Bavarian Butterflies Disappearing

CC BY 2.0. digital cat

What childhood would be complete without lazy summer days watching the butterflies dance, admiring the rainbow of colors and gentle gestures of the magnificent wings as they rest on a flowery perch?

And what person in middle age or over can question that insects are disappearing? Compare your memories of scrubbing the windshield after a drive over country roads a couple of decades ago with the current times.

The topic is making news in Germany, where the SPD (Germany's strongest opposition party) is turning butterflies into a campaign theme ahead of the elections to be held in September. The publicity has raised the profile of the disturbing statistics once relegated to news followed mostly by scientists, TreeHuggers, and butterfly afficionados.

The newspapers reporting about the work of SPD members like Barbara Hendricks, Minister of the Environment, and Florian von Brunn, a member of the Bavarian parliament, acknowledge that the issue reflects a degree of political manipulation.
But they are having a hard time dismissing the stark reality of the facts:

  • a scientific study reported in 2016 that 117 butterfly and diurnal moth species were recorded in 1840. Only 71 were recorded between 2010 and 2013, a drop of over 40%
  • Andreas Segerer, Chief of the Bavarian Zoo, told Bavarian radio BR24 that the number of butterflies in Germany's southern state has dropped by over 90%, and
  • the effect is not limited to one German State, as the European Environment Agency also reports dramatic declines in populations of monitored butterflies.

Scientists studying the phenomenon attribute the collapsing butterfly populations and biodiversity decline largely to over-fertilization. Nitrogen enrichment of soils favors the growth of weeds like dandelions, thistles, and sorrel over the species required by the butterflies as part of their reproductive cycle.

Pesticides and the reduction of connected natural areas also play roles in the disaster. In fact, the study cited at the top of the list above found that nature preserves designed specifically to protect species diversity and populations are ineffective. Nature does not respect the lines humankind has drawn up for it.

The issue may sound petty. What do a few pretty insects count against the economic and social problems of the world? But it should not be shrugged off: insects form an important part of overall food chains and their loss could lead to collapses of more important species. In particular, feeding the human population requires the pollination activities of these insects. The situation also suggests that anthropogenic alterations of our environment can have widespread implications for the species around us.

Unless we want to say "bye, bye butterflies" the topic deserves attention from our governing bodies and support of the people. Making it a campaign issue can't hurt. But will it help?