When the Familiar Vanishes


Adonis Blue

This article is taken from the Winter 2011 issue of I, Science.

Are we in a post-butterfly era? Kevin Edge explores the role amateur contributions could play in saving the British butterfly population.

Mid-winter, many like to recall warm summer days when meadow, wood and cliff walks are alive with countless flowers, bees and butterflies. Yet, is the abundant wildlife inhabiting our daydreams exaggerated; warped by the warmth of childhood, or memories of holidays in hotter latitudes? The reality of UK butterfly numbers presents a different picture; population declines in the UK’s 59 butterfly species are now of major concern. It is time to wake up and act before the only butterflies left are those in our mind’s eye.

Could a lay butterfly enthusiast like me from a non-science background help? Could I leave the familiarity of a lecturing career to do more than renew charity subscriptions or count Large Whites circling the cabbages? This article is about a personal leap of faith into a world of science and vanishing beauty.

My jump from the arts did entail preliminary steps. I had contemplated the compulsive pleasures of butterflies when walking in Dorset, away from the grind of my PhD. There, in the field, the immediacy of electric blue ‘shocks’ – diffracted light from the wings of Adonis Blues (Lysandra bellargus) – became addictive as these butterflies patrolled their grassy beats.

I became an eco-tourist too, helping experts confirm the presence of four large blue butterfly species in Hungary’s Őrség National Park. Last year I jumped, leaving my art school job behind for Imperial’s MSc in Science Communication. Here, as a student and lay enthusiast in a culture of science, I intend to prepare for a life in ecology.

At a 2008 butterfly survival zones event, Butterfly Conservation President and wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough warned that “scientists fear that in some areas we’re entering a post-butterfly era.” Extreme perhaps, but when did you last see more than an odd butterfly or two crossing your path? Yes, annual populations fluctuate due to weather and species hot-spots exist, but three decades of detailed UK transect records present a bleak reality of long-term population falls. According to the national Big Butterfly Count, last year many UK species numbers were down on 2010 – including a 29% drop for Large Whites, and a drastic 61% for the Common Blue.

Science writer James Hamilton-Paterson observes that “Homo is an aesthetic animal” that feels “diminution when the familiar vanishes.” He adds that “each generation adapts to an impoverished world, but for the first time people are conscious of having to make do with remains.”

Entomology has a distinguished history of amateur contributions. Is this still true today? Can there be co-operation between enthusiastic professional entomologists, habitat managers and enthusiastic amateurs?

Involvement of passionate amateurs in some capacity remains necessary. Lay hands and keen eyes in the field can supplement research in labs, conferences and journals. Precedent for mass amateur participation, or ‘citizen science’ experimentation, has already been set. Last year, the Big Butterfly Count involved a record 34,000 volunteers who logged 322,000 butterflies and day-flying moths. Implementation of 20 UK landscape-scale butterfly zones will no doubt need a specialist-enthusiast axis to monitor, restore habitat and encourage ecological literacy across regional communities.

Butterflies are now more than beautiful phenomena. They are also official UK biodiversity indicators for the government, alongside birds. While there is still plenty to enjoy, there is a great deal to do. Work need not be confined to helping charismatic butterflies. Appreciation and study of insects can extend to dragonflies or getting more ‘beastly’: working with invertebrate conservationists Buglife. June 25 2012 marks the start of National Insect Week, so why not go to nationalinsectweek.co.uk and get involved?

Image: Kevin Edge

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