Introduction “Lepidoptera” is an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. There are about 250,000…
This post follows on from the post on this site entitled “Butterflies and Moths: Why are they important?” where we looked at the variety of ways in which butterflies and moths are vital to the health of the planet. We turn now to the alarming extent to which butterfly (and moth)populations are in decline.
Threats to Butterfly Populations
Butterfly and moth numbers have been declining for over 50 years worldwide. In Europe, 30% of all butterfly species are in decline and scientists calculate that 10% of species are likely to become extinct. Fifty-six species in Britain are under threat today from unprecedented environmental change and four species have already become extinct. It is possible that many species of butterfly will become extinct in the next few years unless we take action.
Below are some of the threats that are causing this decline in butterfly populations.
1. Climate Change
Climate change has led to temperatures changing in unpredictable ways. Butterflies rely on environmental cues to know when to emerge from the egg. If they emerge earlier than usual, for example, then the food sources they rely on could be unavailable or it may be too cold for them to survive.
Butterflies are, furthermore, sensitive to extreme weather conditions such as high temperatures, strong winds, and high levels of precipitation.
- When ambient temperatures are over 40°C most butterfly species become immobile and are unable to engage in activities such as feeding, fleeing from predators and reproduction They remain in that state until their internal body temperatures decrease to around 28°C.
- Strong winds can sweep butterflies from their habitat and leave them in areas where they are unable to find any food that suits them.
- During rainy seasons, the wings of the butterflies are easily soaked in rainwater, leading to difficulties in flying. If this happens to a greater extent than usual populations can be seriously affected.
2. Deforestation and habitat loss
Many species of butterfly have adapted to a very specific environment, meaning that they rely on certain plants only occurring in that specific environment for food or for the subsequent feeding of their caterpillars. The sudden disappearance of this plant from its habitat would, therefore, result in the consequent disappearance of these butterflies from this habitat because most butterfly species are unable to adapt to altered habitat conditions. If their habitat is destroyed, the population quickly declines.
This point is closely related to the above. A great deal of deforestation and habitat loss arises from clearing massive tracts of land for agriculture but also for roads, housing, industrialisation and shopping malls. There are many species of butterfly that migrate long distances but cannot complete their traditional journey because of the introduction of new buildings and other manmade barriers in their path. This has led to populations declining, as they cannot reach the area where they reproduce.
4. Agricultural Chemicals
Agricultural herbicidal chemicals kill plants that farmers consider to be weeds but that butterflies rely on. Furthermore pesticides and fungicides, particularly those containing neonicotinoids, kill butterflies. These chemicals can do massive damage to butterfly (and all insect) populations as they are sprayed on a crop and this is their intended purpose but they also linger in the soil and enter the water cycle, and continue posing a threat to butterfly populations for considerable periods.
What Can You Do to Help Conserve Butterflies ?
It is vital that butterfly populations are stabilized by protecting existing habitats and increasing access to new areas. For this to happen we need to raise awareness of the importance of butterflies and ways to promote their well-being.
Below are some ideas about useful strategies.
1. Importance of Gardening
As natural habitats are being destroyed to accommodate human needs, the importance of gardening in ensuring robust butterfly populations is becoming increasingly evident. Promoting butterfly-friendly ecosystems within gardens as well as in parks and other natural areas will help to offset the loss of natural habitats. There are some specific recommendations for achieving this increased butterfly-friendliness.
Plant butterfly-friendly plants
Plant a variety of nectar-producing flowering plants in your garden to ensure that there is butterfly-friendly food available throughout the year. Remembering that butterflies are particularly attracted to red flowers, though they also like yellow flowers. Non-indigenous plants that attract butterflies include banksia, bottlebrushes, buddleia, citrus, daisies, lavender, marigolds, phlox, poinsettia, tea trees, verbena and wattles.
However, one of the best things you can do to support butterflies and have them come and visit your garden and lay eggs year after year is to plant indigenous flowering plants that specifically attract indigenous species of butterfly and provide them with the breeding ground and caterpillar diet that they need to reproduce successfully.
Below you will find reference to James Wakefield and the sterling work he is doing to promote butterfly well-being in Zimbabwe. Apart from making videos about butterflies and their importance he also sells a group of plants that are guaranteed to attract and support populations of butterflies in your garden.
Avoid using pesticides and other poisons in your garden
Try to minimise chemical use in your garden, particularly the use of pesticides which are lethal to all insects, including caterpillars. Pesticides are used in gardens to discourage “pests”, of course, but if you are environmentally aware you will know that all insects are part of vital biodiversity and each performs an important function in the environment. You might want to consider moving towards a chemical-free garden.
Investigate natural and pollinator-safe substances such as vegetable oil, vinegar or essential oils that can be used to discourage insects that are eating your prize plants. The foam of soapy water can be brushed over aphid infestations. Caterpillars or rose beetles can be plucked manually off your prize roses.
Look into the idea of “companion planting”. Companion plants are used for the purpose of discouraging the inflow of pests or avoiding damage to establish an ecological pest control system for pests by planting plants that discourage pests (e.g. marigolds) amongst pest-vulnerable plants.
Leave some weeds
Weeds, while considered unsightly by some gardeners, actually serve as important habitat for butterflies. Butterflies need places to rest and lay their eggs and as food for their caterpillars and an anchoring spot for the caterpillar’s chrysalis. Indigenous weeds are particularly important for many types of butterflies.
Make the most of flowers in sunny parts of the garden
Butterflies tend to only feed in full sun so having desirable butterfly-feeding plants in sunny spots gives butterflies ideal foraging conditions.
Make your own butterfly dormancy hut
Some butterflies migrate to warmer climates in the winter but the majority of Zimbabwe’s butterflies do not migrate. Some over-winter in a chrysalis or as eggs but some even as butterfly adults. They need a safe, dry, dark, cool place to go into dormancy. (Technically butterflies do not hibernate – they become dormant.) A woodpile is the perfect place as it allows for them to hide and be safe and keep warm in the cracks and crevices. You can of course just leave a woodpile for them to use, but if you possible it is best to stack several logs in a formation like a log-cabin. (See the picture for a very fancy version.) Woodpiles can offer a lifeline to all sorts of hibernating insects and over-wintering larvae and caterpillars.
Make a puddling pool
Butterflies (and bees) are attracted to very shallow puddles and cannot really manage to get water from larger bodies of water. They will congregate around nutrient rich mud puddles or even on damp soil and around tyre tracks and use their proboscis to obtain important salts and minerals. Can you think of a way to provide several, small, shallow puddles that get a fair amount of sun? One of the easiest ways is a shallow bowl of water with sand and stones on which the butterflies can sit.
3. Support Butterfly or Invertebrate Charities
Supporting charities that are working to protect butterflies and their habitats is another good way to help these insects. “Save Our Monarchs”, for example, is a charity dedicated to saving the iconic Monarch butterfly, which has declined 90% in the last 20 years in North America. “Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation” is a worldwide charity that protects all invertebrates, including butterflies.
4. Advocate for the Protection of Butterflies
The plight of mammals like the polar bear gains more popular attention than the fate of small creatures like insects. Insects, including butterflies, are often overlooked when it comes to environmental protection. Encouraging governments and environmental organisations to put in place protection for butterflies and insects will help many ecosystems. You can do your bit by supporting initiatives to advocate for the protection of insects and bringing this need to the attention of your government, municipality, local communities, schools, churches, shopping centers, etc.. Specifically, this could be done by campaigning against the use of pesticides that harm butterflies and other creatures and supporting projects to encourage the development of open spaces that are butterfly friendly.
5. Continue to learn more about butterflies yourself
Continue to learn more about butterflies and share this information with friends and family to ignite their interest. The more people who care about butterflies, the better protection and future they will have. You can learn more about butterflies and how to attract them to your garden by visiting the Butterfly Conservation SA website. Or learn from gardening guru Sophie Thomson as she provides advice about creating a butterfly habitat. Below you will find links to several videos about Zimbabwean butterflies by James Wakefield. James is Zimbabwe’s own butterfly champion and guru. Above you will have seen the sheet representing the collection of plants he sells to attract, feed and promote butterflies. Watch his videos about ways in which butterflies can be protected.
“Five Reasons Why Butterflies Are Important & How to Help”, Wildlife Informer, https://wildlifeinformer.com/why-butterflies-are-important/
“How you can tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth”, Everyday Mysteries, https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/zoology/item/how-can-you-tell-the-difference-between-a-butterfly-and-a-moth/
“Why butterflies matter”, Butterfly Conservation, https://butterfly-conservation.org/butterflies/why-butterflies-matter
“Six Reasons Why Butterflies are Important” by Keira Gaynor, Wildlife & Animals, https://www.ecoredux.com/butterflies-are-important
“Why Are Butterflies Important?” By Hayley Ames, Sciencing, https://sciencing.com/birds-drink-hummingbird-water-8164922.html
“What do Butterflies do for the Environment?” By Robert Korpella, Sciencing, https://sciencing.com/butterflies-important-8749269.html
“Why butterflies are beneficial to the environment”,
https://www.environment.sa.gov.au › benefits-of-butterflies
“Why Are Butterflies Important To The Ecosystem?, World Atlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/why-are-butterflies-important-to-the-ecosystem.html