The Birds and the Bees and the Butterflies

Why do we care about the extinction of seemingly meaningless species across the planet? It seems like a simple question with obvious answers of decreased biodiversity and alteration of the food chain for that particular ecosystem. The biggest truth behind our interest in these species dying off is that they play a major role in indicating environmental changes that we might not see. Indicator species are species chosen for their sensitivity to specific characteristics of the environment they live in. This is typically reflected in the species’ abundance or absence. Species can range from insects to mammals and are used to measure a variety of environmental characteristics. Some of the most prominent categories of indicator species today include birds, bees, and butterflies.

woodpecker 2

Figure 2: Red-cockaded woodpecker habitation in the United States

Birds acting as indicator species are the most noticeable to communities as flocks diminish in presence. Birds as a class “Aves” key us into a multitude of environmental changes in their respective ecosystems. Birds like the red-cockaded woodpecker are useful indicators of habitat quality as they have specific nesting requirements. These requirements of tree trunk diameter, tree species, and available food sources are effected by deforestation, pollution in the ecosystems, and climate change. Other signs of habitat insufficiency that birds are often used to indicate are water quality and food sources dying off (decreased biodiversity). Pollution, particularly in the form of DDT and heavy metals, is apparent in the population’s health and growth due to the effects they have on shell strength and metals found in feather samples.

bee population

Figure 1: Number of bee colonies (in millions) in the United States over time

Bees are an obvious indicator as we frequently hear about their declining numbers. Bees are responsible for about $30 billion in crops each year because they pollinate 70/100 crops that feed the world. While there would be a massive decrease in food production and population decline would ripple up the food chain, we would also lose a vital indicator of high concentrations of heavy metals in an area and pesticide use. Bee population decrease is being caused by increasing temperatures due to climate change, pesticide use, and the invasive, parasitic Varroa mite.

butterfly pop

Figure 3: Butterfly population in Mexico based on hectare occupation

Butterflies are the most sensitive of indicator species making them the best-monitored insects. The temperature of their surroundings makes a huge difference in when they migrate, reproduce, and even die. Just 1*C difference in temperature of the environment can effect migration patterns by days. Temperatures above 35*C (95*F) can prove lethal, and drought means that eggs do not hatch. Sensitivity to temperature alone proves butterflies vital to monitoring subtle changes in climate. Butterflies’ sensitivity to pesticide use, drought, and habitat loss clue scientists in to other human-caused problems.

President Obama issued a memorandum in 2014 to create the Pollinator Health Task Force to promote health of and protect pollinator species in the United States. This lead to state legislature creating their own “Pollinator Protection Act”s to guide the agriculture industry to decrease use of neonicotinoid pesticides, develop new seed planting technologies, and curb herbicide usage in monarch butterfly habitats as well as promoting use of new Varroa mite control products. States that have created PPAs of their own include Maryland, Oregon, California, and more.

While these recent implementations have so far proven effective, President Trump might delay progress made in protecting these pollinators, specifically bees. The endangered rusty patch bumblebee, a key North American pollinator, was the target of a recovery plan from the US Fish and Wildlife Service back in February, but President Trump put a freeze on its entry to the endangered species list and regulations to begin to recovery of the bee. The freeze was lifted, and the recovery plans were implemented, but it still caused environmentalists fear for the future of the insect.

Is it possible that more policy similar to the Pollinator Protection Act and programs like the Pollinator Health Task Force could have success in protecting indicator species in the United States and worldwide? What kind of an effect do you anticipate these pollinator policies having on future policy regarding climate change, water/soil safety, etc?



17 thoughts on “The Birds and the Bees and the Butterflies

  1. I have always heard of bees being an indicator species and even butterflies, but not birds. I think it is unfortunate that these species are likely to receive help to survive in the near future based on recent policy developments. It goes to show you that the impact policy has on the environment can really harm populations of animals and insects. Thanks for sharing.


  2. I have heard of birds being an indicator species based on where they flock and live. When I lived in North Carolina as a child, there was a family of red-cockaded woodpeckers in my backyard (which was not uncommon, as they were native to that particular area), and every morning they would wake me up pecking on our trees and our neighbor’s trees. After moving, my family and I would visit this house every year to catch up with old neighbors and friends. Recently, that area of North Carolina has had a population increase because of massive business growth within the area. After this booming economy, I have noticed that the birds are not in that particular area anymore. In fact, my neighbors have complained about the loss of these birds around the neighborhood. When I read this article, I immediately thought of my experience in North Carolina.


  3. This was a very interesting post. I have heard a lot about bees being endangered and their importance but haven’t heard much about butterflies. I didn’t realize how sensitive butterflies were to temperature change. What I do know is that no matter what the reason we want these creatures around, them dying off is bad. I believe a lot of this has to do with the massive use of pesticides. Maybe if we can reduce the use of chemicals we can stop the decline.


  4. It is crazy to think about how little insects like bees can have such a profound impact on the world we live in. I haven’t thought of them, or birds and butterflies for that matter, as indicator species, but after reading your post it really makes sense. I would love to see a big movement by farmers or agricultural communities to help save the bees, or maybe have hives on their farms. A little extra work for a lot of benefit.


  5. I think its very important that we protect these species because of the role they play in ecosystems and the dependency we have on them for pollinating agricultural crops. I think these methods can work when they are implemented widely enough but it will also take more stringent methods to bring these species back.


  6. It’s not only birds and bees that can illustrate the ongoing effects of climate change. Mammalian and certain tree species migrations are actually some of the most studied examples. One of the most explicit examples is the Red Oak, who is struggling to survive in the South without prominent winters.

    Pollinator policies can only really be a fruitful method of restoring pollinators if enacted locally with education funded. It’s not just the butterflies and pretty honeybees. Pollinators include the beetles, wasps, yellowjackets, moths and hundreds of minor bee species we flee or try to swat on a daily basis. The honeybee is so well known, because it is the most efficient pollinator (aka we mass produce honey bees in agriculture and in pop culture). Using the millions of backyards in suburbs and grassed highway medians to our advantage with native plantings are the best way to recover or bolster native pollinators.

    If you’re curious, walk out into the Driftmier Courtyard this week. The Camellias are blooming with wonderful pink and white flowers! Checkout whose all over them: bees and wasps pollinating like crazy.


  7. The good thing about these selected species is that they could all be candidates for being a charismatic species. “Save the bees” is already a fairly popular phrase. I see the protection movement gaining momentum in time. Current legislature has not set any long-lasting policies that would hinder the protection of these indicator species. We can only hope it continues this trend as I don’t see any potential for proactive and developmental policies being set in place in the current administration.


  8. This shows how interconnected things can be in the environment, and how easily we can impact it. The PPA’s seem like a good idea, but its hard for farmers to see the monetary returns immediately. The long term effects greatly outweigh the upfront costs, but what if those upfront costs put the farmers out of business because harvests are reduced/costs go up.


  9. I think in general policy can always have some sort of effect. That being said it matters how the policy is laid out. These policies should have a direct effect on climate change. These sorts of species effect the environment in huge ways. It is interesting that birds are indicator species.


  10. I think all species affect us in some way or another. In ecology, we learned that biodiversity of species is like the rivets on a plane. Some of them are redundant. You can pull out a rivet and the plane s still functions. The issue is nobody knows exactly how many rivets you can lose before the plane falls apart. We are the plane, how many more species can we lose before the earth stops functioning. We are so intertwined with everything around us that it may be sooner than we think


  11. I think this is another issue that requires effort on the part of more than just us. It doesn’t matter how attentive and active the US is of it is only the US. Issues like this require the efforts of many countries working together.


  12. I have heard about the decrease of the bee population but wasn’t aware of indicator species and how we can use these to help tell us more about the effects on the environment. I believe this is an important issue, however,I am worried that due to a wide variety of issues today, that attention might be turned elsewhere before it gets to addressing this issue. It is important to spread education on this though to make everyone more aware of the importance of the bee population and other indicator species


  13. It has only been in college that I have begun to learn about indicator species, which may speak to how much of a recent and urgent concern it has become. Bees stand out to me as the most important indicator species we need to protect, simply because our food production would plummet and the resulting sociopolitical consequences would be unprecedented. It would be great to see a rise in independent bee farms or a greater collective movement by the agricultural industry to push for federal and private protection of bees.


  14. I think policy protecting these species can be very successful. We have successfully remediated certain species’ population through restoration efforts, so I think if we start early, then we can change the course. Since we can see the direct impact that bees have on our food production, I think that we will have more incentive to save and restore their populations.


  15. I liked the point that Micheal made about all of the mention species being “charismatic.” I think pollinator protection plans will be much more successful with the honeybee as a mascot than a wasp. For these plans to really make a difference in monitoring the status of indicator species and preventing their decline I think that they’ll have to encompass more than just the “cute” or recognizable species. While it’s much easier to rally people behind monarch butterflies than the flying terrors with stingers they are equally necessary to monitor and preserve.


  16. I have heard before about being able to determine environmental changes by studying the populations of bees and butterflies, but I had not heard about studying bird populations before. It sounded as though the population sizes are what is studied, but could they or do they also study the change of location that migratory birds travel to. It seems as though that could be a telling study as well.


  17. I think one positive that has resulted from this situation is that awareness has spread about the issue. Most people I know, whether liberal or conservative, recognize that there is a problem with decreasing populations of pollinators. I believe the widespread knowledge of this issue will help in the prevention of their extinction. For example, they have planted flowers all along 316 in order to help pollinators. Hopefully this movement will continue to push people to take actions toward preventing their disappearance.


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