Changes in the Air: Observing the Return of Butterflies

Butterfly in Field Lisa A. Wisniewski

Butterfly in Field
Lisa A. Wisniewski

The orange fluttering caught my eye as I walked around the pine trees into the open fields on my property.  Surprised at first, I was not sure I believed what I saw:  several butterflies dancing among the joe-pye weeds.  My mind started racing, for I had read about and observed the decrease in the butterfly population, specifically the monarch butterfly, in recent years.

Though the butterflies I was watching were not monarchs, they were a great example of nature’s most wonderful creations.  Their gossamer wings caught the rays of the sunset, making them appear highlighted amid the pine trees and tall weeds in the background.  As I stopped to take some pictures, I wondered if the delicate creatures could be making a comeback. 

Understanding the Population Decline

The reasons for declining butterfly populations include:

  • Climate change affecting weather conditions and migration patterns
  • Habitat loss created through the use of herbicides and the spread of agriculture and tourism
  • Forest fragmentation due to human population growth and transportation needs
  • Pesticides intended to kill other insects, but inadvertently kill butterflies

Examining the butterfly life cycle may help to further explain the reasons above.  I will use the monarch butterfly life cycle as an example.  Other butterflies and moths have similar life cycles, but less extensive migration habits.

Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle and Migration

Each spring, the monarch butterfly journeys from the Southwestern United States and Mexico to the Northeastern and Northwestern United States.  While flying north, monarch males and females find a partner, or mate.  After mating, the females lay eggs on milkweed plants.  The eggs hatch within four days.  Caterpillars, also known as larvae, emerge out of the eggs and feed on the milkweed for about two weeks.

The larvae grow quickly into a pupa, or chrysalis.  After becoming a pupa, a change called metamorphosis takes place.  The pupa does not eat and its tissues break down to form a butterfly.

These transitions from egg to caterpillar, caterpillar to pupa, and pupa to butterfly begins a life cycle.  Each life cycle produces the next generation of monarch butterflies required to keep the species alive.

Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle Lisa A. Wisniewski

Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
Lisa A. Wisniewski

First, second, and third generation monarchs live about five weeks.  Fourth or fifth generation monarchs live four to five months.  The fourth or fifth generation monarch butterflies live longer because they must make the journey back to the Southwestern United States or Mexico, hibernate over the winter, and begin the journey back to the United States.

Butterfly Habitats

Butterflies and moths are attracted to a variety of habitats.  The attraction for each species is different due to:

  • The food plant required for the caterpillar, which turns into a butterfly or moth
  • The nectar source of the adult butterfly, allowing for survival, mating, and laying of eggs
  • The conditions necessary for the caterpillar’s survival and allowance to pupate, or develop

Disruption to any habitat area can affect the growth, development, and life cycle.  In the monarch’s case, changes in milkweed growth and hibernating forest areas have been attributed to reasons for declining populations.

Butterfly Close-up Lisa A. Wisniewski

Butterfly Close-up
Lisa A. Wisniewski

Butterfly Background in My Area

In 2010, I planted several butterfly bushes in my landscape beds around my house.  Three of the bushes were transplanted from a friend’s yard and three were from a nursery.   The transplanted bushes took well and attracted a wide variety of butterflies in all shapes and colors, as well as hummingbirds and hummingbird moths.

Blossom on Butterfly Bush Lisa A. Wisniewski

Blossom on Butterfly Bush
Lisa A. Wisniewski

The following year, the bushes from the nursery grew rapidly and offered additional mesmerizing butterfly sightings.  I watched many a show of colorful wings dancing and fluttering in the summer heat as day fell into night.

The winter of 2012 was very harsh in my area.  Only one of the butterfly bushes I had planted survived the cold.  I attributed my lack of butterfly sightings the following spring to the absence of the bushes that attracted the flying velvet wings to my yard.

Other contributing factors may be changes in the fields and woods surrounding my home.  A number of the fields have been converted from fallow or pasture areas to areas for large scale vegetable farming.  Several wooded areas were either logged or cut down for safety or other reasons.  All of these changes took several years to take place, so it is plausible to suspect the butterfly population was slowly affected, which would coincide with the declining population figures over the past few years.

Questioning the Numbers

Recent studies have added a few new twists and theories to the reasons for population declines and what appears to be a slight population increase.  Researchers and observers are at odds regarding methods and locations for conducting butterfly population counts.  However, all agree changes have occurred and more needs to be done to assist the butterfly population in general.

Some ways to help the butterfly population include:

  • Planting trees, flowers, and other habitat building foliage
  • Suspending the use of chemicals believed to be a factor in the population decline
  • Promoting awareness of butterfly habitat needs
Various Wild Flower Habitat Lisa A. Wisniewski

Various Wild Flower Habitat
Lisa A. Wisniewski

When attempting any of the above, it is important to fully research before acting.  For example, many people and organizations wishing to help the monarch butterfly population planted milkweed.  However, problems arose when tropical milkweed was planted instead of native milkweed.  The end result was the delay of monarchs leaving northern areas of the United States to migrate south for winter.  Many monarchs got caught in the cold and perished, further reducing the population.

Questioning the Future

Despite the latest studies and my personal butterfly sightings, the future remains questionable for the colorful winged marvels.  For now, I am simply thankful to see butterflies dancing in the fields.  From experience, I know much in nature is cyclical and that nature has a way of making things right.

It is my hope that we all can learn to get along and coexist someday.  Whether this happens will depend upon changes in attitudes, actions, and habits.  Change can be good or bad, simple or complex, and easy or hard to accept.  However, change is inevitable in the world and in nature.

Change is also a vehicle for learning, growing, and accepting.  Hopefully, much will be learned from the butterfly population shifts and the importance of the little creatures’ existence will be realized in time.

Nature's Many Lessons Lisa A. Wisniewski

Nature’s Many Lessons
Lisa A. Wisniewski

Resources and Related Links

Butterfly habitats – http://butterfly-conservation.org/121/habitat-management.html

Butterfly population decrease – http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/01/29/the-monarch-butterfly-population-just-hit-a-record-low-heres-why/

Butterfly studies – http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/08/monarch-butterfly-studies-tell-perplexing-tale

Hummingbird moths – http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/hummingbird_moth.shtml

Monarch butterfly life cycle – http://www.nwf.org/wildlife/wildlife-library/invertebrates/monarch-butterfly.aspx

Monarch butterfly population decrease – http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140819-monarch-butterfly-milkweed-environment-ecology-science/

Population regeneration – http://www.npr.org/2015/03/04/390757757/monarch-butterfly-population-rejuvenated-after-last-years-record-low

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