My internship at the Wilds began at the start of June and every week I surveyed butterflies and flowering plants in various restored prairies. The first few weeks were a very steep learning curve where all I could think about was trying to figure out what species each butterfly was before it flitted out of sight. It was stressful and the surveys took a lot of concentration.
As the summer continued, I became familiar with the common species, my surveys became much more enjoyable, and I began to look forward to seeing my favorite species. I loved seeing the tiny eastern tailed blue butterflies that would flutter around my feet and the silver spotted skippers that would cluster on purple bergamot flowers. The butterfly I wanted to see the most though, was a Monarch. Monarchs are the one species that everyone (including myself) is familiar with. I knew they were an iconic species and all I wanted was to see just a single one fly past.
Therefore, I will never forget the day I saw my first Monarch butterfly. I was trekking through the prairies as usual when I saw a beautiful and magnificent monarch glide over my head. It was absolutely beautiful and I remember whipping out my camera when I saw it land on a milkweed. It was amazing. Not only did I finally see a Monarch but I saw it land on a milkweed—the infamous plant essential for their survival.
When I got back to the office, I told all my fellow interns about the Monarch and I showed them the video I took of it feeding. However, when my director heard that today—in the middle of July—was the first day I saw a Monarch, she was sad rather than happy.
The summer I was at the Wilds had the lowest number of Monarch butterflies recorded for a summer so far. Over the previous five years, the number of Monarchs recorded had been steadily declining. My happiest moment had become one of the most heart-wrenching.
Butterflies are so small that they are often overlooked. They are creatures that we all recognize yet care very little about. Many people see them flutter through their yard or through fields and although they see them as beautiful, they do not see them as essential.
Butterflies are essential keystone species. They are key pollinators in many habitats such as prairies, savannas, wetlands, and even forests. Butterflies are also indicators of the health of an ecosystem because they are very sensitive to pollutants and toxins. Also, butterflies are very good indicators of the floral diversity in an ecosystem. The results of my study clearly showed that areas with a larger number of flowering plants will have more butterflies. It’s as simple as that.
I began my internship at the Wilds completely ignorant of how important and amazing butterflies truly are. Like many people, I hardly even acknowledged butterflies. I thought they were pretty but I never thought any deeper than that. Over the summer, I gained a deep appreciation for these tiny critters and I realized that I had so much left to learn. However, I am proud to say that now when I see a butterfly flit past while I am out in the field I don’t just see a pretty insect–I see a creature that is essential. I see a creature that is small but mighty.