Guide to Butterflies, How To Stop Their Decline

In the past 5 to 6 decades, butterflies have significantly decreased alongside bees and other small wildlife organisms. Butterflies have been in existence for thousands of years. Usually, they are seen fluttering around in gardens. However, a butterfly isn’t a common garden sight as it used to be decades ago.

The decline in the number of butterfly species can be attributed to the destruction of their natural habitats, including wildflower meadows. This destruction occurs due to continuous construction of new houses and roads and use of industrialized farming methods. This leaves small organisms like butterflies with limited options for accommodation and food sources.

Civilisation has greatly contributed to the decline of butterfly and moth species. However, you can make your garden a safe spot for these beautiful creatures.

Decline Of The Butterfly Species

A UK report indicates there has been a significant decrease of butterflies in the UK [1]. It was recorded that about 76% of butterflies have suffered a decline within forty years with a few species at the verge of getting extinct and butterflies known to be common are becoming rare to find.

This observation is actually a cause for concern. Butterflies are part of the food chain, so they serve as food to larger organisms. In addition, they are also natural pollinators for our plants. You know how important pollination is, right?

 

 

This observable decrease in the number of butterflies is just one noticeable result of urbanization. The constant change in our environment, including farming methods which encourages the use of chemicals and increased construction of new buildings, contributes to the extinction of some wildlife species.

The existence of some species has become so threatened to the extent that laws are put in place to protect them. The Swallowtail and Large Blue butterflies are examples of species close to extinction.

Life Cycle of Butterflies

You are most likely conversant with the life cycle of the butterfly (2). Think back to your middle/high school days. The butterfly undergoes four stages of development (eggs, butterfly, pupa and adult). With these few stages, they are easily affected by drastic changes in their environment.

From the eggs, they metamorphose into a caterpillar which you might find annoying as they specialise in eating vegetables. But, eventually, these troublemakers will transform to a beautiful creature.

Butterflies have a short life span; that means they don’t live very long. The specie of butterfly and environmental conditions influence its life span. Larger butterflies may live up to a year, while smaller ones may survive some weeks or up a few months.

Anatomy of the Butterfly

While their wings are their most conspicuous features, these organisms have other parts as well. A butterfly has a head, thorax, and abdomen, two antennae and six legs right underneath its head. The head features two compound eyes which aid its search for predators.

The antennae help to detect the chemical nature of their immediate environment. That way they find plants producing nectar and also mate’s pheromones. There’s a special organ close to the antennae known as the Johnston’s organ; it controls balance and flight orientation. Damage to this organ may disrupt the butterfly’s ability to fly in straight lines.

 

 

Butterfly wings are made of a thin substance called chitin. Their wings are four in number. The wings most proximal to the head have a triangular shape, while the lower pair is shaped like a fan. They all act to provide the butterfly insulation and their bright colours wade off predators.

Butterfly wings also help them build and maintain body heat. They don’t do so well in the cold, so butterflies always seek warm shelters.

Butterfly Habitats

A habitat simply refers to where you live. For a butterfly, this is influenced by its specie and stage of development. Most species favour locations they can comfortably lay eggs.

These habitats are difficult to find nowadays, hence the decline in butterflies. Wildflower meadows for instance have greatly reduced over the years. Other preferred locations for laying eggs by different species of butterflies include nettles, cabbages (yes, cabbages) and buckthorn.

The caterpillar will usually stay close to where its food source. However, the fully developed butterfly will scourge for sites where it can suck nectar and lay eggs.

 

 

At dusk, butterflies and moths settle in corners, masonry and other spots that offer protection.

You can provide a source of shelter for these winged creatures by building a butterfly house. They favour a south-facing spot because they love to keep warm and their wings help them absorb and retain heat. A porch in the interior helps keep it dry.

Attaching the butterfly house to a brick wall or fence post protects them from cold wind. Some species may hibernate in the house during the harsh cold, so refrain from cleaning it out once winter arrives.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

As you probably already know, butterflies feed on nectar. Their feet contain sensors that help them taste it. They take in (drink) nectar with a proboscis; a straw-like tube. When you get the chance, try to closely observe a butterfly on a flower and you should be able to point out the proboscis without assistance. Different species may feast on other food substitutes like tree sap.

Caterpillars consume a lot of vegetables. If you find chew tracks on your fresh greens, then a caterpillar might be the culprit. The caterpillar requires a lot of energy to metamorphose into the beautiful butterfly we all know.

 

Some species like Peacock and Red Admiral caterpillars feed on nettles while some favour willow herbs, wild roses or lavender. Food preference depends on the butterfly species.

Butterfly Predators

The butterfly has a number of predators that’ll feast on them at their different developmental stages. Dogs, cats, spiders, birds, frog, toads, and wasps prey on moths, caterpillars and butterflies. The butterfly is most vulnerable to predators while it waits for its wings to get dried after coming out of the chrysalis.

Like most living organisms, the butterfly has adaptations to help avoid being eaten by predators. Most butterflies have brightly coloured wings that might come off as something dangerous to predators.

A butterfly appears so thin when its wings are enclosed or folded. Some butterfly species have spines. Some secrete chemicals to wade off predators and others have parts that smell really bad.

Hibernation

Yes, butterflies hibernate even at their developmental stages, especially during the winter. The painted lady is butterfly specie that has an aversion to cold temperatures. They fly to warm environments in Africa, surprising right? Well, painted ladies would rather make the trip than endure the blazing cold winter brings.

In the winter, food sources are even more limited than usual. Butterflies like Brimstone and Peacocks will hibernate in warm spots they can find, like dried grasses and butterfly hotels, some will even pick a comfortable location inside your house (please be a nice host).

If you find a butterfly hibernating inside or around your house, please don’t disturb it. Pulling a butterfly out of hibernation during extremely cold weather may lead to death. To help these beautiful creatures, place them inside a box or container and transfer to a warm or dark place. Ensure you cut out a small opening on the box, so a butterfly can easily emerge and fly away after hibernation.

Unfortunately, not all butterflies will make it through the process of hibernation. Some die once they have exhausted their energy reserves and others may fall ill while hibernating.

How Do Butterflies Benefit The Garden?

In addition to being pleasing eye candy (thanks to their conspicuous wings), butterflies are beneficial to the garden.

They are pollinators like bees. Butterflies travel with pollen over a large distance; this enables them to distribute pollen within a large area of land. Unlike bees, they do not return to a burrow or hive, so they cover more distance and spread more pollen. This improves the survival of our plants and makes them less susceptible to diseases.

 

 

As a part of the food chain, butterflies serve as a source of food to birds and other animals. Some birds feast on caterpillars and full-grown butterflies. A decline in butterfly species would mean starvation or elimination of a food source for some animals.

What Can You Do To Help?

Modern farming methods encourage the propagation of tall grasses in place of the conventional wildflowers. This is bad news for our winged friends as it translates to fewer food sources. However, we can change the narrative for butterflies.

To ensure we do not upset the food chain and starve butterflies into extinction, we have to consider some preferable plant options for them. Below are a few options you can consider for your garden.

  • Nettles
  • Garlic Mustard
  • Nasturtium
  • Ladies Smock
  • Holly
  • Elm
  • Oak
  • Ivy

Nectar is a favourite food choice for butterflies, so wildflowers are great for these winged creatures. Here are some examples below.

  • Wallflower
  • Bluebell
  • Cuckooflower
  • Clover
  • Pansy
  • Dandelion
  • Primrose
  • Daisy
  • Sedum
  • Lavender
  • Thyme
  • Asters
  • Verbena
  • Marjoram
  • Lilac
  • Red Valerian

Planting a good amount of nectar-producing, flowering plants would be really helpful to butterflies. These flowers should be planted at warm locations. You should have some beautiful butterflies visit your flowers, especially during autumn and spring. Ensure you buy original wildflower seeds for your garden. Butterflies aren’t really into the exotic kind.

There’s more you can do to help. Desist from collecting butterflies if you do and encourage those who indulge this destructive act to stop it. Butterfly collection is an archaic hobby. However, we find that some persons still capture butterflies and stick them on boards. This act does nothing to help their existence; you could also get in trouble as some species are protected by the law.

You can take pictures of them instead. Be a part of environmental groups that make reasonable efforts to better the environment by planting helpful flowers and so on.

 

How to Stop The Decline Of Butterflies

 

Pesticides are commonly used by farmers today. They are harsh chemicals that literally kill any wildlife in your garden. From bees and butterflies to ladybirds, pesticides are a threat to the existence of wildlife in the garden. Gardeners have been able to do without pesticides for centuries and you can too.

Another great idea would be to let an area of your garden mimic the wild. Allow grasses grow, build butterfly hotels, and leave some logs as well as native flower seeds. This area will naturally attract wildlife. For those persons who don’t own a garden and are wondering what they can do, there is something.

Placing a basket filled with flowers on your balcony will also attract butterflies. Whatever it is you can do to help these creatures will be really appreciated.

Isn’t it ironic that we have an abundance of water everywhere, yet the wildlife suffers from dehydration in the summer?

Just a simple bowl of water will go a long way to keep butterflies from dehydration. Butterflies need water just like you do, and you can help keep them hydrated. Put some pebbles in a dish and fill with water on a daily basis. The pebbles are there to support the butterflies, preventing them from falling in.

Help the Butterfly

You should be fully acquainted with how sensitive the butterfly is to extreme cold weather. If you notice a butterfly is in water, then please save it from drowning. It’ll require some sunlight to enable it to flap its wings.

Take the butterfly away from the cold or wet location to a dry, sunny and safe spot.

Once its wings get dried off, it will be able to fly away. You can go a step further to provide the butterfly with a teaspoon of water with dissolved sugar feast. However, ensure the solution does not come in contact with its wings.

Right Way to Pick up a Butterfly

Unlike bees, butterflies are completely harmless creatures so you don’t need to be afraid of getting hurt. You have no excuse to leave a helpless butterfly to die. You can pick a butterfly using a flat card, leaf or nudge it to rest on your finger.

If you notice the butterfly won’t move, gently pick up with your hands preferably in a cupped position. You can also carefully and slowly pick up its wings; avoid rubbing them against each other. Their wings are delicate, so exercise a ton of caution when picking them up.

Remember to place a butterfly, moth or ladybird at a spot where they can safely dry off without being disturbed by the elements or predators.

Final Words

Butterflies deserve to be protected and our current farming methods alongside fast-paced urbanization have done little to support that cause. Unfortunately, some persons display a lack of concern for how our current lifestyle has impacted the existence of wildlife negatively.

Biodiversity is important and every single organism has its own role to play. Butterflies, bees and some birds are plant pollinators. Also, butterflies serve as a food source for other wildlife. We humans constantly perpetrate activities that threaten the existence of wildlife and we should do better as creatures with higher intelligence.

This earth is our collective home and we must make sure that the decisions we make are beneficial to the wildlife. As individuals, there are some things we can do to help out and preserve nature. Plant wildflowers, avoid the use of pesticides and desist from cruel acts like collecting butterflies. Our little efforts will collectively make a huge difference.

Glossary

[1] BBC –  Link

[2] All About Butterflies – Link