In thinking about where have all the butterflies gone, I am reminded of the poignant song written by Pete Seeger “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which although a song about the futility of war, sums up much about the environmental impact of habitat loss. Without wildflower habitat, there will be no pollinators of any sort.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the butterflies gone? Different species of butterfly populations fluctuate from year to year. For example, some years you may see far greater numbers of Buckeyes, the next year not so much. That same year you may hardly see any Tiger Swallowtails but will the following.
That being said, everyone must realize that every year there are fewer butterflies than the year before. Butterflies thrive in meadows, the very same topography that is the easiest to build upon. Every time a new house or shopping mall is built on a meadow, we decrease not just butterfly habitat, but a whole community of wildlife habitat.
In the above photo you can see a Monarch with a Black Swallowtail flying overhead. This stunning patch of wildflowers and nectar plants was sited in Gloucester at a prime spot for Monarchs to rest and refuel after migrating across Massachusetts Bay. The new home owners ripped out most of the wildflowers and planted the site in a more formal style, with non-native perennials and shrubs. At this location, I would often see Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, Painted and American Ladies, Sulphurs, and many other species. That is no longer true.
Tiger Swallowtail drinking nectar from Joe Pye-weed at the same wildflower patch, no longer in existence.
Butterfly and bee populations are declining overall, not only because of habitat loss, but because of the unbridled use of herbicides and pesticides in agriculture and home lawn care.
Butterflies are especially sensitive to fluctuations in weather, and also to overall climate change. This year we had a long, cold wet spring. The inclement weather is continuing, too, from a butterflies perspective, because although we are seeing some warmer temperatures the past few days, it has mostly been rainy, foggy, or overcast. Butterflies thrive during long stretches of sunny, hot weather. Their wings don’t work very well in the damp and cold. Because of global climate change, we have seen a seven percent increase in precipitation worldwide.
One of the best years I have ever seen for dozens and dozens of species of butterflies, including Monarchs, in the Northeast, was the summer and fall of 2012. That year, we had a warm winter followed by a warm spring, then a warm, dry summer, and a long, warm Indian summer. It was butterfly bonanza that summer and autumn!
Adding to people’s concern is the fact that last year, there was an abundance of spring rain that in turn created an extraordinary wildflower bloom in Texas, which got all the butterflies off to a good start. In 2019, we were seeing Monarchs as early as early June, which was very unusual for Cape Ann. Folks are comparing this year to that of 2019, however, 2019 was not an average year.
Monarchs are a case unto themselves. Their spring and summer numbers largely depend upon an additional variety of conditions, including how successful was the previous year’s autumn migration, whether or not there were nectar providing wildflowers on their northward and southward migrations, and wind and weather conditions all along their route, from Canada to Mexico.
Particularly in the northeast, the wind patterns during the Monarchs spring northward migration matter tremendously. My friend Charmaine at Point Pelee, in southern Ontario, which is 49 degrees latitude (we are 43 degrees latitude) has been raising and releasing Monarchs for over a month now, while most of us on Cape Ann have only seen a smattering. The Monarchs moved this year in a straight northward trajectory. If the wind does not blow from west to east during some part of their northward migration, far fewer will end up along the eastern shores.
All is not lost. I am 90 percent certain we will soon be seeing some of our migratory and non-migratory local populations, we just need some good weather. They are later than usual, but not gone entirely.
For so many more reasons, I am hopeful for the future of wildlife and their habitats and see such tremendous, positive change. Despite the current administration’ s extremely harmful stance against the environment, many, many individuals and organizations are gaining a deeper appreciation about the importance of habitats and taking positive action. Many have made it their life’s work. These individuals and organizations are creating wildlife sanctuaries and conserving existing habitats. If the Monarch is declared an endangered species, that will surely bring an added awarenesses and increased federal spending for protecting and creating habitats.
How can you help species such as the Monarchs, which in turn will help myriad species of other butterflies and pollinators)? Plant wildflowers! Both Marsh and Common Milkweed for their northward migration, and lots of nectar-rich later summer blooming wildflowers for their southward migration, including New England Aster, Smooth Aster, Purple-stemmed Aster, Seaside Goldenrod, and Canada Goldenrod.