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The Butterflies and The Bees | Kris Sales

Part I. On the importance of insects

A year ago my anxiety over my PhD applications ended with an offer to stay at UEA to tackle the question ‘Does male-specific infertility explain butterfly shifts under climate warming?’ However, since first year of my undergrad I have been particularly fascinated by insects generally. Rather than me grasping for words on why, I think quotes from prominent enthusiasts dotted throughout this post sum it up.

‘To a good approximation, all species are insects’ - Robert May, quoted in Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1989)

The hyperbolic quote and quick infographic I made probably sum up the most basal reason for why they are so important. There are so many of them. The current best estimates of living species richness is likely to fall between 5 and 9 million however, only 1.9 have been described. It’s not entirely clear why the group are so mega diverse, perhaps it is a combination of an ancient lineage with few extinctions and key plastic features like flight and metamorphosis.

‘I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?’ - Zhuangzi. Taoist philosopher, 3rd century BC

This quote is a little a bit deep for me, but interpret it as a commentary on the mystery and vanity of existence. What I find so fascinating are ancient examples like this showing people being enthralled by insects like butterflies. Throughout history they have been given names like ‘Admiral’ and ‘Emperor’ and have been used as a symbol of purity, peace and elegance. Butterfly conservation has an extensive essay on the aesthetic and intrinsic importance of butterflies. I am sure all interest groups have analogies. This remains strong despite modern distractions; there are 10 000 butterfly recorders working every week on over 850 sites in the UK alone. Moreover the moth recording scheme now has 14 million records!

‘If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos’ - E. O. Wilson

That’s a pretty good, albeit vested, reason for us to take interest in insects. In 2006 general ecosystem services like nutrient recycling and pest control are thought to be worth $57 billion to the US. In the UK, 20% of our crops are dependent on insect pollinators as is 10% of the world food supply. Many important scientific advances were inspired by insects; see this old magazine cutting and a video about work at UEA to isolate antibiotics from colonies of leaf cutter ants which farm fungi. They are a staple for many iconic species that we enjoy; in Britain and Ireland Blue Tits eat an estimated 50 billion moth caterpillars each year. Who knows maybe the West will even overcome the stigma of eating insects

Unfortunately conserving butterflies is a monumental challenge; there is a growing consensus that we are facing a sixth mass extinction with estimates up to a third of species disappearing by 2050.

Academics like Diamond and Wilson have often framed antagonists to biodiversity as the four horsemen which ominously reverberates in the media. Historically we thought of these as habitat destruction, over-exploitation, pollution and invasive species. Yet there is a relatively new threat transcending all political and geographic boundaries; climate change. As Seth Thomas has already explained in a previous post and I plan on expanding on species responses in future posts, so stay tuned…


Markham, P. The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals

Barnosky, A. D. et al. (2011). “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?”. Nature 471: 7336

Breezes,T.D., Bailey, A.B. Balcombec, K.G. Potts, S.G 2011. Pollination services in the UK: How important are honeybees?

Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 142: 137– 143 Costello, Mark; Robert May; Nigel Stork (25 January 2013). “Can we name Earth’s species before they go extinct?”. Science 339 (6118): 413–416.

Koh, L.P., Dunn, R.D., Sodhi, N.S., Colwell, R.K., Proctor, H.C., and Smith, V.S. 2004. Species co-extinctions and the biodiversity crisis. Science 305: 1632-4.

May, R.M. 1988. How Many Species are There on Earth? Science 241 (4872): 1441-1449.

Moller, H.G. 1999. Zhuangzi’s “Dream of the Butterfly”: A Daoist Interpretation. Philosophy East and West 49 (4): 439-450 Lose, J.E. Vaguen, M. 2006.

The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects. Bioscience 56 (4)

Sweet love, L. Number of species on Earth tagged at 8.7 million. Nature. Macmillan Publishers Limited.



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