Published August 30th, 2023 at 6:00 AM5 minute read
The Tennessee woman knew something was dreadfully wrong with the deformed black swallowtail butterfly spotted near a long-vacant field.
Its hind wings were shriveled.
Just this year the field was covered with corn and treated with chemicals farmers routinely deploy.
In response, she emailed a Kansas scientist about a landmark, newly launched study of the collapse of butterfly populations.
Julie Dietze as a University of Kansas undergraduate in 1997 started working in the labs of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), now in a squat, nondescript office a few miles west of KU’s Allen Fieldhouse.
She is ecstatic about the project she has launched, eager each day to open dozens of letters with bagged deceased butterflies — sometimes accompanied by signed wistful missives, even though she has encouraged the senders to keep things anonymous.
She treats each letter as a treasure map that will lead her and potentially other scientists around the country towards a better understanding of collapsing insect populations.
Dietze works out of the USGS office also known as the Kansas Water Science Center, an organic geochemistry research lab bristling with equipment used to study the negative impact of organic chemicals on the environment, creatures and humans.
Fully 40% of all insect populations are declining and one-third are endangered, according to a 2018 report in Biological Conservation. Half a million insect species are under threat of extinction in coming decades, according to a United Nations study.
The most obvious cause would be the loss of natural habitat as forests and wetlands give way to cities and farms.
But could other factors be at work?
Dietze and her associates dreamed up a bold initiative they consider a “citizen science” project that would creatively solve a conundrum confronting them. Researchers have difficulties gathering enough dead insects from diverse locations to scientifically study the die-off.
She singled out butterflies for study because those lovely flitting dabs of color bring a smile to just about everyone. The insects have long captivated humankind as symbols of rebirth and the transience of life going as far back as 300 B.C., when Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhoug wrote “Dreams of Being a Butterfly.”
Dietze focused on six states — Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Alabama — along the migratory path of long threatened monarch butterflies, where corn is grown and near animal feedlots. Scientists want to study the presence of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and mycotoxins in the butterflies in those states.
The pilot project was launched in April and will last until November. But it could be extended if a broad response calls for it.
“I’d love in 2024 to open to 10 more states,” Dietze said.
After a sprinkling of news reports early on, the project was covered by The New York Times in late July: “The U.S. Government Wants Your Dead Butterflies.”
Since then, 300 butterflies have floated in through the mail, most from the target states and some from beyond. All are being used as Dietze hopes to bring in 1,000 or more, a critical mass for the study.
It takes about 24 butterflies to generate 5 grams of material to be carefully analyzed by scientists like Daniel Tush, a chemist expert in liquid chromatography mass spectrometry. The USGS hopes to reduce the sample size required for each analysis as the project proceeds.
We live in an age when the verities of science and the scientific method has been held up to question and mired in politics.
“This is an opportunity for the public to learn about community science,” Dietze said.
She has signed up to do virtual classroom visits to schools in Birmingham, Alabama, and Ada, Oklahoma, as well as the campus of the University of Georgia. She has a goal of enlisting an army of volunteers eager to send deceased, non-endangered species of butterflies her way.
Chip Taylor, who founded Monarch Watch while a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, conferred with Dietze about the USGS butterfly study, which he enthusiastically endorses.
“It’s not just about butterflies,” he cautioned. “It’s about the general insect collapse.”
Many blame climate change and the loss of natural habitats, but the facts are not fully known.
“We don’t really know why we are losing this,” Taylor said. “No real cause and effect has been really nailed down.”
Taylor, 86, in October will step down from Monarch Watch, which has tracked the monarchs’ epic 3,000-mile fall migrations since 1992. Monarch numbers in the United States have plunged a staggering 90% in two decades, a population drop of 900 million.
The rate of decline in those migrations has lessened, Taylor said, “but we need a lot more habitat to sustain the population.”
More study is also needed.
“What Julie is doing is just a start,” Taylor said. “What Julie is doing is taking a crack at this to get a start at looking at micro-chemicals available in our environment. We have to take a look at whether we are poisoning organisms we share the environment with.”
Across Lawrence, Dietze puts on black plastic gloves as she dives into the day’s mail almost gleefully, clearly energized by the project she has designed and the citizens she has inspired to join in.
She carefully removes and inspects each plastic baggy containing a butterfly or moth, notes the postal stamp cancellation that specifies where the sample was collected and mailed, and sometimes lingers on the carefully crafted messages enclosed. Some go on for a page or more on notebook paper.
Some came from children and were mailed in by parents or grandparents.
Some messages come in via email, like this, from the Tennessee woman who spotted the deformed swallowtail.
“For the first time this year, they planted corn in the hundreds of acres behind our home. Since the corn has started growing, we have seen an alarming number of butterflies that are alive, but their wings are shriveled and disintegrating. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and it’s happening to mainly black butterflies. I see several with the same condition each day,” she wrote.
“In researching what might be causing this problem, I came across your study. TN (Tennessee) is not a listed state since we usually aren’t considered a state known for corn crops. Would you still be interested in us sending you some butterflies? We had a hard rain yesterday, but before the rain in my walk I counted 6 butterflies in one small section.”
Dietze answered affirmatively.
When Flatland visited her office, she was awaiting the arrival of those Tennessee butterflies along with many others.
“I really think this will catch hold,” Dietze said of her efforts to build a Lepidoptera Research Collection in Kansas.
When she goes home from her well-preserved collection of deceased butterflies, she tends to young healthy butterflies emerging from their chrysalises.
She and her two young daughters feed the monarchs milkweed and the swallowtails dill as they grow up in small butterfly houses built by her husband. When the time is right, they are released.
Martin Rosenberg is a Kansas City journalist and host of the Grid Talk podcast on the future of energy.