Butterflies were symbols of rebirth – then they started disappearing

|      Dan Zak      |

A LONG time ago, as glaciers retreated from North America, some arctic butterflies stayed behind. The Earth was warming and so they fluttered up mountain slopes, to where it was still cold. As the climate continued to change, the arctic butterflies continued to climb, toward the summits – and then, where?

At the other end of the continent, a tropical butterfly began to pursue milkweed northward, making the journey generation by short-lived generation, branching out toward opportunity, flying and breeding and dying.

At the end of summer a “super generation” would make the entire return journey south, to an ancestral home it had never seen before.

Human beings eventually reached this territory and settled into tribes that lived in communion with the Earth. They had no practical use for the butterflies but saw the mysterious insects as symbols. They signalled a warning, or the harvest of corn. They carried dreams, or the souls of the dead.

Later, Europeans arrived by ship and spread across the land, plundering and claiming it as their own, planting industry and drawing boundaries. The tropical butterfly, the one with the orange-and-black wings, was christened “the monarch”, after an English king.

The climate had brought humans and butterflies into coexistence in the Western Hemisphere, but it was not done changing, because neither were humans.

People joining the Rio Grande Valley Climate March at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas

They made an economy by exploiting the Earth and one another.

They arrived by shipfuls to a new home sight-unseen. They intermingled, tried to live as one new tribe, fought anyway. They built cities, suburbs, highways. They sought knowledge, refined science, supplemented symbolism with data.

Recently, they began to notice something happening with butterflies: They seemed to be disappearing.

And so humans began asking a natural question: What does this mean?

Late last month, there was a meeting in the Putah Creek Lodge on the campus of the University of California at Davis. The topic was the western population of monarch butterflies, the ones that winter on the California coast.

Their numbers had dropped 86 per cent over the past year, to 0.6 per cent of their historical average. This was a problem.

Arthur Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology, was at the meeting. His bushy beard was as dramatic as the file name of his digital slide show, ‘MONARCH JEREMIAD’.

As a solitary child in northwest Philadelphia, Shapiro fled to wooded ravines to escape his parents’ constant combat. Nature became his companion. By fifth grade, he knew that butterflies would be his life. Twenty years later, as a PhD in entomology, Shapiro was hiking through the mountains of northeastern Colombia when the clouds parted and a female reliquia, its white wings shot through with sunlight, passed in front of him. His heart rattled his rib cage. Before he could get his net out, the clouds reconvened and the butterfly was gone. He had never before – not from anything in life – felt such a wallop of adrenaline.

In 2018, as a 72-year-old who’d given his life to butterflies, Shapiro did not see a single monarch caterpillar in the wild.

There’s compelling evidence that pesticides, deforestation and habitat loss are to blame for monarch decline.

Climate change sharpens every threat by altering weather patterns, extending droughts, strengthening storms. It’s easy to conclude, then, that we are responsible.

Shapiro said we don’t fully understand what’s happening to butterflies, but he can’t shake a feeling of responsibility.

“I feel like a doctor who has a patient he’s known his entire life, and the patient is obviously dying, and the doctor and his colleagues have been unable to determine why – so they can’t recommend treatments,” he said.

“It’s a level of frustration where I’m watching things that I love go away, and there’s nothing I can do about it but just stand there.”

There’s mystery in a caterpillar’s metamorphosis, and majesty in the winged creature that emerges from a cocoon, and so humans have used butterflies to make meaning of life, and of change.

The ancient Greeks believed that a butterfly was a human soul, loosed from a deceased body. In China the butterfly can mean both immortality and marriage. For some, the butterfly is a symbol of rebirth. For addicts, it is a symbol of recovery.

Children read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and learn about the transformation of a small, ungainly creature into something full-grown and unbound. On the other side of adolescence, teenagers get butterflies tattooed on their ankles, or wrists, because it just feels right.

Monarch expert Karen Oberhauser helped make the most iconic butterfly a teaching tool in classrooms. “Monarchs,” she said, “make connections between humans and nature in ways that no other insect does.”

They’re alien, but familiar. They’re delicate, but hardy enough to undertake an epic migration.

“They’re just really impressive,” said Director of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum Oberhauser, “and a textbook example of interactions between herbivores and plants, of migration, of interactions between diseases and organisms – all things that increase people’s understanding of the wonders of nature.”

Four years ago, a health-care consultant named Denise Palmer planted milkweed in her small suburban plot in Oklahoma City to attract monarchs. Recently, she looked at her property from the height of Google Earth and saw a shadowy square of nature surrounded by the gray grid of infrastructure, and the red clay of bulldozed land.

It made her understand her piece of Earth the way a butterfly might see it: as a way station on a journey. As part of a whole.

“It’s humbling,” Palmer said. “It’s exhilarating. It’s renewing at an emotional level. Actually, it’s deeper than emotion. It’s a feeling of the soul.”

Insects are the linchpin of ecosystems, and 40 per cent of insect species are in dramatic decline, according to study publishing next month in the journal Biological Conservation. Butterflies are among the most imperiled, and monarchs are the butterfly that people most recognise.

The eastern population of monarchs – the one that winters in Mexico and summers across the United States (US) – rebounded this year, but it is a third the size of the 1996 count. The overall trend is downward.

Each day there are fewer butterflies in the US than the day before, said the molecular biologist Jeffrey Glassberg, founder of the North American Butterfly Association.

That’s hyperbole, some say, but Glassberg is trying to make a point. He’s a man who speaks with stern confidence about what butterflies mean to the environment, about how their health relates to the overall health of the planet.

But when asked what butterflies mean to him, he struggles to find the words. He thinks about his wife, who died a year and a half ago.

“I loved her very, very much,” Glassberg said. “But I didn’t love her because of anything. I have no idea why I loved her. And it’s like that with butterflies.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post