In recent decades, we’ve seen a lot of animal species face population problems due to rapid growth and urban spread of humans everywhere. As a result, many natural habitats have been reduced or have seen a decrease in species’ populations. In the South West of England, there has been a 150-year absence of the large blue butterflies. However, there has now been a reemergence of the butterflies after 750 blue butterfly caterpillars emerged from their cocoons as butterflies. This is such great news!
English biologists are thrilled about the results after having spent five years trying to rebuild the butterfly populations of England’s nine blue butterfly species. It appears that the conservation efforts are having their desired effects. The blue butterfly, also known as Phengaris arion, was first declared extinct in Britain back in 1979. However, private trusts as well as other ecological associations banded together to create the biggest and most successful insect conservation program in the world. From the years of 1984 to 2008, the program saw a return of the large blue butterflies to 30 sites – both previous habitats and new ones as well.
Their most recent project has been in Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons in Gloucestershire. There, conservationists have recorded 750 butterflies were the result of 1,100 butterfly larvae that were released in the area. It’s huge since the insects hadn’t been seen for 150 years. And the good news only gets better since there is now confirmation that the new butterflies have begun to lay eggs.
An area ranger for the Commons, Richard Evans, noted that “Creating the right conditions for this globally endangered butterfly to not only survive but to hopefully thrive has been the culmination of many years work.”
He further added that these insects are quite sensitive, meaning that their sensitivity and needs can be used to study climate change effects in the environment.
So far, the success of the repopulation of these blue butterflies means that it can serve as an example of how delicate the world’s ecosystems are since many plants and animals rely on one another for survival. As pointed out with the “web of life,” it’s not just about saving the butterflies. Those scientists who work at the Butterfly Conservation Trust have also been working hard to organize the conservation of wild thyme and red ants – two plants and fellow insects that are vital to the blue butterfly’s survival within their ecosystem. The wild thyme, as well as marjoram, is the main source of food for the caterpillars of the blue butterflies. Additionally, the red ants happen to symbiotically protect the caterpillars from predators.
David Simcox, a research ecologist and co-author of the Commons management plan, explained the different roles of the plant and ants in a statement according to the BBC, saying, “In the summer when the ants are out foraging, nature performs a very neat trick—the ants are deceived into thinking that the parasitic larva of the large blue is one of their own and carry it to their nest.”
He further added that when this happens, the caterpillars actually go from being herbivores to carnivores! These caterpillars will actually then eat the ant grubs during the autumn and spring months until they’re ready to pupate and become butterflies.
Back in 2014, the Butterfly Conservation Trust managed to pull off a major restoration to the blue butterfly habitat that is in Somerset’s Polden Hills. Part of the restoration included adding more than 100,000 wild thyme plants across seven various sites, including 30 acres of scrubland for red ants. The results meant that there were three re-colonizations of the insects, and that led to a whole new breeding ground being formed. According to Wikipedia, a magazine called Butterfly claims that as of 2019, there were 10 blue butterfly breeding sites in total – a massive leap from the 6 that were back in 2017.
The large blue butterflies aren’t just beautiful to look at, they also serve a very important purpose since they’re a pollinator. The fact that they are making a comeback is a sign of hope, not just for biodiversity in the UK, but for the entire planet.
Anastasia is an American writer and journalist living in Dublin, Ireland. Her Twitter is @AnastasiaArell5.