The MMMILC Project

Week of 4/28 Update

This week the struggle with the great weed trident of LTRAS continued. As you can see from the picture above, the weeds are going to put up a fight. I started my week collecting data from the plants at the LTRAS site. I recorded the plants’ height, counted their leaves, and took damage assessments based on the percentage of leaf area missing. Several future bloggers will become familiar with this process. In this case, however, it was not quite as straightforward as it would seem. The weeds were encroaching on the milkweed plots, so hand weeding was necessary throughout the process. The last transect (far right in the picture) was so bad that I needed to pull out the hula hoe to clear some space around the plants. While I was at LTRAS I added a little walnut shell mulch to the center of the coco fiber mats as added protection.

We decided to bury the irrigation lines at LTRAS so we could till around the plots without butchering them. This required the rental of a trencher. I learned that this is both a very expensive and very slow machine… Not that I’m complaining. The machine can dig a trench more efficiently than I could, but it is in the hours-per-mile speed category. Since it took nearly a full, nonstop workday to trench three 250 meter sections, the machine would create a mile long trench in about 16 hours. It would probably be a bit faster if there weren’t any weeds in the way.

Data was collected from our chamberlain and Putah Creek sites as well, and the Putah Creek plants were watered. These sites required significantly less weeding than the LTRAS site, although the Putah Creek site will need some more effective weed control soon.

The plants at North Davis site were watered. Yolo County RCD made these great manifolds to help simplify the watering process (pictured above). After installing dedicated hoses to our irrigation lines, the process is nearly as simple as turning a valve. You’d think watering should always be that simple, but it used to entail finding a hose that wasn’t already in use and dragging it the right spot before watering. The manifold makes things much simpler, but it’s one spigot short. I’ll need to add onto it soon.

Week of 4/21 Update

Hello, everyone!

I am August Higgins. I began working full-time managing this project’s four Davis field sites in January, but I’ve been involved in various Yang Lab projects to different degrees since 2011. However, this is my first contribution to the MMMILC Project blog. I’ll be keeping you updated on my activities in order to give a behind-the-scenes look into gritty underbelly of science, but I’ll be sort of jumping into the middle. Here it goes!

This week in the world of the MMMILC Project, I began by finishing off something I started last week. I finished installing the last irrigation line at the North Davis Riparian Greenbelt site. This site contains 3 transects of milkweed plots about every 6 meters. The transects are numbered 1 to 3, and the plots are numbered from 1 to 840! 1 to 516 are narrow-leafed milkweed and 517 to 840 are broad-leafed milkweed.

The irrigation hose on transect 2 was rolled out and connected last week, but I had yet to finish installing the gallon per hour emitters.  Once this was completed, I ran the water through the irrigation line to soak the ground and to check for leaks due to any loose connections or holes in the hose.

Once the ground was soaked, I moved on to the task of re-seeding each plot. Every plot currently consists of a coco fiber mat and a ground staple with an aluminum number tag attached. As you can see in the picture (above), some of these look great! Unfortunately not every plot has a seedling, so I’m planting a few seeds in each plot. These seeds have been left soaking in the fridge for several days in order to encourage germination. In previous plantings of pre-soaked seeds we have seen germination in only a matter of days!

The watering and re-seeding process was repeated for transect 1. There was a crew out weed-whacking last week that was a little too thorough, so running water on transect 1 revealed damage to the irrigation line and to some plots. There were several broken emitters and coco fiber mats to be replaced, and even a few tears in the hose to be repaired.

Out at the Russell Ranch Long Term Research in Agricultural Systems (LTRAS)site we are having a weed problem. The tiller is unable to mow over our plots or irrigation, so there are lines of weeds in the shape of a 3-pronged trident. Each prong of the weed trident is 250 meters long and the base is 10 meters long. The width of the weed filled area is about one and a half feet (I’ll get a picture next week, but due to the rain driving out there isn’t currently an option). I went out armed only with a trusty hula-ho and my wits. After several hours I had gotten a great workout (and a few blisters), but made relatively little progress with the weeds. It’s back to the drawing boards for solving the weed incursion of LTRAS, as one lone man was no match.

The week closed with a trip to return an extra roll of irrigation tubing to the irrigation supply store, some overdue data entry, and some blogging!

Tune in next week for more adventures of the MMMILC Project and me, August Higgins!

Experimenting with aphids at Bobcat Ranch

Will Wetzel and I made a quick day trip to Bobcat Ranch to try setting up a new experiment with aphids. The question behind this experiment is: “Does prior herbivory by aphids influence the larval success of monarchs?”. The aphids that attack milkweed around here are Oleander aphids, and they tend to hit the milkweeds hard early in the season. I’m particularly interested to know if the early season presence of aphids influences the seasonal fitness landscape for monarchs. In other words, if a milkweed is hit hard by aphids early in the season, would a monarch do better to oviposit on it later? There have also been some previous greenhouse studies of aphid effects on milkweeds that show a disproportionate reduction in root biomass in particular, so I’m also wondering if aphid attach in year 1 will have negative effects on monarchs in year 2. To answer these questions experimentally, we’d need to be able to move aphids around, so that we can randomly assign some plants to be aphid present, while others are maintained as aphids absent.

Our first attempt at this will be to simply take aphids from other plants, and transfer them on a small cutting. Hopefully, the aphids will disembark, and establish on their new host plants. Stay tuned!

A few notes from the field: Many of the narrow-leaved milkweed is already thick with aphids, so we will focus on A. eriocarpa for this experiment. The A. fascicularis is also harboring an impressive number of ladybird beetles. We tried a few plants with bags:


…but got a little worried about them getting too hot in there, so we did the rest without bags. The experiment itself it set up with patches as “blocks”, which we hope will help control for both genotype and microhabitat effects. Also notable was the number of Chrysochus on several plants:


Fingers crossed for the aphid manipulation treatment!


Hello, World!

This is my first blog post for the MMMILC Project. Why are we blogging? I hope this ain’t just for show. As this project gets bigger, I hope that this blog emerges as a useful tool for coordinating our research and education efforts. If it works, this blog will become a central repository of our digital field notes and a searchable record of all of the curious observations and odd logistics that go into a research project. Hopefully it will be useful for both research and education. We’ll be sharing photos from the field, and documenting the often messy, often unexpected and occasionally elegant process of science.  Over the next few years, I hope to see more authors contributing to this blog – high school students, undergraduates, research assistants, grad students, postdocs – all of the people that I hope become part of the MMMILC Project. I am looking forward to learning more as this project emerges. Read More