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Where have all the butterflies gone?

2008 June 19

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

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For all those garden enthusiasts—whether you have a green thumb or not—have you noticed anything different this season?

The reason I’m asking the question is that I’m yet to see any butterflies in my backyard. Don’t know if I just haven’t seen them or of something else is going on.

I’ve tried to create a healthy natural setting that will encourage regular visits from benefitial insects and wildlife. I normally use greenscaping techniques to protect the environment. I have specifically planted several shrubs and perennials that supposedly attract bees, butterflies and birds—aster, yarrow, butterfly bush, and daylilies, to name a few. Overall, the flowering plants are blossoming as expected this year. Currently, I’ve noticed that my birdhouses already have their share of regular tenants. The hummingbirds have already made an early appearance—but no butterflies.

I was hoping to enjoy the colorful scenery with these fluttering visitors while leisurely resting at my deck, but I suppose I’ll have to be patient. Nonetheless, I have two other options in the DC metropolitan area at this time to see butterflies from around the world. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History has an exhibit on Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution through the 10th of August and the Brookside Gardens South Conservatory in Wheaton, MD has a live butterfly exhibit called “Wings of Fancy” through September 21st. I highly recommend them to anyone who wishes to learn more about these colorful insects. If you’re traveling through DC, they exhibits are definitely worth a couple hours of your time.

In the meantime, I welcome advice on attracting butterflies to my garden.

¿Para dónde se han ido las mariposas?

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

Para aquellas personas que les gusta la jardinería—independientemente si tienen buena mano o no—¿han notado algo diferente esta temporada?

La razón por la cual pregunto es que todavía no he visto mariposas en mi patio. No sé si se trata de que aún no las he podido ver o si algo irregular está ocurriendo.

He tratado de crear un entorno natural saludable que fomente las visitas rutinarias de la vida silvestre e insectos beneficiosos. Normalmente utilizo las técnicas de jardinería ecológica para proteger el medio ambiente. He sembrado arbustos y plantas perennes que supuestamente atraen abejas, mariposas y aves. En general, todas las plantas han florecido abundantemente este año. En la actualidad las pequeñas casitas de pájaros tienen sus habitantes tradicionales. Incluso los zumbadores han aparecido temprano esta temporada—pero las mariposas brillan por su ausencia.

Esperaba poder disfrutar el colorido paisaje a mi alrededor viendo a los pequeños visitantes revoloteándose en el aire mientras descansaba en mi balcón, pero parece que tendré que ser más paciente. No obstante, tengo dos opciones en el área metropolitana de Washington para ver mariposas provenientes de todo el mundo. Se trata de dos exposiciones. Una en el Museo de Historia Natural de la Institución Smithsonian llamada Mariposas + Plantas: Socios en la evolución que dura hasta el 10 de agosto y otra en los Jardines Brookside en Wheaton, MD llamada “Alas de fantasía” hasta el 21 de septiembre. Ambas son excelentes y las recomiendo para cualquiera que quiera ver estos coloridos insectos. Si está pasando por DC, estas exposiciones definitivamente merecen un par de horas de su tiempo.

Mientras tanto, espero que alguien me pueda aconsejar sobre cómo atraer las mariposas a mi jardín.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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84 Responses leave one →
  1. Gary permalink
    June 19, 2008

    Maybe they just fluttered by.

  2. Lina permalink
    June 20, 2008

    Cute. Perhaps, but I used to see them more frequently and this summer I haven’t seen any. :-(

    Quizás. Antes las veía con frecuencia, pero este verano no he visto ninguna en mi patio. :-(

  3. Brenda Reyes Tomassini permalink
    June 23, 2008

    I have tried but the only thing in my backyard that flies this time of the year-besides mosquitoes-are bees! I know they like blossoming plants/perennial as well as those who bear some small fruit.

  4. Deborah permalink
    June 24, 2008

    I had my first Fritillary visit yesterday and was delighted to see it, while at the same time wondering where the others were. We’ve had a rough spring and summer for butterflies because of the heavy thunderstorms, which could drown catepillars and damage cocoons. But, there are numerous reports that butterflies and bees are not doing well due to a combination of pesticide use, lack of appropriate shelter and food plantings, and attacks by mites and fungi. I’m converting my miniscule backyard into a butterfly-friendly habitat as quickly as I can, and would encourage others to do the same.

  5. Linda permalink
    June 24, 2008

    One plant that has proven quite popular with butterflies, much to my surprise, is the hardneck garlic that I grow/grew in a small bed near my roses. I say “grew” because this spring a stray dog managed to crush the young sprouts, so I haven’t any blooms.

    I haven’t seen many butterflies this year, either, but I hope they will show up again.

  6. Lina-EPA permalink*
    June 25, 2008

    Just regular garlic near the roses? Never thought of that. Does it help in keeping those nasty Japanese beetles away from the roses? How long does it take to grow the garlic?

  7. Linda permalink
    June 26, 2008

    The garlic was a gift from a neighbor when we first moved in; if garlic cloves are planted in the fall, matures bulbs form the next spring. For cooking, you should harvest before it blooms, but I always try to leave a few in the ground for the blooms and for next year’s crop. And it does seem to help out with the Japanese beetles … it’s no help at all against black spot, unfortunately, but I guess we can’t have everything. :) As an unexpected bonus, garlic, like other alliums has a lovely globe-shaped burst of tiny trumpet blossoms at the top of a long central stalk. Mine bloom a wonderful deep blue and I’ve often watched as butterflies delicately sip at each individual tube.

  8. Lina-EPA permalink*
    June 26, 2008

    Thanks for the tip. Will try it next fall. Nice to learn something new. Oh, by the way, saw a butterfly fluttering by today–on the road while driving. Looked like a Monarch, but in my garden–nada–nothing.

  9. Regina permalink
    July 1, 2008

    Wow. Glad I found this…in a sad sort of way. My husband and I are watching our butterfly bushes in full bloom…but no butterflies at them (in Metro-D.C., Maryland area). I’ve seen maybe 6 butterflies all season (a few tiger swallowtails and one or two sulfer/cabbage butterflies). It’s sad. A web search on “Where have the butterflies gone?” brought me to this and to 2006 articles about cold, wet Spring in California impacting butterfly populations. I hope they come back – I miss them.

  10. Carmela permalink
    July 6, 2008

    I’m in Iowa and connected to this webpage because I also am wondering where are all the butterflies and bees. We usually have them all over around here and I am still waiting to see my first butterflies. My flowers are blooming like crazy and there isn’t a bee or a butterfly in them. We also had a really hard winter and lots of spring rains, has that killed the insects off? it is so sad not to see butterflies dancing among the flowers.

  11. Lynn permalink
    July 10, 2008

    I live in PA. and have been wondering the same thing where are all the bees and butterflies??? We have 2 huge butterfly bushes and they are ALWAYS full of them and have’nt seen 1 yetand they are blooming!! Plus I have many other flowers all around my yard and gardens and no flying insects!! I don’t use pestesides so that’s not the problemin my yard.It’s very sad and I do wonder what’s gone on in the environment that has affected bees and butterflies this year becauce it’s obvious something affecting them all around the country!!

  12. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 10, 2008

    Regina and Carmela, Sad to see that others in MD and Iowa are also noticing the absence of butterflies. Butterfly bushes are in full bloom this year, but I wonder if they’ll also start to suffer in the coming summers with out the dancing butterflies and bees. We sure miss them.

  13. July 11, 2008


  14. Donna permalink
    July 14, 2008

    I live outside Washington D.C. and have many plants that the butterflies have loved in the past. But this year, it is very noticeable that there are none. I have a few cabbage white and saw a very small pale blue one this morning but no swallowtails or monarchs despite their host plants being available in my garden.
    I DO see plenty of bees; both bumble and honey and have abundant birds of all kinds. But I want the butterflies back!!!

  15. chris permalink
    July 18, 2008

    We have a wildlife garden but no wildlife ,no bees ,butterflies or aphids dont know why , its worrying.

  16. Lucy permalink
    July 18, 2008

    I’m in southwestern Virginia. I have had more cabbage and great spangled flitillaries than usual but less of the swallowtails. I have seen only one Monarch so far. The swallowtails seem to come and go, though I do have a Black Swallowtail chrysalis on my air conditioner. I do have many skippers, some hairstreaks and a couple of buckeyes and American ladies. And I saw a (I think) pearl crescent two days ago. But, the spicebush, tigers, etc. come singly, not in droves like last year. Hopefully, things will improve. I do have bees and dragonflies!

  17. Joanna permalink
    July 19, 2008

    No tiger swallowtails on my blooming butterfly bush this summer! I used to have lots! Also, no goldfinch–and the thistle feeder is full–and no praying mantises. We used to see lots of them on our ornamental grasses. This is in Bel Air, MD. Is it climate change or what??

  18. Evelyn permalink
    July 20, 2008

    I have seen an abundance of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds at both our home and vacation property in Western Maryland. In addition to the flowering plants, I’ve also planted a number of herbs, such as parsley and dill on which butterflies will lay their eggs and upon which you will see catepillars before their become butterflies if someone didn’t mistake them for an ugly bug & kill them.

  19. Jean permalink
    July 21, 2008

    Something weird is definitely going on this year. I have quite a large zinnia garden in Maryland that in past years has been completely aflutter with many, many butterflies. This year, I have only seen two swallowtails. I am an avid photographer of these beautiful creatures and stand out in the heat to capture close-up shots. However, this year, sadly, has been a lonely one in my garden. I don’t have any butterflies to photograph. What in the world is happening? I’m worried.

  20. Alexandra permalink
    July 21, 2008

    I live in southwestern Connecticut. I’ve been asking my neighbors and the local nursery people if they’ve seen any butterflies this summer and they’ve all said very, very few. Not too many bees either. I was asking because my garden is full of things like blue hyssop, bee balm, culver’s root and lace cap hydrangea which are ordinarily completely covered with fluttering, buzzing insect life at this time of year. My neighbor planted a new butterfly bush yesterday and one tiger swallowtail showed up 15 minutes after it came off the truck! Haven’t seen it today, though. My other neighbor notices lots of flowers on his zucchini vine, but no fruit.

    Is this finally the collapse of the ecosystem?

  21. iowabranch permalink
    July 21, 2008

    I too have noticed very few butterflies this year. We had one visit from our American lady who visits at the back door every year (usually many visits from several of them) and about three yellow swallowtails. Just saw one yellow tiger swallowtail on the crimson maple today.. it was busy at the leaves for a long time, and looked a bit disoriented. The garden is full of flowers, but where are all the butterflies? Could the very wet and stormy spring and summer be a cause of their decline? Or maybe since the Japanese Beetles have been numerous the past several years, maybe all the poison to kill them has also killed off the butterflies?

  22. William Wyman permalink
    July 23, 2008

    I, too, have noticed very few swallowtails this year in central NJ. Where I normally would have hundreds, I have had only dozens. I did read that cold springs, which we had, affect butterflies and open them up to more bird predation, and wasp attack. Also, for you butterfly lovers out there, Butterfly bushes, although pretty and a magnet for butterflies, are not native to the USA. Butterflies enjoy a nice “drink” from the flower, however, if they lay their eggs on the leaves, the baby caterpillars cannot eat the leaves, and hence die of starvation. It truly is a beautiful death trap, and you might want to try something native to your area. Bottlebrush buckeye, all Eupatoriums (Joe pye weed), and native phlox seem to make my butterflies swarm, and become intoxicated. Plant native species to save North American species!! I hope this year was just an anomaly for our butterfly friends. Be well All.

  23. Dawn permalink
    July 23, 2008

    I am in Berkeley Springs West Virginia, on 65 acres of meadow and old growth trees without pesticides. I have plenty of flowers in bloom, including all those usually massed with butterflies … monarda, buddleja, oregano, milkweed, etc. and not a butterfly in sight. I have plenty of bees, humming birds and Japanese beetles. Yes, we had a rainy spring, but surely they have butterflies in Washington State, etc. where the wetter months are customary. Our local master gardeners are putting out a county alert for reports of any sightings. I suggest everyone ask their county extension agent to do the same. Something significant has occurred and we need to identify the cause.

  24. William permalink
    July 25, 2008

    Here is a recent comment from a top butterfly expert in NJ.

    “I have heard several people comment on the general paucity of
    butterflies this year. I must say that at least in NW Jersey this does not appear to be the case. We tallied our second highest ever total number of individual butterflies on the Springdale, Sussex County, 4th of July butterfly count and several species set all time high counts. However, all of the swallowtails were low. In NJ the last brood of swallowtails is usually the most numerous so I expect that you will note a big increase in August.”

    Thought you all might like to hear at least some good news!

  25. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 25, 2008

    Those are great news. Keep them coming!

  26. Monika permalink
    July 25, 2008

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to notice. In Maryland near Annapolis I have only seen one butterfly this year and I have so many blooms on my butterfly bush. It is sad. I have a full feeder of thistle and have not had 1 finch this year. In addition, no praying mantis, not many bees nor wasp but over population of deer ticks. My red monarda is lonely without the butterflies.

  27. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 25, 2008

    I would be curious to read what our friends in Monterey, California, home of the monarch, are experiencing this year. Anyone?

  28. Pam Wagner permalink
    July 30, 2008

    I have also noticed the dearth of butterflies in my garden, which was full of them last year. This is what I think: as you probably know, the last two years we have experienced a severe gypsy moth problem. I am in University Park, Prince Georges County, Maryland. Last year, the problem was extremely bad and our community was advised to hire a company to spray. We consulted with the University of Maryland and the community hired a company, and we had the option of hiring them for our individual properties. Nevertheless, I saw an enormous gypsy moth hatching. I think the spraying was too late. The air was full of them. With the drought and the moths, I’m sure you noticed the many dead trees in the landscape. This year Prince Georges County did an aerial spray. For two consecutive weeks planes flew over us spraying. It did work on the moths. But, although we had been assured it would not harm us, our pets, and other species, including the butterflies and bees, I was sceptical about the butterflies. I mean how can they possibly get that specific? I am absolutely convinced that this is the reason there aren’t butterlies. I had caterpillers and butterflies all over my plants last year (I plant for them also). This year I have seen some cabbage butterflies, 1 Monarch, and 2 Swallowtails, and yesterday one tiny blue butterfly that looks like those tiny seashells on the beach. (Can somebody tell me what it is?) I have not seen the hummingbirds that came to my garden last year, either. I have seen bees and goldfinches. (I had not seen goldfinches before. I planted more native grasses this year. )

    I would be interested in hearing if people in other areas experienced the gypsy moth infestation and consequent spraying. It is a difficult decision to make, about the spraying. After all, the birds need the trees and the moths are devastating. But did our community make a mistake?

  29. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 31, 2008

    I’m in PG Cty as well (Bowie). Perhaps, we’re suffering the same problem?

  30. Regina permalink
    July 31, 2008

    Looking outside my window right now, I see about 7-8 Tiger Swallowtails, a Spicebush Swallowtail (I think), and several skippers and cabbages. Whew! The first flight seems to have been a total bust…but at last there is SOME comeback. We’ve even had a few hummingbird moths.
    I hope you other MD area folks are seeing something now.

  31. Pam permalink
    August 1, 2008

    I think so, Lina. And know there is a bad gypsy moth infestation in the NE. How about those in Iowa and the West Coast? Are you affected by this?

  32. Pam permalink
    August 1, 2008

    I’m not seeing much yet. Just the little white cabbage ones and the tiny one that sames to be an azure something. I’m still seeing plenty of goldfinches.

  33. Becki permalink
    August 8, 2008

    Same thing here in Fargo. I’ve seen one white cabbage butterfly, 2 honey bees, 2 bumble bees, 3 flies and 10 mosquitos this summer in my garden and yard. At a local plant nursery nearby there are no butterflies and they usually have lots. It’s really strange.
    I did see a Cecropia moth on my house yesterday- that was beautiful.
    Guess it’s time to get out of town and see if they just got tired of it like some of us are.

  34. Wanda permalink
    August 19, 2008

    I live in PA. and have seen lots of butterflies on my butterfly bush. What does concern me is that I have seen a very strange almost prehistoric-looking bug that has been killing the butterflies on the bush. I’ve done several unsuccessful searches on the net to try and identify butterfly predators or enemies but have had no luck. I’ve been removing the bugs with a net and killing them. Unfortunately, they blend into the bush and are not easy to find.

  35. Adam permalink
    August 28, 2008

    I have noticed a very small number of bees, butterflies, dragonflies and even june-bugs this year.

    There were 2 news stations that have confirmed reports of elevated amounts of Aluminum-Oxide and Barium Salts in the air.

    Some speculators of where these contaminents come from, would be from the planes that leave the cross hatches in the sky, or in other words.. weather modifications or chemical testing on the public.

    In our community’s well water supply our water is tested every year, and I have seen that Barium was found and from what I know.. its beyond safe levels!

  36. Lina-EPA permalink*
    September 2, 2008

    Fluttering farewell to summer–Just this weekend I saw some activity of small white butterflies in my garden perching on the butterfly bushes and other plants. And just yesterday a big Eastern Tiger Swallowtail flew inches away from my face to say “I’m here”. Was a pleasant ending for the Labor Day weekend. However, I was puzzled that the majority of the butterflies I saw were so small.

  37. Martha permalink
    September 4, 2008

    I have been trying to figure this out too. I live in northern Vermont and it’s actually frightening to see so few butterflies this year.
    I googled the question and people are reporting this problem all over the world! Everyone I ask has noticed the same thing.
    I wish the media would pick up on this story….I think it’s a big, important story.

  38. Lina-EPA permalink*
    September 4, 2008

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, it’s an important story. I think we should be concerned about the status of all pollinators!

  39. Adam permalink
    December 14, 2008

    I would like to point out the harm that GMO-seed crops/plants are causing our pollenators.

    I would like to finally say.. E.P.A. you’re FIRED!

    You have not done a “good job” for the Earth or Americans.

    You have done a good job, for the opposite.

    Thanks for helping destroy our home planet.

  40. Adam permalink
    December 14, 2008





    YOU’RE FIRED!!!!!!


  41. weezy mcweezerson permalink
    December 20, 2008

    There’s lots of wildlife concerns currently…bats dying from unknown fungus,bees disappearing,etc. I have been VERY sick with respiratory problems for about 2&1/2 years. About the same time heavy jet trails started appearing overhead. I would be surprised if they were not related. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore! I need help to combat its affects on me. Anyone have suggestions? And just that…don’t try to sell me something (suspitious much? YES). signed,weezy mcweezerson

  42. Lina-EPA permalink*
    December 23, 2008

    Weezy–where do you live? What state?

  43. Janice permalink
    February 12, 2009

    I would like to know where something like this can be reported.

    I think that it is definitely a problem everywhere and needs to be dealt with. Should we worry about the air we breath? Were the butterflies put on this earth to alert us of a problem?

    I only read a few of the comments but they all seem to be pointing to the same thing, “there is a shortage of butterflies” “why?”

    Please let me know how I can help or how we can all help bring back the beautiful butterflies!

    Thank you for listening.

    ps What is the best way to get the media involved? I have never done this before.

  44. want answers permalink
    February 16, 2009

    “The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment”.

    I came to this site looking for answers as to why chemicals are being sprayed on us. I witnessed over a hundred jet trails in the sky yesterday. So disbelieving, I got the camcorder out. A checkerboard in the sky! The lines did not disperse, but became larger and joined to form a haze. This morning my husband got up with a bloody nose. I went to help him and mine started bleeding. We both have headaches and trouble breathing. What the hell is going on? and why is the EPA not doing anything about it?

  45. JazzRoc permalink
    April 28, 2009

    Why publish uninformed comment from the likes of Adam, Weezy, and Want? You serve merely as a platform for their paranoias.

    These people all have the same things in common – a low standard of scientific education and literacy, and a shared readership of other ill-informed conjecture and myth from thousands of similarly poorly-equipped people and websites. Entering “chemtrails” in Google will get you 1,120,000 hits, which isn’t bad for a ten-year-old MYTH.

    It is indeed a mad, mad, mad world.

  46. Lina-EPA permalink*
    April 30, 2009

    I’ve already seen some butterflies this spring. How have the sightings been in your area?

  47. Pam permalink
    May 8, 2009

    I have not seen butterflies yet this spring, but it has been wet. Hoping…!

  48. Lina-EPA permalink
    July 6, 2009

    Happy to report that I saw MANY, HUGE, Zebra Swallowtail butterflies on the 4th in Acoceek, MD. Went there for my youngest’s swim meet. It was a pleasure to see so many around the butterfly bushes.

  49. Donna L permalink
    July 16, 2009

    I live in Douglassville Pa and have only since one large yellow butterfly this year. I have 8 butterfly bushes and a butterfly garden, Bronze fennel and milk weed and NO butterflies or caterpillars?? I have a few bees but not like in the past. This is a little scary!!! I am glad its not just me though.

  50. matt permalink
    July 17, 2009

    I have no butterflies either with 3 butterfly bushes in full bloom. Not even the buttercups. I suspect there are probably no frogs either since they are first to go when enviroment become toxic. There must be some kind of answer, maybe this wild weather has killed most off.

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