Where Have All the Butterflies Gone?

A column by Charles Seabrook in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Where Are the Butterflies?” notes that a number of observers in Atlanta and other areas of Georgia have noticed a scarcity of butterflies this summer. I read the column with great interest, because around our home in Oconee County I have seen very few butterflies this year – and their absence is stunning.

Specific reasons for the low numbers are not yet clear, Seabrook writes, and might include something like this year’s very wet spring. However, there is growing concern worldwide for the future of butterflies and moths, and a number of studies have begun to document alarming declines. Widespread use of pesticides, habitat loss, climate change and other factors threaten butterflies – and many insect species. 

I started to notice a decline in butterfly numbers here about three or four years ago, but this year there are the fewest yet. And it’s not only that we see fewer in number, but there also are several species that seem to have completely disappeared – at least here, in this one place. At the same time, I have suddenly become aware that we’re seeing far, far fewer moths than we used to see at night. 

We have taken them so much for granted, these ephemeral gifts of impossible beauty – in our yards, along the roadsides, in towns and gardens and thickets and weeds. Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Buckeye, Gulf Fritillary, Fiery Skipper, Silver-spotted Skipper, Clouded Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, American Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Little Wood Satyr, Eastern Tailed Blue, Gray Hairstreak, Blue Azure, Mourning Cloak, Monarch, Viceroy – these are some of the butterflies we’ve seen just here in our own neighborhood over the past 19 years. And now? Many seem to be gone.

I remember standing one enchanting summer afternoon along a roadside – six years ago – in a shady spot near the woods, and watching two Little Wood Satyrs flit among the brown stems of weeds and grasses – small, moth-brown butterflies with wings patterned in soft, intricate shades and scalloped lines of brown, tan, and taupe, and several large dark eye-spots ringed in yellow around the edges of the wings. They paused to rest in the grass, sometimes with wings spread, and sometimes with wings held up, then fluttered up again but did not fly away or fly far, staying around this small spot for several minutes. It was like watching fairies dance. 

It is heartbreaking to realize that we are in serious danger of losing the beauty and magic of butterflies and moths in our lives. Scientists are doing important studies, and more is being learned, but I’m afraid most people simply don’t realize what’s happening – or how fast.

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