Why Are Butterflies Important To The Ecosystem?

By Sharon Omondi on December 10 2019 in Environment

An American Lady Butterfly sucking nectar from a flower.

There are more than 28,000 species of butterflies throughout the world. These insects live and breed in diverse habitats such as the mangroves, salt marshes, lowland forested areas, wetlands, mountain zones, and in grasslands. Butterflies tend to be habitat-specific meaning that some of the species will only be found in specific places such as only in the coastal areas or only in the mountain zones. The major role of butterflies in the ecosystem is that of pollination.

Physical Features And Behavior Of Butterflies 

A butterfly is a flying insect with a small body and usually colorful wings. The insect has four developmental stages, namely egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa, and adult. The adult butterfly has two pairs of wings covered with tiny scales. Additionally, they possess three pairs of limbs, a pair of antennae, and compound eyes. Like other insects, the butterfly's body is divided into three parts, the head, thorax, and abdomen. 

Butterflies feed on sugar-rich nectar produced by flowers, succulent interior parts of ripe fruits, and tree sap. They utilize olfactory senses to detect their desired plant and cover wide distances just to reach it. When they are searching for food, butterflies prefer big, colorful flowers that have a landing platform. As they get to such a flower, they gather pollen on their thin, long legs as they siphon nectar with their long tube-like tongues.

The Importance Of Butterflies To The Ecosystem

1. Butterflies are indicators of a healthy environment

Butterflies are also called the wild indicators of an ecosystem. The reason for this is that they can provide a picture regarding the health of an ecosystem at any particular time. Butterflies are naturally responsible for increasing the biodiversity of an ecosystem. An environment that appeals to and attracts butterflies would also be fertile for the growth of plants and serve as a suitable habitat for other animals. Among the animals that are attracted to habitats belonging to butterflies are other invertebrates. 

Butterflies are sensitive to environmental threats such as habitat destruction and climate change. Behavioral changes of a butterfly in an ecosystem or a sudden decline in the population of butterflies in the environment can be a warning of an impending environmental calamity or possible habitat loss for other animals. Due to their sensitivity to the changes in their natural habitat, researchers use butterflies to monitor and observe habitat fragmentation and climate change.

2. Butterflies are plant pollinators

When butterflies visit flowers for nectar-feeding, pollen grains often get attached to their bodies. As they fly from flower to flower, they often deposit the pollen on another plant, allowing fertilization to occur.

3. Butterflies are a source of food to other organisms

Butterflies serve as food to several animals in the ecosystem. Such animals include reptiles and amphibians like birds, bats, ants, mice, scorpions, and other insectivores. A food chain that is intertwined with food sources such as vegetation, herbivores, omnivores, and microorganisms results in necessary nutrient transfer within the ecosystem. The population of butterflies in an ecosystem has a ripple effect on the population of other organisms in the environment. Consequently, the decline in their population in the ecosystem also results in a subsequent decrease in the population of birds, mice, and other animals that rely on them as primary sources of food. An example of an Irish bird that feeds on the butterfly larva is known as Blue Tits. This bird feeds on approximately 50 billion moth caterpillars every year.

4. Butterflies Reduce Pollution

Some species of butterflies help to reduce air pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. High levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide contribute to global warming. Examples of these butterflies are monarch butterflies and caterpillars.

5. Butterflies act as biological pest control

The modern farmers are resorting to the traditional methods of farming which involved the use of natural fertilizers that were made from organic materials like cow dung and plant wastes. This new strategy is emanating from the fact that the inorganic fertilizers have affected soil fertility and some plants have become resistant to them. Rather than use chemical fertilizers that are harmful to both the soil and plants, farmers could also utilize natural pest control such as butterflies. The Hoverfly larvae, a species of butterfly, feed on aphids which attack plants now and then.

Threats To Butterflies In An Ecosystem

The period between 2011 and 2019 has seen a significant decline in the population of butterflies in the world. Some of the reasons attributing to this fact include factors discussed below;

1. Habitat destruction

Butterflies flourish in environments of trees, herbs, and shrubs which are flowery because they rely on nectar for their food. However, most recently such environments are being lost to humans. The surging human population has led to activities such as deforestation, clearing of vegetation to create space for settlement, farming activities, and urbanization. Most of the butterflies are unable to adapt to altered habitat conditions. This implies that the absence of a particular plant species in an area can directly affect the existence of a particular species of butterflies. For example, the coastal Bitterbrush Blue butterfly only exists where the coast bitter-bush (Adriana klotzschii) grows. The sudden disappearance of this plant from its habitat would, therefore, result in the subsequent disappearance of these butterflies from this habitat. Humans are destroying most of the butterfly habitats which is likely to make them starve to death. Butterflies are also at risk of becoming extinct.

2. Heightened use of chemical fertilizers

The wrong use of chemical fertilizers such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides results in the elimination of butterfly species from their natural habitat. A 2015 case study conducted in Florida concluded that the continuous use of pesticides resulted in the decline of butterfly populations. Thus, it is important to monitor the use of these fertilizers; especially in places inhabited by butterflies.

3. Climate change

Climate change that results from global warming affects the population of butterflies. Butterflies are sensitive to extreme weather conditions such as high temperatures, strong winds, and high levels of precipitation. For instance, temperatures above 40°C result in butterflies becoming immobile. They are unable to fly until in that state until their internal body temperatures decrease to around 28°C. They are also unable to engage in activities such as feeding, fleeing from predators, and reproduction when the temperatures are very high. Furthermore, butterflies can also be swept further away from their habitat by strong winds. During rainy seasons, the wings of the butterflies are easily soaked in rainwater leading to difficulties in swimming.

Ways Of Conserving Butterflies 

The discussions herein validate the fact that butterflies are an important part of the ecosystem. To conserve these insects, humans need to deliberately conserve their habitat and minimize air pollution. The first step in doing this would be to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers on farms. Secondly, there is also a need to avoid clearing vegetation and forests since they are the immediate homes or habitats of butterflies. Ceasing to cut down trees and clearing vegetables should be replaced with planting specific native plants that attract butterflies. Thirdly, humans should find ways of minimizing carbon emissions to the atmosphere such us utilizing electric motor cars instead of fuel-driven motor cars, drive less, planting gardens, and eating organic food among other ways. Engaging in these activities results in less carbon footprint, and in turn, preserve the butterflies in the ecosystem.

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