“Where are the bees and butterflies?”
This is a question that has come up in August for at least the past couple of years. It comes from friends and colleagues who spend time outdoors, especially those who garden. It used to be that we would discuss the overabundance of pests – explosions of brown marmorated stinkbugs, flea beetles, and aphids. Those may still be problems, but now they seem overshadowed by the absence of pollinators, specifically honeybees and monarchs. The question catches me off guard every time, and I find myself quickly riffling through a mental catalog of recent images to see if bees and butterflies really have declined there. I realize as I do this that my catalog – my awareness of this particular sector of biodiversity – probably does not give an accurate reckoning. Just looking at the photographs I’ve taken confirms it. I love photographing pollinators, but honeybees account for a tiny proportion of my images. Instead, there are other types of bees, syrphid flies, ichneumon wasps, moths, ants, and myriad other bugs. Butterflies are certainly a favorite focus, but among these prevail the tiny hairstreaks and blues, the buckeyes and fritillaries. Honeybees and monarchs do get their share of attention, but only in certain quintessential moments: the first honeybee with loaded pollen sacs, delving into the first spring blossoms, the striped monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed, its black antennae waving wildly, or an adult’s orange wings a bold beacon flashing among meadow grasses.
People who study pollinators will tell you that honeybees and monarch butterflies are not the most critical for sustaining the biodiversity of flowering plants. But as commonly cultivated species, they have become charismatic pollinator poster children. This fall, a family that raises butterflies at their home brought in several monarch caterpillars in a rearing chamber so that students could watch their metamorphosis. They performed beautifully, eating their milkweed and then climbing to the top of the chamber to affix themselves into dangling J-shapes before almost instantly transforming into lovely jade-green chrysalises. A week or so later, again in the blink of an eye, they popped out of those cases to pump and spread their wings. It is a privileged and wondrous moment to behold. Watching the faces of children who witness this transformation, who let the butterfly step onto their finger and feel that nearly weightless being lift into first flight, is to see an indelible impression being made.
Is the captive rearing of species such as honeybees and monarchs a best practice for sustaining biodiversity? Is it any different from celebrating the recent birth of a giant panda in the National Zoo? To me, the question is less about the well-being of these species, and more about whether the attention they receive detracts from others that are perhaps less appealing, but are vital pieces of a larger puzzle whose full picture is still being described. What about the striking saddleback caterpillar with venomous spines that we watch out for in the woods? What about the plump orange milkweed bug nymphs huddling on the milkweed leaves?
When the last of the donated monarch butterflies had emerged and flown, the parent who had loaned us the rearing setup came to retrieve it. She saw that one chrysalis still hung there, mostly green, but with one dark blotch. “Oh, that one will produce a parasitic grub,” she said. “You should just destroy it.” I thanked her and asked to keep it a few days longer. That puzzle isn’t finished quite yet.