Did you know that before the mid 1600’s insects, such as butterflies, were considered to be Devil’s Spawn? Then, a young scientist, Maria Merian, who combined her love of painting and nature (view some of her artwork here!), started studying the lives of butterflies. It was believed that insects just grew out of the mud, but after she documented their intriguing life cycles from egg to adult, she changed the way that the scientific world viewed these dazzling creatures.
While Merian’s paintings taught us to appreciate these colorful insects in a new way, some may forget that they are more than just a pretty pair of wings. They play a huge role in the health of the ecosystem.
Butterfly populations can tell us a lot about the health of the ecosystem. Areas that have a high number of butterflies are also rich in other animals as butterflies are an integral part of the food chain. Without the butterflies, many insect-eating animals such as birds, bats and small rodents would be out of one of their main entrées!
Not only are they good food sources directly for animals, they are also one of the top pollinators! As the bee population declines, the job is left to other pollinators like butterflies and birds. Since many species of butterfly will migrate over very long distances, they have the chance to spread pollen from one area to another hundreds of miles away! This increases the plants genetic variability and therefore will give plants a defense against disease. Without plants, bad things would happen as far up the food chain as humans! In fact, roughly 2/3 of all vertebrate species’ food can be linked back to butterflies. If the butterfly population continued to go into decline, the food web could effectively collapse.
Butterflies are also great model organisms in the science realm. Scientists can study life cycles, pest control, mimicry, genetics, population dynamics, and the effect that climate change has on species (just to list a few!!!). As Environmental Educators, they are great education tools. Kids love to see how the metamorphosis process works and are fascinated by the small caterpillars that create chrysalis and then emerge as a larger, colorfully winged animal! They are also great teaching tools when talking about migration.
Unfortunately, the butterfly populations across the world are going into decline. In fact, 4 different butterfly species have become extinct in the past 100 years. Monarchs, an iconic butterfly species, have fallen by 90%.
This is a sad fact, but you can do something to combat this decline! Many of us have flowers in our gardens or in pots around where we live, and planting flowers that will attract butterflies and keep them thriving year-round, will help their chance of survival. Here are some tips for keeping the butterflies in your area happy:
- Plant red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple flowers. They love these colors!
- Plant in the sun and intersperse large flat rocks in your garden. Butterflies need the warmth and generally feed in the sunshine. The flat rocks will be a great place for them to bask!
- Butterflies and native plants have co-evolved and depend on each other. Planting native will help the butterfly to not only survive as an adult but as an egg and caterpillar as well!
- Make sure that as one type of flower stops blossoming, another is starting. Butterflies need the nectar for their entire adult lives.
- Encourage puddling! This is when many butterflies will gather on wet sand or dirt to drink water and absorb as many minerals, such as Sodium (Na+) as they can through their proboscis. Add sand and coarse dirt to certain areas and make sure that it stays moist!
- Add shelter. Butterflies need somewhere to go when it’s windy and rainy too! Planting shrubs will provide them with that space.
If you’re looking to learn more about butterflies and their importance to our ecosystem, check out these great links and join the Bucks County Audubon Society for our annual citizen science project – the Butterfly Count! This count will take place on Saturday, July 23rd, from 10am-12pm. For more information in regards to the Butterfly Count and our other events, click here!