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They are highly sensitive indicators of the health of the environment and play crucial roles in the food chain as well as being pollinators of plants. The UK has 59 species of butterflies — 57 resident species of butterflies and two regular migrants — the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow. Five species of butterfly have become extinct in the last years. Identify a butterfly Spotted a butterfly but not sure which one? Use our handy ID page to find out.

Learn more about butterflies. This has put conservationists in the odd position of championing non-native trees to try to save a native insect. Farming and land clearing did reduce the abundance of some milkweeds, such as those that live in prairies. But only in recent decades have human activities become a clear threat to monarch butterflies. Warming weather, a parasite that infects monarchs that overwinter in the U. South, and collisions with cars on highways are also taking a toll. Choose almost any large-scale environmental concern—climate change, agricultural chemicals, GMOs, deforestation, suburban development—and the beleaguered monarch seems to embody it.


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Nothing, perhaps, is more natural than wanting to save nature. Nearly everyone, in one way or another, cherishes and wants to preserve a remembered or mythologized environment that seems less impacted and more whole. But most of us—and I want to be clear that I include myself—are confused about what the actual nature is that we want to protect. Often we seek to preserve a version of nature that is already profoundly altered and simplified.

A-Z of butterflies | Butterfly Conservation

Many of us have grown so used to the tiger-colored insects casually flitting through our fields and gardens that the thought of their absence is almost too much to bear. So rather than reforest places that were once forested, conversation-minded people plant yards and parks with milkweed and nectar-producing plants, seeking to attract monarchs. That in itself is surely harmless, and plants that attract monarchs also benefit many others.

More than insects are known to eat common milkweed.

Caterpillar: The Feeding Stage

There is danger, however, in pinning so many hopes on one charismatic species. This is obviously not how nature operates.

Butterflies and Flowers - 1 Hour Nature Meditation with Soothing Music

It goes instead for strength in numbers and diversity; it hedges its evolutionary bets with a profusion of forms. The sheer numbers can defy belief.

Somehow, even in this highly populated and developed suburban jurisdiction, with a several-century history of deforestation and farming, more than 1, native plants have been documented. Every one of those plants harbors its own retinue of native insects, which feed everything else. The closer you look, the more astounding it can get. The entomologist Douglas Tallamy has found species of moths alone on his property.

And there are probably many more out there.

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Tallamy does not live in a remote nature preserve; he lives on a fairly modest acre lot in the Pennsylvania exurbs, where he has judiciously cultivated insect-harboring native plants. The rest of the insect world might be subtler than the gaudy monarch; more time and work are required to get to know it. But that knowledge can open up a richer and more empowering conception of nature than one gets from hanging everything on the success or failure of a single species of butterfly.

This work starts with recognizing the hidden biodiversity that lurks everywhere—under the leaves in our gardens and the bark of our trees, in the soil, and even inside shivering dried-out flower and grass stalks that provide homes for native bees in winter. But we can learn which plants host the most insect species—oak, cherry, and willow top the list in my neck of the woods—and choose them over conventional landscaping fare.

A-Z of butterflies

Complexify, complexify. So where does that leave us with the monarch? Compared with most of the species Tallamy has found in his yard, the monarch butterfly was probably an occasional visitor to this part of the world back when forests dominated. Seeking to preserve the monarch migration means holding on to something that we have, to a large extent, helped create. I view it as the same impulse that drives us to protect farmland from suburban sprawl, or antiquities from decay and destruction.

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I believe the great and, sadly, recently deceased monarch expert Lincoln Brower might even have been hinting at this with his favorite answer to a persistent question: What difference would it make if the monarch migration ended? However, I would argue that, with its endlessly superfluous and stunning and, frankly, often absurd life forms—from speckled and polka-dotted and eyespotted moths to apocalyptically armored beetles to the hundreds of thousands of wasp species that lay eggs inside caterpillars and other insects so that hatching larvae can eat their hosts from the inside—nature has produced a strange and wonderful body of work that outshines even the monarch migration.

And here I think the Mona Lisa analogy suggests a second point: We care about the monarch and its migration not because it is useful to us, but because it is something far more important than useful—it is meaningful, and beautiful, to us.