Andrew Jowett/The Times Herald/AP
In this Aug. 28, 2016, photo, Myla Totten, 6, of Fort Gratiot, releases a monarch butterfly into the wild on the shores of Lake Huron in Fort Gratiot, Mich.

Pollinators need a cultural ambassador. Are butterflies up for the assignment?

Some conservationists hope to use the monarch butterfly's signature charisma to rally public support for bees and other less-loved pollinators.

It’s peak migration season for monarch butterflies, and rural communities are keen to aid them on their journey.

In the midwestern United States, the annual monarch migration is something of a cultural event. In Oklahoma, conservationists and students organize an educational – but festive – butterfly send-off. And from Nebraska to Texas, residents plant milkweed so that the winged travelers can lay eggs along the way.

Not all insects are so fortunate. Many other pollinators lack the cultural charisma which has made butterflies so popular with humans – you’re unlikely to find any pollen wasp festivals in the US, or any other country for that matter. But some experts say butterfly star-power could actually help those maligned bugs, even as it draws attention away from them.

Could the monarch butterfly be the cultural ambassador all besieged pollinators need?

Generally speaking, North American pollinators face many of the same environmental challenges. Agricultural land use has degraded habitats, and studies show that neonicotinoid pesticides have caused considerable damage to both bee and butterfly populations. Climate change has also been linked to shrinking geographic range for many pollinator species. And pollinators play a key role in human food production.  

But only butterflies have been able to inspire almost universal support.

“I’ve worked with butterflies for a long time, and there’s nothing people like better than a good butterfly restoration story,” Travis Longcore, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “There’s the iconography and the storytelling that centers around butterflies. They’re symbols in culture.”

Charisma is a major factor in how we perceive non-human animals. Psychologically, we’re always looking for connections – familiar patterns on a butterfly wing, metamorphosis as a symbol of resurrection – and when we find them, we tend to form a bond.

“Humans like to relate to animals,” Meredith Gore, a conservation social scientist at Michigan State University, tells the Monitor. “If they’re primates or mammals, if they nurse their young, if they have forward-facing eyes… those are all physiological characteristics that make it easier for us to identify with them and behave in ways that you might call ‘pro-environmental.’”

Monarchs have a lot of characteristics that make them charismatic. They flutter, rather than buzz, and they often display vibrant colors. People often see butterflies in their own backyards, and tend to associate them with flowers and their own homes.

Bees, while brightly colored, are faster moving, and aren’t quite as visually distinctive as butterflies. The average person can’t distinguish between species, because many of them look the same. That’s why bees are commonly confused with more aggressive wasps and hornets.

“You really have to catch them, and in some cases look under a microscope, to see the differences between species,” Tom Oliver, a landscape ecologist with the University of Reading in England, tells the Monitor. “That makes it hard to engage citizen scientists, as it were, who don’t necessarily have the time or equipment to look under the microscope at individuals.”

More obscure pollinators, such as bee flies and moths, have an even tougher time mustering public support. And since many pollinators are stinging insects, people generally feel less, well, warmly about them.

“When you start talking about the importance of the wasp and stuff like that, you run up against a bigger wall,” says Dr. Longcore, who is also science director of the Los Angeles-based Urban Wildlands Group. “But who ever said ‘no’ to helping out the butterflies?”

Many invertebrate conservationists argue that this dissonance is a problem. As we rally around pandas and tigers, we tend to neglect more important species which might not be considered “cute.”

Given the choice of motivating people around charismatic animals or not motivating people at all, Longcore would “take the motivation any day.” But conservation need not be an all-or-nothing game, at least in the case of bees and butterflies.

Monarch butterflies, experts say, can fulfill an important role in protecting other pollinators. As a so-called “flagship species,” they can draw public support and funding for broader environmental problems.

“Flagship species, like pandas and tigers, tend to be the big and beautiful creatures,” Dr. Oliver says. “But even though they’re just one species or a group of species, they can mobilize effort in terms of conservation. You could argue that butterflies might be like the pandas or the tigers of the insect world.”

Modern conservationists say that the link between organisms in an ecosystem may be even stronger than previously thought. In some cases, they find that the protection of one “umbrella species” can trickle down to benefit others in that same habitat. In recent years, conservationists have gravitated toward the idea of landscape conservation, which focuses on preserving entire habitats rather than single species.

“So monarchs may be a species that brings attention to a whole suite of issues, conservation problems and potential solutions,” Dr. Gore says.

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