Butterflies aren’t just a beautiful sight, fluttering between flower heads on a sunny summer’s day, they are crucial indicators of the health of our environment.
Alas the majority of UK butterflies and moths are still in major decline, they need constant monitoring and protecting. You can help do just that by taking part in Butterfly Conservation’s annual Big Butterfly Count.
“Butterflies need our help more than ever before,” says Richard Fox, head of recording for Butterfly Conservation.
But by simply spending 15 minutes counting butterflies, you can make a difference.
Marvelling at their colourful patterns and graceful movement is good for the soul
“It isn’t difficult or arduous and it doesn’t cost anything, yet such contributions, by tens of thousands of people help us to assess how the UK’s butterflies are faring,” he says.
And that’s important explains Dr Fox, because butterflies are good indicators for many other species, it helps us to take the pulse of nature.
Public engagement with the project has been phenomenal since it was launched in 2010, rapidly becoming the world’s biggest butterfly survey and a jewel in the crown of UK citizen science projects.
Perhaps it is because people need butterflies too, with many of us increasingly cut off from our native wildlife due to our hectic modern lives.
“Spending quarter of an hour in the sunshine, watching and enjoying butterflies, learning a bit more about them and marvelling at their colourful patterns and graceful movement, is good for the soul,” he said.
The highs and lows
There were quite a few surprises from last year’s results, according to Dr Fox.
“Large white and small white did really badly, which was unexpected after very good numbers the previous year.”
There was also disappointment for the migrant painted lady which has now had five below average years.
But a few species did well, most notably the small tortoiseshell. It continued its fight back, building on good numbers in 2013 by increasing in the number of sightings in 2014.
“This upturn in the past two years has given us new hope for a beautiful and familiar butterfly that has lost almost three-quarters of its UK population since the 1970s,” Dr Fox tells BBC Earth.
Overall, the three most abundant butterflies last year were peacock, gatekeeper and small white. You can get the full breakdown on the Butterfly Conservation website.
By planting suitable flowers you’ll not only have a dazzling display of blooms, but also provide a butterfly banquet
It’s never a bad idea to plant flowers, so during this year’s count the charity, along with its president Sir David Attenborough, is encouraging us to plant some nectar-rich species, providing food for butterflies, moths, bees and other pollinating insects.
And by making our gardens, patios and parks wildlife friendly it may help to offset the declines of butterflies and many other species in the countryside.
“By planting suitable flowers you’ll not only have a dazzling display of blooms, but also provide a butterfly banquet in your borders,” says Dr Fox.
Nectar, he explains, is important to many butterflies and moths. It extends their lifespan, enables them to lay more eggs and gives them the flight fuel they need to find mates, or even migrate to a different continent.
You don’t need a garden as they can be planted in pots and put on window ledges. Try varieties such as catmint, lavender and cranesbill for example, they will attract a range butterflies including red admirals, brimstones and the whites.
Last August was awful for butterflies, but after a warm spring and early summer, let’s hope it’s a different story this year
Anywhere will do! From simply sitting in the garden or local park to walking in a meadow or forest, they all count – and don’t forget, even if you don’t see any it’s still just as important a result and needs recording. What's even better is that you can submit sightings on different days and from different places.
You can only submit your sightings online or via the smartphone app for iOS and Android.
This year Dr Fox predicts that the peacock will do well again and so should the small tortoiseshell as their numbers were very good in early spring. He expects painted ladies to have their best Count result since 2010, while the next generation of holly blues should be emerging at just the right time.
But he says that the large and small white may continue to struggle. After a bad year in 2014, numbers were still low this spring.
“A lot will depend on the weather, of course. Last August was awful for butterflies, but after a warm spring and early summer, let’s hope it’s a different story this year.”
And don’t forget to join in the conversation and share your sightings using #ButterflyCount on social media.