June 17, 2024

The U.S. Government Wants Your Dead Butterflies

Got any dead butterflies lying around? Consider sending them to the U.S. government.

Officials with the United States Geological Survey, an agency that conducts research on environmental risks, are asking residents in six states to mail in dead butterflies, moths and skippers to help scientists research the causes of the fluttering insects’ population decline, the agency said last week.

Residents in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas are being asked to help contribute to the establishment of the Lepidoptera Research Collection, which will be a national storehouse, based in Kansas, of butterflies, moths and other species categorized as Lepidoptera.

Citizens can see their submissions in an online registry, and the submitted specimens will be available to federal scientists for any research they hope to conduct. The scientists will test the insects for contaminants and other environmental factors.

“I knew that, when I said it out loud, there was no guarantee that it might work,” said Julie Dietze, a physical scientist at the U.S.G.S. based in Kansas, who came up with the idea for the nationwide call to action.

“But what if it does work? That would be really cool because then you’ve got people really engaged in citizen science.”

The agency has received roughly a hundred submissions since the pilot program kicked off in April, a modest but encouraging sum, Ms. Dietze said. She hoped it would ramp up.

Insects, the ballast of food chains and essential pollinators that help nourish entire ecosystems, are in rampant decline across the world.

That worrying trend extends to lepidopterans. The beloved monarch butterfly, an ornate, orange-winged insect that is a focus of the U.S.G.S. study, is an endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international body that monitors the status of species. Over the past 20 years, monarch butterflies’ numbers in the United States have plummeted by 90 percent, a decline of 900 million insects, according to scientists.

The butterflies’ precipitous drop is likely a result of multiple factors, including climate change, habitat loss and the rampant use of pesticides, said Arthur Shapiro, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of California, Davis, who has spent decades researching the decline of Lepidoptera.

One potential culprit was a group of widely used insecticides known as neonicotinoids, he said.

“In long-term monitoring,” Dr. Shapiro said butterfly declines “coincide in time with the implementation of neonicotinoids in agriculture. And the same coincidence — if that’s what it is — has been observed in the U.K. and in Europe.”

Dr. Shapiro said scientists had long studied butterflies to glean broader insights into ecological processes such as habitat loss that are of serious consequence to humans.

“They are a proverbial canary in the coal mine,” he said. “If butterflies are in trouble, it suggests a lot of things are in trouble.”

Dr. Shapiro noted that recent heat waves had probably killed many of the butterflies people would be sending in. He was supportive of “anything that sheds some light on what is actually going on” with butterflies. But he cautioned that the study would most likely shed light on insect-specific factors of population decline such as pesticides, as opposed to environmental ones like heat waves and habitat loss.

Ms. Dietze said researchers at the U.S.G.S. were expected to test the butterflies and moths for contaminants such as the herbicide glyphosate, as well as neonicotinoids. The deadline for the mail-in orders is Nov. 1, but if the program gains traction, say, among butterfly enthusiasts and high school classrooms, Ms. Dietze had hopes the agency could extend the program indefinitely, with its scope expanding to other states and insects.

The six states in the pilot program were chosen in part because they sit in the migratory pathway for the Eastern monarch butterfly, which begins east of the Rocky Mountains and ends south, after a 3,000-mile journey, in central Mexico.

Residents in the six qualifying states can put their dead butterflies and moths inside a resealable plastic bag and send them in a sealed envelope to the collection center in Lawrence, Kan., according to the U.S.G.S. flier. Damaged butterflies or partial bits are accepted, though the specimens must be larger than 2 inches. The flier asks residents to freeze the bugs to preserve them if they are not shipped within three days.

When Cindy Chrisler posted the U.S.G.S. flier in a Facebook group of Texas environmental volunteers in June, it garnered a group record of over 4,000 post impressions.

“That’s the highest number we’ve ever had on a post,” she said.

Ms. Chrisler, 64-year-old plant enthusiast from Georgetown, Texas, had mailed in two lunate zale moths she had found around the house and one butterfly, a gulf fritillary with a damaged wing that she had spotted in July in her garden near a patch of yellow passionflowers.

“I thought, ‘Well, here, I’m going to have something I can actually send in,’” she said.

Ms. Chrisler said she saw the U.S.G.S. program as a citizen science project that could empower people “who may not be scientifically trained to do research, but can still contribute to the overall knowledge.”

The federal project also resonated with her own findings.

For three years, Ms. Chrisler has conducted butterfly surveys in Spicewood, about 50 miles northwest of Austin, as part of a citizen science project run by the Texas Butterfly Monitoring Network. When she began her surveys in July 2021, she frequently spotted the dainty sulphur — a delicate, yellow-winged butterfly native to North America, she said.

Nowadays, she hardly sees that particular species. In her survey notes in July, she recorded finding six species and a total of 40 butterflies, a “significant decline” from the 134 species and 100 butterflies she logged two years prior, she said.

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