As butterfly species continue to decline in the UK, STRI ecological consultant, Rowan Rumball, lists his top six reasons to help protect our fragile friends.
Butterflies are some of our most loved and most recognisable insects, not just in the UK, but all over the world. Many people create flower gardens specifically for the colourful invertebrates, and rightly so as since they have helped 43% of UK species increase in abundance since 1976.
This does however mean that 57% of UK species have shown a decrease. But why do we have such a fascination for these insects when so many others are reviled?
The answer may seem obvious, they are very beautiful to look at, but the reasons to love and respect these creatures go much deeper than just their looks. I hope over the next six points to show you why our love for butterflies is more than skin…. or wing deep.
Butterflies as pollinators
I am sure that the first reason to save the butterflies that comes to many peoples minds is their role as pollinators for flowers, however many people under estimate exactly how important this role is.
It is difficult to state exactly how much of our food production relies on pollinators, but it is possible to say that several crops such as tomatoes, apples and other fruits are highly dependent on pollinators to provide the high yields we expect.
The next time you pick up a piece of fruit just remember that you likely have a pollinator to thank for it.
Butterflies as part of an ecosystem
Not only do butterflies help to feed humans, they also feed many animals as an important part of the food web. From bats to frogs to spiders, many species rely on the yearly bounty of butterflies to help them through the breeding season.
Butterflies feed mostly on leaves and nectar, a food source that most other species do not have access to. So, they create a valuable bridge between many different sections of the food web. This means that butterflies are a “Trophic bridge” species.
Signs of a healthy ecosystem
Where there are butterflies, there is often a healthy ecosystem. Not only do butterflies provide many species with an important food source, they are also heavily dependent on specific food plants. If there are a diverse number of butterfly species, then there’s often a diverse flowering meadow underneath.
This makes butterflies a great “indicator” species, showing that where butterflies are present there is also a healthy ecosystem. Where there are flowers there are butterflies and butterflies help to pollinate flowers, and together they help to keep our countryside colourful.
Butterflies as literary inspiration
When it comes to conservation there is always a strong focus on ecology and habitats, but many species are intertwined with classical works of literature.
Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson both use butterflies to describe the fleeting nature of life or the pretentiousness of the upper class. Without these insects modern generations would have no connection to these classic pieces of literature.
If we lose butterflies from our green areas, we will also lose the inspiration they provide to our new generation of authors.
You can help to change the future
We have 59 species of butterfly in the UK with 43% increasing in abundance in the last 10 years which is good news, much of this is thanks to gardens and cultivated areas planted with flowers that are known to be good for butterflies.
An alarming 57% however is in decline and many of these species are specialists that rely on a single foodplant not commonly grown in back gardens. Large scale amenity areas such as golf clubs are perfect for helping conserve these more specialist species as substantial areas can be dedicated to the conservation of species found within the local area.
They are good for our health
It has long been known that green spaces (gardens, parks, woodlands etc.) are good for both mental and physical health. A fundamental part of these spaces are the animals that live within them and few are as iconic or as well loved as butterflies.
Whilst creating areas of wild flowers provides a habitat for these animals to survive, without existing viable populations there will not be any butterflies to move into the new areas. It is so important to act now to help preserve these beautiful creatures as in the near future the populations just may be too small to recover.
It would be a poorer world if butterflies are treated as mythological along with the dragon or unicorn.