Butterflies in Peril

Several recent studies point to serious—and mysterious—declines in butterfly numbers across the globe.

By | August 12, 2015

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)WIKIMEDIA, RICHIEBITSIt isn’t easy being a butterfly these days. A recent study authored by researchers in the U.K. suggests that several drought-sensitive species could suffer regional extinction if climate change and habitat fragmentation continue unabated. And a slew of papers on dwindling monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) disagree as to the causes and the extent of that species’ decline.

The study of U.K. butterflies, which was published Monday (August 10) in Nature, modeled future population fluctuations of six species that suffered significant collapses after a 1995 drought sapped the region. The species—which include the speckled wood, the large skipper, and the ringlet—will go locally extinct by 2100 as droughts become more common and habitat more fragmented, the researchers predicted. “The prognosis is quite bleak,” study coauthor Tom Oliver, an ecological modeler at the National Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Wallingford, U.K., told Science. Key to preserving these butterfly species is curbing climate change—with a 2°C (3.6°F) rise in global air temperatures serving as the breaking point—and smartly managing habitats so as to maintain physical links between suitable butterfly niches.

Meanwhile, populations of the monarch butterfly in North America are dropping for mysterious reasons. A concerted effort that resulted in eight papers published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America last week (August 5) failed to reach a consensus on why the species is declining. Relying mainly on volunteer counts of monarch numbers as the butterflies traverse North America, from their northern breeding grounds to their central Mexican overwintering sites, the papers vary widely in the pictures they paint. One suggested that monarch numbers in winter have plummeted over the past 20 years populations showing up at summer breeding grounds have been unaffected. Another stated that the butterflies may be laying fewer eggs across their range, while still others found no decline in fall migrators. The studies “make me wonder if we really have the strongest evidence to be able to say we know what’s causing the decline that we see in Mexico,” Georgetown University ecologist Leslie Ries told Science.

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Avatar of: wctopp


Posts: 110

August 12, 2015

My anecdotal observation agrees with this.  I was a butterfly collector as a kid so I've got an instinct for what to expect around me butterfly-wise.  Now we've got 200 acres of pasture, crops, woods, and swamp and I'm out on the property every day.  Simply no butterflies, other than the cloudy sulphur and occasional cabbage.  I agree fewer monarchs than just a couple of years ago but they're still there, nearly the only one.  Curiously I see more swallowtails than I'd expect, mostly tiger but black and occasionally blue.  It's the smaller ones that have gone missing, the spotted skippers etc.

Avatar of: Paul Cherubini

Paul Cherubini

Posts: 1

August 12, 2015

Butterflies have been this abundant in Iowa this summer despite the fact that 69% of Iowa's landmass is covered with GMO crops, most of which are grown from neonicotinoid insecticide coated seed: 

On Saturday 7/18/15 Linda Rudolph and I conducted the annual Iowa City NABA butterfly count.  We visited Kent Park, Macbride Nature-Recreation Area, Lake Macbride State Park, and Turkey Creek Preserve.  In 10.0 hours we found 29 species and 2,297 individuals.  The count's 17-year average is 33 species
and 1,057 individuals. 

Black Swallowtail 1
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail 6
Cabbage White 164
Clouded Sulphur 1236
Orange Sulphur 323
Little Yellow 2
Eastern Tailed-Blue 15
Summer Azure 284
Great Spangled Fritillary 18
Meadow Fritillary 23 (record high count)
Pearl Crescent 19
Question Mark 8
Eastern Comma 6
Gray Comma 2
American Lady 2
Painted Lady 1
Red Admiral 85 (record high count)
Red-spotted Purple 1
Viceroy 10
Hackberry Emperor 1
Common Wood-Nymph 3
Monarch 33
Silver-spotted Skipper 18
Least Skipper 11
Peck's Skipper 10
Tawny-edged Skipper 7
Dion Skipper 2
Black Dash 4
Dun Skipper 2

Chris Edwards
Solon, IA

Avatar of: wardjohnson


Posts: 1

August 12, 2015

You should know that SaveOurMonarchs.org offers free milkweed seeds to anyone.


 They are needed  by all Monarch caterpillars for their survival.


They make a beautiful wildflower garden, and  require no maintenance.


SaveOurMonarchs provides over 100,000 Milkweed Seed Packets per MONTH, to all that request them.  


Just send your request for seeds to SaveOurMonarchs.org and you will receive the free Milkweed Seed Packets immediately.  


No Milkweed, No Monarchs!


Ward Johnson

SaveOurMonarchs Foundation, a 501c3 charity


Avatar of: Christy


Posts: 2

August 13, 2015

Paul, I think that is great that you are seeing the Monarch in Iowa!  I have to agree with wctopp and the article on this one that there do seem to be fewer Monarchs. 

Avatar of: Helmkat


Posts: 1

July 29, 2016

I live in northern Illinois and there has been a steep dropoff in butterfly populations for several years. When I first moved into my house 15 years ago and planted my gardens my butterfly bushes would litterally be covered in Swallowtails, Monarchs etc. and they were very large. In the last 7 years or so I might see one or two swallowtails or Monarchs all summer and they are of a smaller size than they used to be...honestly it seemed to me about the same time as the Honey Bees vanished. What is interesting is that the Wasp and Bumblebee populations seem as strong as ever...

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