includes the Yolo, Sacramento and Solano counties.

The butterfly chosen for this contest is the cabbage white butterfly, which can be distinguished by several black dots on its wings and its lack of a black band on the tip of the forewings. The first person who brings the butterfly alive to the Department of Evolution and Ecology, and gets it verified, wins the contest and a pitcher of their choice of beer.

“The cabbage white butterfly is not a native species; it’s an introduced pest from Europe,” Shapiro said. “It’s extremely common and more often found around cities and gardens so you don’t have to live in the wilderness to observe it.”

“I monitor the entire butterfly fauna […] across California,” Shapiro said. “All the butterfly data is matched with climatological data so we can figure out how climate is affecting the life cycles.”

With that life cycle data, Shapiro hopes to harness the tools needed to predict butterflies’ reactions to climate change in the future. He reasons that if humans can figure out the quantitative changes in the climate and understand how butterflies react in certain weather, then it should be relatively simple to project how they will respond based on past observations.

Apart from Shapiro’s team, there are only a few other data sets in existence. The only other data set that matches the size of Shapiro’s data is in Great Britain. There are few researchers involved in the work of butterfly life cycles, and a relatively small amount of the public are aware of the research. Lynn Kimsey, head of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and a UC Davis entomologist, has worked with Shapiro and closely followed his work over the years.

“With that kind of data set you can see patterns,” Kimsey said. “You know if you just have a couple of years [of data], who knows what kinds of differences you’re really seeing. And most people don’t collect data sets like that.”

Greg Kareofelas, a local butterfly expert and research associate at the Bohart Museum, says that the life cycle of the cabbage white butterfly works perfectly with the time of year.

“It doesn’t over-wither as an adult, so they can peak,” Kareofelas said. “It guarantees that there will be notoriety and that it gets people aware of what’s happening. So it’s wise to choose a butterfly that is noticeable as it brings awareness to what [Shapiro] doing and gets people talking about it.”

Shapiro and his team are hoping that the contest will help people recognize the different climate trends as of late. Recently, the cabbage white butterfly has appeared earlier each year depending on the weather. Ideally, the butterfly will appear as it gets warmer, especially in areas of high solar radiation and warm temperatures. This year, however, the early rain has brought into question the timing for the contest.

“The butterflies are kind of hanging out waiting for it to get warm enough and cold,” Kimsey said. “Wet conditions will increase the odds that you’ll die before you come out of your chrysalis. Last year we probably had close to 100 percent survival, but the colder and nastier it is, the lower your odds are.”

This year, temperatures during the day are in the 50s, compared to the 60s last year. Due to these colder temperatures, Shapiro has estimated that the first white cabbage butterfly of the new year will not start flying until at least Jan. 15.

Although the beer does grab some students’ attention, the contest is mostly designed to get people involved in research without needing to be an expert.

“I’ve been engaging members of the general public in my research to help for 40 years,” Shapiro said. “The idea, which is now actively promoted by the National Science Foundation, is to get the general public interested in and enthusiastic about science by getting them involved in some way. They can be enlisted to do field observations and provide data to us.”

Since the start of the Beer for a Butterfly contest, Shapiro has won the event 41 out of 44 times. Despite his advantage in knowing all of the butterfly microhabitats in relevant counties, students have not been discouraged from continuing to participate.

“The students are always trying to figure out how to get there first,” Kimsey said. “People know what his record is on this so it’s sort of a challenge, ‘Oh we’re gonna get Art this year.’”

The pitcher of beer is a reward for the students, and the simple act of going out, observing and catching the butterfly is a win for the scientific community.

The involvement in the Beer for a Butterfly contest makes it easier for Shapiro to keep track of when the butterflies emerge over the years and how the weather conditions are changing. It will then hopefully inspire others to pursue science.

“[Shapiro] is kind of an iconic character on campus, so his students look out where he goes and scoop him,” Kimsey said. “It’s something to look forward to every winter.”
Written by: Alan Castillo and Lisa Wong – features@theaggie.org

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