You’ve probably read or heard that monarch butterflies are in big trouble these days. Numbers of this lordly bug have plummeted for decades and this year was an all-time low for some of them. With other Xerces Society volunteers, I helped count up over-wintering butterflies in Bolinas this winter. Where we had counted thousands in recent years, in 2018-19 we found only hundreds. Looking for, and then not finding butterflies, induces a certain kind of silence—the hand over mouth in sorrow kind, frequently accompanied by tears.

Causes have been identified. Development in California has eaten up great chunks of habitat for monarchs and many other insects, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and large. Pesticides and herbicides are doing their jobs too well and poisoning the butterfly’s host plant—milkweed—the only plant on which it will lay its eggs.

But I know what the real problem is. Butterflies can’t talk.

Butterflies are just crazily beautiful. Different species of butterflies have different flight patterns. Some are herky-jerky and zip up and down. Others cruise close to the ground. Whatever the arc of their wing beats, butterflies are silent. Their lack of aural signaling sometimes makes them harder to count than say, birds, many of which alert you to their presence by singing. In contrast, you can’t hear butterflies coming.

On the other hand, most birds are quick to fly away from you. Although many of them are very quick darters, butterflies seem to let you get close. Catch them nectaring on a flower and your looking will not necessarily disturb their sipping. Butterflies of course have specific visual acuity, and zero in on flowers. Some of them have hearing apparatus in all sorts of locations on their bodies, even on their wings. Given this multitude of sensory input, it’s kind of interesting that they aren’t so bothered by humans gawking at them. Butterflies would seem to not be paying us much attention.

monarch butterfly - POST
This composite image uses multiple photographs taken at different time periods to illustrate the early stages of life for monarch butterflies. To fuel this metamorphosis, monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed, the only plant species they’ll consume. Photo: iStock, Stanley45

You might wonder what I want butterflies to say, anyway.

From citizen science monitoring projects going on 40 years, we know that the western population of monarch butterflies is on the verge of extinction. Eastern monarchs, which generally stay on the other side of the Rockies, are doing better, but their numbers have steadily decreased over the decades as well. Scientists have come up with a “minimum viable population” number of individuals to estimate how many are needed to sustain generations going forward. Down from about 4 million in the 1980s, western monarchs today are hovering around 30,000, just at the minimum viable population number. What does this mean for civilization, butterflies?

Since we already know about the habitat loss, the pesticide and herbicide use, and in all likelihood climate change, butterflies don’t need to alert us to these negative impacts on their survival. Or do they? We have eyes and ears and big brains, but we seem to not be paying much attention to butterflies. We go about our business in a way that is driving them out of theirs. Once butterflies go extinct, they will not come back again. Why are we doing this, butterflies?

Butterflies co-evolved with flowering plants and helped drive the immense diversification of beautiful blooms we find all over the world. Generation after generation, butterflies have swooped and hovered, lingered and darted, helping plants reproduce by way of pollination. Butterflies are actually lousy pollinators compared to bees and flies, and their ecological role is mostly as food for those higher up the food chain—birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and large ones.

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They help keep the ecological functioning of the Earth going. Fewer butterflies means fewer birds, which means fewer bugs like mosquitoes will get eaten just as climate change makes it nice and warm for mosquitoes to breed more. Pull one thread of nature and a whole lot unravels. If butterflies could talk, we could ask if the show will be able to go on without them. But let’s face it, we already know the answer to that one.

Monarch butterflies are so-named because of their big size and singular intense wing pattern. They are royals of design. Their bright color is more than orange—it seems infused, as if with cinnamon. Their bold, black marks assert a confident place in the world. The regal butterfly insists on silence, saying everything it has to say in its tremendous, fluttering being. Cicero says our eyes are a window to our souls. Since we can’t hear the butterfly’s lament with our ears, we will have to listen with our souls.

What’s all that beauty for, butterfly?  (Beauty is everything, literally.)

Monarch, I hear you.


About the Author: Mary Ellen Hannibal is a nationally acclaimed Bay Area science and culture writer and was a speaker in POST’s 2016 Wallace Stegner Lecture series. You can learn more about her work on her website. 

About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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