OK so maybe it isn’t exactly 40 years in a row, but it’s close.
My PhD advisor at UC Davis, Dr. Art Shapiro, recently sent around an email announcing the news that many of us wait for, breathlessly, every January- he had seen a Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae, flying while he was out in the field. Since Art’s earliest days as a professor at Davis he’s sponsored the annual “Butterflies for Beer” contest, open to all. The much coveted prize, aside from eternal fame and glory, is a pitcher of beer (or the cash equivalent). The challenge? Find and capture the first (wild- no cheating by raising it indoors) Cabbage White of the year within the California counties of Yolo, Solano, or Sacramento. It sounds easy enough but Art seldom loses- legend has it he’s only lost three times in over 40 years, and at least one of those times he was in Argentina the whole month. When I was in grad school at Davis I tried several times to beat him but honestly I never stood a chance.
Art has always had an interest in the Cabbage White, and in butterfly phenology (the study of life cycles, in particular the timing of significant events) in general. By carefully observing and recording things like the first flight date of a species Art has documented long-term climatological patterns, previously unknown or unrecorded flight + weather correlations, and changes in how butterflies interact with other aspects of their environment, notably their larval host plants. I could easily write a dozen posts about the stuff Art has done with his incredible dataset but for now I’ll just link to his website and you can check some of it out for yourself.
Regardless of who the winner is, Art sends out an announcement describing the event. I’ve always loved these narratives describing the weather, the flowers in bloom, the number of junkyard dogs in the vicinity, what kind of sparkling wine the other riders on the bus were drinking… oh and also how the bug managed to wind up caught in Art’s net. Here’s an excerpt from this year’s announcement, which started with the headline “SHAPIRO SNAGS CABBAGE WHITE “VERY LATE” BUT GETS AN EARLY RECORD 15 MINUTES LATER”:
I was sufficiently sure today would be the day that I took my net and was prepared to sweep the vegetation with it to kick up any individuals that were sunbathing (“dorsal basking”) in the dilute sunlight in order to raise their body temperature to the level needed for flight.” But that did not prove necessary; the sun came out strongly at 12.11 and the butterfly (a male) took wing spontaneously 19 minutes later. “It was a very easy catch; I suspect he emerged this morning and that was his first flight.” Ten minutes later a second species, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) showed up. It hibernates as an adult and is always an early flier, but this was its first record on the floor of the Sacramento Valley this year—it’s been out about two weeks in the lower Coast Range.
Matt Forister, another of Art’s former students, promptly put together and sent out a graph showing the temporal distribution of Cabbage White first flight dates over the years. This year’s catch is the red dot in the image below. You can see that in the last 40+ years, the first flight date has gotten earlier.
Art may win his own contest every year but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t claim the prize! True to the rules, Art buys himself a pitcher of PBR, a Shapiro lab tradition. He graciously shares it (and usually a few more, to boot) with his students and their partners, plus assorted hangers on. I’m sad to have missed it this year!