Count butterflies to find out about the state of nature.
Interested in butterfly citizen science projects? We’ve got you covered!
From next Saturday 19 July until Sunday 10 August 2014, the Big Butterfly Count will take place in the UK. This citizen science project is organized by Butterfly Conservation UK and can boast being the largest butterfly count in the world.
The Big Butterfly Count was born in 2010, as Butterfly Conservation UK was keen to attract a wider audience of “butterfly newbies” to participate in one of their projects. For many years, this organization has been staging multiple projects to observe butterflies in the UK, but participation requires not only a deep knowledge of different butterfly species and understanding of their behavior, but also the commitment to go out and count butterflies on a regular basis.
As explained by Richard Fox, from Butterfly Conservation UK, the team felt the need to develop a project more suited to a one-off observation that could be done as a family or by schools, and didn’t assume any background knowledge about butterflies – in essence, a citizen science project! All participants have to do is go out on a sunny day to count and identify the butterflies they see during 15 minutes, then log their results online or via an app. The project focuses on 21 common species of butterflies and moths, and participants can download an easy to follow identification chart to help them work out the species they’ve spotted.
Since it started, the number of participants has been steadily increasing and over 46,000 people spotted 833,000 butterflies and moths in 2013, representing a four-fold increase compared to the previous year. Last year’s bright and sunny days meant considerably more butterflies were detected than in 2012, when bad weather had a strong negative impact on numbers. The “whites” (large white and small white butterflies) managed to dethrone the “browns” from being the most spotted types of butterflies, but the overall trend for virtually all species was up.
The fact that weather affects butterfly numbers is not surprising; many observations going back many years – not only through the Big Butterfly Count but through other projects as well – allows researchers to analyze tendencies and understand the impact of climate change on wildlife. Results showed that 2013, despite being considerably better than 2012, was merely an average year when compared to data from the 70s and 80s. Butterflies in the UK have been on a downward path for the last 10 years, both in terms of abundance and distribution across the country.
To assess the long-term impact on butterfly and moth numbers, Butterfly Conservation UK is keen to continue with the Big Butterfly Count, to find out whether butterflies are able to go back to those record-breaking days or if, even with a good summer, numbers will never the same due to their changing habitat. The organization emphasizes the importance of assessing butterfly population, describing it as “taking the pulse of nature”. As these insects are able to respond very quickly to changes in the environment, even a small drop in numbers can be seen as an early warning sign for further biodiversity losses.
While working side-by-side with the general public, Fox found the experience very rewarding, receiving many positive comments from participants so far. Butterfly Conservation UK hopes this project can work as a stepping stone for some of the most dedicated participants, motivating them to progress to more detailed projects and become regular contributors.
So, if you happen to be in the UK during the counting period, why not go for a bit of butterfly spotting? You can do it sitting down in a park (just make sure you don’t count the same butterfly twice!) or going for a walk in the woods, whichever you prefer.
Looking for ways to count butterflies? Check out the SciStarter project finder.
Image: Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.