Butterfly gazing is a favorite pastime for many nature lovers. The sheer beauty of multi-colored wisps of paper-thin butterfly wings against green foliage is breathtaking. As they flit from flower-to-flower or dance merrily across a meadow, watchers gasp and utter quiet sounds of pleasure.

But there may not be as many butterflies brightening our summer days in the future.

Butterfly Populations Decreasing

Recent years have been very difficult on butterfly populations due to global climate change. Humans might notice simple changes such as warmer, earlier springs. The changes in the earth’s weather patterns affect the butterflies in much more devastating ways.

When flowers bloom early, it disturbs the migration habits of butterfly species that migrate, such as the Monarch. Life cycles of plants drive butterfly migration patterns. Butterflies get their food from plants. They may also use their host plant for laying their eggs and other butterfly life cycle functions. As repayment for the generosity of the plant, butterflies pollinate their host plant.

When flowers bloom earlier than expected, the blooming period may be done and over with before the butterfly arrives. This affects the symbiotic relationship for both plant and butterfly, resulting in no food for the butterfly and no pollination for the plant.

Monarch butterflies.

The majestic orange and black Monarch butterfly is one of the most recognized species on our planet. Like all butterflies, Monarchs are affected by global climate change in many ways.

Monarch butterfly wings.

Female Monarch Butterfly. Image CC BY-SA 3.0 by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson via Wikimedia

Monarchs lives revolve around weather and climate. They receive cues from the environment that begin their reproductive cycle, their migration habits, and their hibernation period.

Their only food source is the milkweed plant. This creates a unique vulnerability specific to Monarchs. Milkweed plants are becoming less abundant due to a combination of habitat destruction and climate change.

During the winter, their seasonal habitat also faces “extreme weather events such as drought and severe storms, and extremes in hot and cold temperatures.”

Efforts by conservation enthusiasts have helped restore some viability to the Monarch butterflies, but the species is still in danger. As climate change progresses at too quick a pace for their adaptive abilities, we may see a great decline in Monarch populations throughout the world.

Why butterflies are important.

While beautiful to look at, butterflies perform an unseen task that is vital for our planet. As they flit around from plant to plant, feeding, laying eggs, and just being majestic; they also pollinate those same plants.

  • No butterflies = no pollination.
  • Therefore, no pollination = no plants.
  • No plants = no oxygen recycling centers.
  • With no oxygen, there is no life.

While the example above might seem a bit drastic, it serves to convey that all things on the planet are connected. In its simplest form, we must protect the smallest living creatures on the planet in order to preserve the largest creatures.

What we should be doing to help.

There are many things that can stop the progression of climate-based extinction of butterfly populations. The enactment of climate control initiatives around the world will ease the problem. For Monarchs specifically, this includes restoring and increasing milkweed habitats. Continuing measures on an international scale will have a great impact on the stability of butterfly lifespans.

Individually, people can take steps in their own backyard that will also have a huge impact. This will provide the added benefit of creating a live theater of butterfly wings right outside your home. By simply reducing the use of pesticides in your home garden, you can make a difference. Planting “butterfly friendly” vegetation and working to maintain the winter habitats of butterflies will help. Even the smallest things done as an individual can have an impact.

Types of Butterflies

Just in North America, there are around 11,000 different types of moths, and researchers have recorded more than 750 different kinds of butterflies. Worldwide, “there are approximately 12-15,000 species of butterflies and 150-250,000 species of moths.” The only place on the planet where butterflies don’t live is the Antarctic. We cannot provide a complete list here, but we can help you in identifying the different types of butterflies, caterpillars, and moths.

Common banded peacock butterfly one of the many types of butterflies affected by climate change.

Common Banded Peacock Butterfly. Image CC BY-SA 4.0 by Sayan Sanyal via Wikimedia Commons

The most general identification tip is that butterflies usually tend to be brightly colored, displaying different colors and patterns on their wings. Moths typically tend to have more solid, drab-colored wings. Moths tend to tent their wings, hiding their abdomen. Butterfly wings are generally folded up over their backs at rest. Another way to tell moths and butterflies apart is by looking at their antennae. From the Library of Congress:

A butterfly’s antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft and a bulb at the end. A moth’s antennae are feathery or saw-edged.

The time of day is also a good indicator in moth vs. butterfly identification. Moths are generally seen at night because they are nocturnal. Butterflies are seen during daylight hours because they are diurnal.

The habitats of butterflies.

Butterflies love sunlight. They will congregate in areas that receive 5-6 hours of sunlight per day and are relatively sheltered from the wind. A nearby mud puddle can provide them with their required minerals and other nutrients. They also love flowers.

While in caterpillar form, they can chew their food. Plants such as milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, marigolds, and violets will attract caterpillars. Monarch butterflies and caterpillars will only eat milkweed. They’re not picky eaters, but the milkweed makes them taste horrible to predators, so it is a survival instinct.

Butterflies can’t chew, but they suck nectar from plants for sustenance. They will seek out plants with bright colors such as the butterfly bush, lilacs, and zinnias. Butterfly habitats will contain a variety of different colored plants.

Effect of climate change on butterflies.

Short-term events impact butterflies. The scientific term is poikilothermic. That means a change in the weather can affect butterfly lifespan. They are also affected by long-term events, such as global climate change. Many things affect the daily activities of butterflies. These can include rain, cloud cover, temperature, and plant availability.

Scientists have used butterfly migration habits as a measurable indicator of climate change. When butterflies that used to live farther south are now living in more northern regions, it indicates that temperatures in the north are increasing. That isn’t a good sign for the planet. It serves as an indicator of global warming. The melting of the polar ice caps is not a good thing for the environment or our wildlife.

Butterfly lifespan, wings, and things.

Butterflies don’t live very long. Most have an average lifespan of about two weeks to one month. Some species live as little as a week. Many factors, including the species, where it lives, the size of the butterfly, and when it became an adult all have an impact on how long it will live. Some of the larger species such as Monarchs and Mourning Cloaks may live as long as nine months.

The sheer beauty of butterflies can take your breath away. But they do have their development stage. An adult butterfly lays eggs, which hatch to become caterpillars. Caterpillars mature, then it seals itself into a cocoon for metamorphosis.

When the adult butterfly first emerges from the cocoon, it appears as a wet, limp, wrinkly mess. Hanging upside down, the butterfly fills the veins in its wings with blood to “inflate” them. The wings must also dry before a butterfly can take flight. If butterfly wings get damaged, during this process or later in life, they do not heal themselves.

What humans see with the naked eye is the beautiful coloration of butterflies. Hidden in some of their color patterns are ultraviolet patterns that can only be seen by other butterflies. The purpose of color isn’t just to give us something pretty to look at. The color serves as camouflage or to attract mates. Darker colored wings help to soak up the sun, and some features are even there to scare potential predators.

The Future — Sweet or Bleak?

The future of butterflies, and of our entire planet, depends largely on the measures we take to maintain an environmentally friendly approach to slow the progression of global climate change. By watching the migration patterns of various butterfly species, we can track the earth’s warming.

We can assist butterflies by creating and maintaining suitable habitats for them. This can be as simple as planting an array of flowers and plants in your backyard that attract butterflies. Support local butterfly conservancies and try to lower your own carbon footprint.

If we do our part, the future of butterflies can be pretty sweet. If we don’t help, it will be pretty bleak.

Slow motion film of butterflies in flight:


Featured image  CC BY 2.0 by Judy Gallagher via Wikimedia Commons

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