Ordinarily, there would be nothing remarkable about a professor frequenting a brewery in a college town.
But when University of Florida Associate Professor of Entomology Jaret Daniels started making regular appearances at First Magnitude Brewery in Gainesville, he wasn’t motivated by beer. He was motivated by beer drinkers.
“The idea was to find a way to engage a different demographic in conservation,” said Daniels, who is also the director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
In May, First Magnitude will release a special beer brewed to coincide with the spring flight period of the frosted elfin, a small, brown butterfly whose population has declined across its historic range due to habitat loss. More on that later. The Frosted Elfin New England-Style Session Pale Ale is the seventh beer produced by the brewery in partnership with the museum to support butterfly conservation since 2015.
The beer isn’t just named for frosted elfin. The butterflies provided a key ingredient. Last spring, staff from the museum, brewery, and other partner organizations took a road trip to Apalachicola National Forest, home to one of the largest known frosted-elfin populations in the state, and gently netted and swabbed butterflies to collect wild yeast, which First Magnitude used in the brewing process (do NOT try this at home — these were trained professionals). Talk about local sourcing.
Butterflies helped with the beer, but how does the beer help butterflies? A few ways. First, by fundraising. First Magnitude holds launch parties to promote each beer and solicit donations for the museum, and a portion of the proceeds from every can sold go directly to butterfly research.
Second, by increasing visibility. I’m generalizing here, but the people who crowd into a brewery on a Friday night are not the same people who line up to see the new butterfly exhibit at the local natural history museum. At the launch event, the brewery walls will be decked with butterfly art on loan from the museum, giving attendees the best of both worlds.
Finally, by creating a positive association. Maybe after an ale or two, patrons will relate that happy feeling triggered by the activation of the dopamine D2 receptor in their brains when drinking beer to the butterfly on the label. Maybe that feeling will motivate them to make a donation. Maybe they’ll just crave a beer next time they see a butterfly. Win-win.
Using beer as a means to raise money and awareness for wildlife is not a new idea. Craft brewers have a strong track record of supporting conservation causes, and First Magnitude is more than a case in point. They also fundraise for birds, bees, and Florida’s critical freshwater springs, which are the source of the brewery’s name — “first magnitude” is a spring classification.
For the brewery’s staff, it’s not a huge leap. Co-founder Christine Denny earned her master’s from the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation.
“This is what you do with a master’s in forestry: You run a brewery,” she joked. But really, Denny said, it’s the perfect synthesis of her love of craft beer and her professional interests. “I spent more than 15 years working in environmental consulting, focusing on water-resource management and facilitation,” she said. “I have a real interest in getting people engaged in natural resource issues.”
What better way to engage new audiences than through their taste buds, and their dopamine receptors?
In the case of frosted elfin, beer enthusiasts may also be engaged by their sense of urgency. When they buy a butterfly beer, they are helping to advance science that can save a species at risk.
Glass half full
The frosted elfin butterfly was once found from Florida west to Texas, and north to Ontario. Today, its range is uncertain. As of 2018, most known populations of frosted elfin had not been surveyed in a decade, and no information on numbers or habitat condition existed for sites that had been visited.
Many of these populations are presumed extirpated — meaning locally extinct — which may be a safe assumption in places where the habitat is no longer suitable. That’s because frosted elfin depend on a rare type of ecosystem called pine barrens, characterized by sandy soil, an overstory of fire-dependent conifers, and grassy openings that support specialized plants, including wild blue lupine and wild indigo. For larval frosted elfin, these two plants are like milk or formula for an infant. They need to have one or the other to survive.
But partners are hoping the outlook for elfin is better than it appears. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be reviewing the butterfly’s status in 2023 to determine whether or not it needs federal protection. To prepare for that deadline, a team of scientists completed an interim Species Status Assessment in 2018 to develop a clearer picture of how frosted elfin is doing, and what it needs, based on the best available scientific information. That information includes two papers co-authored by Daniels and one of his graduate students at the University of Florida on how fire management affects the butterflies based on studies they conducted with partners at Apalachicola National Forest.
Daniels has also collaborated with Dean and Sally Jue from the North American Butterfly Association, who were able to identify previously unknown populations of frosted elfin in Florida through a survey conducted with support from a state wildlife grant. Their results are a hopeful sign that if we look for elfin, we will find them. And this spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is coordinating a range-wide survey in partnership with state agencies and nongovernmental organizations to see if they can find frosted elfin in any of the places where they were last seen.
In the meantime, Daniels said, “Keeping known populations viable and intact is really important.”
But he said scientists are still missing a key piece of information to ensure populations endure in Florida, and beyond; they don’t know if and how these populations connect to each other.
To understand why that matters, think about small towns in remote areas. Day to day, they may function independently, with their own governance structures, their own post offices, their own libraries. But when there’s an emergency, say a five-alarm fire, many depend on being able to call in reinforcements from nearby communities. They may even share a fire department.
Neighboring frosted-elfin populations don’t share fire departments — heck, their habitat benefits from periodic burning — but they could share something that’s just as important in the face of unexpected disasters: genes.
“If we know there is gene flow between neighboring populations, we can do more to make sure those populations persist in the future,” Daniels said.
“That’s particularly important for at-risk species because we want these populations to have the flexibility to withstand changes in the future,” he said. “Multiple connected populations have a better chance of persisting over time than isolated ones.”
The catch is that acquiring genetic information from a delicate creature like a butterfly comes with the risk of harming it, typically by clipping a small piece of the wing or leg.
Or it has until now. Last spring, Daniels piloted a different approach. After the period when frosted elfin have hatched and pupated, he deployed an army of citizen scientists to look for the genes they leave behind.
“It turns out we can get good genetic material from spent egg cases, depending on how long they have been in the field,” Daniels said. The volunteers collected 600 spent eggs, from which Daniels was able to extract DNA.
With the genetic codes of butterflies from different populations, Daniels will be able to look for gene flow between them.
“This butterfly is not well studied, and species are harder to study when they are declining,” Daniels said. “But this information will help us ask questions about how far they travel and what they need to be healthy so we can protect existing populations while we fill in the gaps.”
Last fall, the museum produced a mini documentary about their collaboration with the brewery. In addition to gorgeous footage of overflowing pints and alighting butterflies, it showcases the natural marriage between the partners.
“We are both sort of in the same business,” Daniels says in the video of himself and the brewers.
He could be referring to the fact that they both cultivate and care for delicate organisms — butterflies and yeast, respectively.
Or that they both advance their work through careful trial and error governed by the scientific method.
Or that they both are driven to connect people with something bigger than themselves through something they can hold in their hands.
They are both clearly in the business of conservation. Through their collaboration, the museum and the brewery have raised more than $15,000 for butterfly research with events, donations, and beer sales.
Learn more at https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/event/frosted-elfin/
The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other government agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, businesses, utilities and others. It has drawn support for its use of incentives and flexibilities within the ESA to protect rare wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working.