MISSION — The National Butterfly Center hosted the annual Butterfly Count here as part of the North American Butterfly Association’s 44th annual Butterfly Counts Program on Saturday, when over 15 volunteers formed into groups in order to gather the data necessary to help form a census of butterflies in North America and partially Mexico.
Volunteers consisted of butterfly enthusiasts, locals and Troop 1927 from Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg who include some butterfly experts.
The count was originally going to take place last Saturday on July 10 but was canceled due to weather conditions that would make counting butterflies nearly impossible.
“Butterfly counts in the rain don’t typically yield much data,” the executive director for the National Butterfly Center, Marianna Treviño Wright, said. “Counts are conducted in a forward moving direction, so there’s no circling back or looping around, you start at one data point and move forward counting what you observe. So they have to be out and about, flying and nectaring.”
Winged insects tend to take shelter in foliage when it rains, so getting an accurate count in that weather would be difficult and the wet soil would make the trails slightly tricky to navigate.
Butterfly counts are usually held within a circle of a 15-mile diameter so some volunteers remained at the butterfly center and a few others went to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park to do their counting, though the circle covers several points of interest like the Mission Hike and Bike trails and the residential subdivisions.
Normally when counting, there’s an observer and a scribe where the observer identifies the species of butterfly by sight and the scribe writes the data down as they walk.
The significance counts hold is high due to the fact the population of a certain species is a good way to gauge how the environment is doing.
“Various species like frogs, bees and butterflies are very sensitive environmental health indicators,” Wright said. “So where frogs, native bees and butterflies disappear, you know there’s a serious environmental quality issue.”
NABA receives information from about 450 count circles across North America every year.
They’re snapshots within the window between June and July that give scientists data that relates to the weather, habitat and populations observed each summer in each location, and they typically account for anomalies like wildfires and hurricanes that could potentially disrupt counts.
A couple of the most unique anomalies the Valley’s environment has faced so far have been the construction of the border wall and the Texas freeze that happened earlier this year.
The border wall being the reason a butterfly count hadn’t happened at the butterfly center since 2016 due to them combating the attempts of the structure being built through their land.
Earlier this year, NABA’s data set was used in a peer reviewed study published by Science Magazine that claims the butterfly population has been on a steady decline, decreasing 1.6% per year, over the last 40 years.
Despite the rising temperatures, summer yields an increase of butterflies but it’s in the autumn months that have seen a significant decline in population.
Though the driving force behind the decrease of insects is complex, scientists suggest climate change being a main factor for this decrease of species.
Other forces behind the decline include pesticides, herbicides, commercial agriculture and development which usually destroy the natural habitats for various species.
“That’s why I believe it starts with education,” Logan Dovalina, the butterfly count coordinator and compiler, said. “Using native plants like milkweed, lantana and mistflower could help attract butterflies if people planted them at home.”
Dovalina had observed the decrease in butterflies during this year’s count and suggested several ways people could help support the environment.
The National Butterfly Center is known for its unique environment that has recorded butterfly species being the first to ever be seen in the U.S., which is why it attracts many enthusiasts from all over the world.
The last record was the first U.S. appearance of the Alana White-Skipper in 2018, which are normally only ever seen in Mexico — an example of how unique the birding experience is in the Valley.