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Davis, California

Thursday, May 23, 2024

UC Davis’s annual ‘Beer-for-a-Butterfly’ contest is back

Professor Arthur Shapiro’s contest, which contributes to climate change research, has returned again after a two-year halt due to the pandemic


By KAYA DO-KHANH — campus@theaggie.org


A UC Davis professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology (EVE), Arthur Shapiro, has hosted an annual Beer-for-a-Butterfly Contest, which contributes to climate change research, since 1972. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the contest has resumed this year. 

Shapiro started the contest as a part of his long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate change. He has been collecting data on butterfly population trends across 10 sites in California for approximately two-week intervals since 1972, according to his research website

The contest is open to the public, and the participant who finds and collects the first Cabbage White butterfly of the year in central California is awarded a pitcher of beer (or its equivalent) as a prize. The contest rules state that the butterfly must be brought in alive to the Department of Evolution and Ecology office at 2320 Storer Hall with complete data about the date, time and location of its collection. The butterfly also has to be an adult with no caterpillars or pupae and be found outdoors.

Shapiro said that since 1972, the first flight of the Cabbage White butterfly has occurred between Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, with Jan. 20 being the average first flight date, according to the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources website. 

However, due to the recent heavy storms in Northern California during the first two weeks of January, Shapiro said that he expects the butterflies to come out later this year. He noted that the recent weather patterns, which are not suitable for butterflies to fly in, are “unusual but not unique,” and based on his studies of climatological data, the butterflies have come out later than usual in similar weather patterns over the years. Meteorology is a hobby of his, and he does weather forecasting. He has been predicting that the current weather pattern would end on Jan. 19 and that butterflies would start to come out with a “sustained period of warm, dry weather.” 

A Los Angeles Times article from 2019 described Shapiro’s difficulty articulating why butterflies fascinated him as a boy. Despite his trouble articulating the root of his interest in butterflies, he shared that what began as a niche interest within his studies has developed over the years. 

 “When I started this [study], there was no perception of global warming […] and as time has gone by, it has become clear that there is a phenomenon of directional climate change,” Shapiro said. “This project is a small part of my research program, but it has acquired new significance in the context of global climate change because it has become an indicator of the biological consequences of climate change.” 

He said that he sometimes goes out for hours searching for butterflies after teaching class in the morning. He has a lot of different places where he looks, as he has learned where the butterflies will most likely come out over the years. 

“I joke that I understand butterflies much better than I understand my wife, and we got married in 1969,” Shapiro said with a laugh.

After several decades of holding the contest, Shapiro has won all but four times, losing solely to UC Davis graduate students. One recent winner is Jacob Montgomery, a 2017 master’s graduate in ecology who is currently the project manager for California Trout in the Central Valley Region. 

Montgomery found the Cabbage White butterfly on his way to the farmers market in 2016, even though he was not searching for it. He knew about the contest and decided to save it and turn it in to see what would happen.  

“I didn’t know that I had won the contest when I found the butterfly,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t realize the full magnitude of the impact of me finding it at the moment.”

Montgomery was able to collect his prize and share a pitcher of beer with Shapiro while talking butterflies at The Davis Graduate, a bar and grill that used to be located in the University Mall shopping center, but is no longer open.

“That was by far one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Montgomery said. 

Shapiro does not have any graduate students anymore, adding that he is 77 years old and is almost ready to retire. After asking him if he would continue the contest after he retires, he replied, “Sure, why not, it’s fun. I like drinking beer.” 

Written by: Kaya Do-Khanh — campus@theaggie.org