Butterflies Missing

Asked July 1, 2020, 12:04 PM EDT

In past summers I have seen dozens of butterflies in my flower gardens. This year only Zebra swallowtails (not one other swallowtail) and a few sulpher butterflies and skippers are all that I have seen. I live acres from my neighbors and have not done any spraying of pesticiides or fungicides. Is there some reason I missing as the season changes have been normal from prior years?

Calvert County Maryland

1 Response

It is good that you avoid pesticides and fungicides; unfortunately, there could be many other reasons (perhaps multiple reasons at once) that are causing an apparent decline in your local butterfly population.

  • loss of habitat - while your yard flora is probably stable, public-land and private lots are not, alas, given continued development and the replacement of lost plants with non-natives (often) or plants which happen not to support the butterfly species in that area; most species are quite host-specific and have a relatively small range of caterpillar food options. Invasive plant species also displace native host plants, and deer (which avoid most invasive species) have become overpopulated and are consuming proportionately more native species than they used to. While they cannot reach mature trees (a food source for multiple butterflies), they can stunt or kill saplings that are needed to replace trees dying of natural causes in the woods.
  • use of pesticides elsewhere - we do not have precise data on how far various butterfly species fly and disperse, but blanket sprays for other pests (mosquitoes, Gypsy moths, etc.) can impact butterflies if the pesticide is not chosen wisely (or it's not possible to eliminate non-target impacts like this)
  • predator/parasite population dynamics - prey species and their predators (or parasites) can have "boom" and "bust" years, and tend to be cyclical, the peaks chasing each other as one population rises and then the other; winter and spring weather may play a role in survival of both species as well, possibly tipping the balance any given year
  • loss of host plants - as one example, the invasive pest Emerald Ash Borer has decimated our Ash tree populations, and Tiger Swallowtail uses Ash as one of its caterpillar host plants. We do not know if Ash plays a critical role in their life cycle (as they can use other species as well), or if Ash conveys any improved survivorship of caterpillars for some reason, but it is an instance of a supporting host plant no longer being widely available to a species. In addition, as mentioned above, several canopy trees play host to multiple butterfly species. Home landscapes, neighborhood street trees, commercial property grounds and so forth don't always plant these large species, instead opting for smaller and/or more decorative flowering trees that don't support the same (or any) butterfly larvae.
  • insufficient nectar sources - populations of some native "weeds" that grow primarily in disturbed sites, like Common Milkweed, can be mowed-down by maintenance crews when growing by roadsides (as presumably they are required to keep that shoulder buffer accessible) and in other unkempt wild areas near developed lots. If adults can get by using other nectar sources (Butterfly Bush, etc), perhaps these sources are not providing the same nutrition and therefore the reproductive health of the population is compromised.
  • timing - although butterflies tend to have multiple generations per year, the periods when most are in their non-adult life stages cause a lull in adult butterfly sightings; overlapping generations can occur, but as we approach late summer, more of the species that overwinter as larvae or pupae are prevalent as adults because they are in their final throes of breeding for the year
  • population decline - sometimes it's just because populations are really on the decline overall, and this is blamed on a number of co-occurring factors which we touched-upon above: primarily habitat loss and pesticide use; how much climate change is involved is still being studied. Generalized insect studies (and even anecdotal observations) in various countries have noted an apparent substantial decline in insect populations overall.