By Michele S. Byers
New Jersey’s butterflies are some of the most enchanting creatures of summer, with intricate wing patterns and beautiful colors. Even their names are charming.
For example, there’s the Silver-bordered fritillary, Baltimore checkerspot, Acadian hairstreak, Sleepy orange, Frosted elfin, Bronze copper, Green comma, and Pepper and salt skipper.
Sadly, however, the butterflies just mentioned are either declining in New Jersey or already gone.
“We have lost a substantial number since World War II, roughly 10%,” said Wade Wander, a founder of the New Jersey Butterfly Club and one of the state’s leading butterfly experts, along with his wife, Sharon. “The same can be said for moths.”
Wade and Sharon recently presented “Butterflies Lost,” a webinar about the decline of butterflies in New Jersey and what residents can do to help. The presentation was sponsored by the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.
As of the 1940s, New Jersey had 125 butterfly species. Fourteen have since disappeared completely from New Jersey, according to Wade, and another 21 are currently “in trouble.”
The decline of butterflies is part of a larger “insect apocalypse” that has been well publicized in the past few years, starting with a 2017 European study documenting a massive loss of flying insects over a 27-year period on nature preserves in Germany.
Wade and Sharon have seen it play out in New Jersey. They have lived in the same house in Sussex County since 1989 and have kept logs of butterflies spotted on their property for nearly 30 years. At least seven regular visitors are no longer seen.
The Wanders and other members of the New Jersey Butterfly Club also keep track of rare butterfly populations throughout the state.
Why are butterflies disappearing? The Wanders cite several possible reasons:
• A reduction of host plants and nectar plants due to over-browsing by deer. Many butterflies are “specialists,” meaning they depend on only one or two host plant species to provide food for their caterpillars;
• Warming temperatures caused by climate change, which affects habitats. Many of the butterflies found in New Jersey in summer are northern insects at the southern end of their range. Ranges may be shifting northward, leaving New Jersey out of the picture;
• Loss of snow cover protection due to climate change. Several butterfly species overwinter in grasses, and a thick layer of snow can provide an insulating layer to help them survive cold temperatures;
• Invasive, non-native plant species, which crowd out native plants needed by butterflies to survive and reproduce;
• Reforestation of previously open, meadow-like habitats;
• Insecticide and herbicide spraying. Agricultural and lawn care practices that depend on herbicides and insecticides take a heavy toll on the ecology of surrounding landscapes. The collapse of the food web cascades upward from plants to pollinating insects and their caterpillars and eventually to insect-eating birds, resulting in precipitous population declines for dozens of species;
• Changes in how land under power lines – traditionally good, open butterfly habitat – is managed;
• Collectors who capture rare butterflies to add to their personal specimen collections. For this reason, the New Jersey Butterfly Club – whose members photograph butterflies, but do not collect them – are wary of publicizing the locations of rare species.
How can you help protect New Jersey’s butterflies?
First, grow native plants that support butterflies. Remove invasive plants as much as possible. If you have a large lawn, consider turning part of it into butterfly and native pollinator habitat.
“We have friends who have let their yards go to native habitat,” said Wade, noting that this sometimes annoys neighbors who are accustomed to manicured lawns. “But it’s all worth it.”
Not only will you see more butterflies and birds, but you won’t have to mow as much or water as much. The Wanders, for instance, have little lawn remaining after years of planting pollinator habitat.
“Some people attribute it to laziness,” Wade jokes.
You can also help butterflies by avoiding pesticides and urging park managers at the state, county and local levels to maintain open meadows seeded with a native wildflower mix.
And why not join a guided butterfly hike this summer to learn more about New Jersey’s butterflies and the plants and habitats they need to thrive?
The New Jersey Butterfly Club has several walks planned, including three with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation at the Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center in Chester Township, Morris County.
The best resource for “all things butterfly” in this state we’re in is the New Jersey Butterfly Club website at www.naba.org/chapters/nabanj/index.html
There, you will find information on New Jersey butterfly species, butterfly walks near you, and how to create a butterfly garden. It also includes information on New Jersey moths.
If you missed Wade and Sharon’s “Butterflies Lost” presentation, which describes many imperiled species in depth, watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFzjBdUY2O8&list=PLUZK5mW-sMWvl5yAa2snp3pz1QsAwt-W-&index=32
To learn more about identifying and removing invasive plants, go to the New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team website at www.fohvos.info/invasive-species-strike-team
For more information on native plants and which will grow best in your yard, visit the Jersey Friendly Yards website at www.jerseyyards.org or the New Jersey Native Plant Society website at www.npsnj.org
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org