Inconspicuous buzzers

They are called Peppered moth (Biston betularia), Silver Y (Autographa gamma), or Crepuscular burnet (Zygaena carniolica). They are usually neither as colorful nor as well-known as their famous relatives, the Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) or the Peacock butterfly (Aglais io,). Nevertheless, moths are enormously important to our ecosystem. We explain why they are endangered and how they can be distinguished from butterflies.

They buzz around us at night and make up a large proportion of the world’s lepidopterans species, these are butterflies and moths. Around 3,000 lepidopteran species live in Germany. However, only about 100 of these species are butterflies. Worldwide, there are 180,000 lepidopterans species and 25,000 butterflies; in Austria, there are about 3,900 moth species and 200 butterflies.

It’s all about the looks

It is very widely believed that butterflies and moths differ in that they are active either during the day or at night. In German they are even called “Tagfalter” (=”day butterfly”) and Nachtfalter (=night butterfly). However, this is not quite true. In fact, some moths are also partially active during the day and do not only fly around in the dark. In the same way, there are butterflies that are active by day and night. Nevertheless, they can be easily distinguished by some other criteria – their appearance:

Antennae

The antennae of butterflies end in a club, while those of moths are pointed, combed, or feathered.

Wings

In butterflies, the wings are usually closed when at rest. In moths, on the other hand, the wings are usually spread in the resting position.

Body

The head of butterflies tends to be small and the body tends to be narrow. The bodies of moths are thick and short.

Color

Moths tend to be brownish, white or black. Some of them, for example the birch moth, have a camouflage pattern. Thus, they cannot be seen on tree bark. Most butterflies are rather bright and even colorful. Moths can also be colorful, just as day butterflies are brown. Accordingly, color is not a good distinguishing characteristic.

Endangered beneficial insects

They are on the move at night, so it is not really noticeable: many moths also pollinate flowers – only at night. They are therefore no less useful than their day-flying colleagues and, unfortunately, just as endangered. Many species are in sharp decline or have disappeared completely. 800 moth species are on Austria’s Red List, which is about 20 percent of the species that occur. The reason for this is, for example, intensive forestry and agriculture with monocultures, fertilizers and pesticides. The habitat of the butterflies is also increasingly being taken away by sealing the soil and building construction. Ornamental gardens without food plants make it difficult to find food, and light pollution is also a major problem. Fewer moths also means fewer bats and birds: many songbird species and bats depend on moths and their caterpillars as a food source for their young.

Love songs and screeching sounds

Moths produce sounds in the ultrasonic range, which some species use to warn bats that they would taste bad if eaten. Bees or wasps protect themselves from their predators by their coloration, some moths screech. However, these sounds are not audible to humans. Some species even sing love songs when looking for a mate.

A gem for humans and moths

Protecting butterflies is not that difficult. An unmowed garden with native plants such as fruit trees, willows, knapweeds or mallows and a small vegetable patch with, for example, raspberries or carrots, unsprayed of course. So not only butterflies but also people have something to snack on and the latter can enjoy the splendid appearance of the pretty flutterers.

And the Apollo?

Butterfly or moth?

Parnassius apollo is a stone-loving sun worshipper. Its beautiful coloring, small head and rather petite body are clear signs – it is a butterfly.

#followapollo and the efforts of our team! Combined skills in breeding, conservation of habitats, research, environmental education, and project management constitute a great combination for the success of our LIFE project

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Mowing for butterflies – how to mow your garden insect-friendly

The principle of a garden that is to be inhabited by different species is diversity. This means a variety of habitats that merge with one another freely. Meadow gradually turns into a wetland with hydrophilous plants and eventually into a pond. Meadow is partly open and partly shaded by an orchard, in places turning into a wild corner. Solitary trees and dead trunks are interspersed with rockeries with thermophilous plant species and aromatic herbs. Hedges or groups of shrubs provide shelter and food in the form of berries in autumn.

In effect, we can create a miniature landscape that will contain almost all latitude and longitude environments and thus attract the relevant animals.

Watch the video by the Czech project partner and read the article to learn more!

Trees and flowers

Wherever possible, let’s try to grow native species of trees, shrubs and flowers. Choose species and varieties that not only produce a rich and tasty harvest, but also provide shelter and food for animals.

In the case of fruit trees, for example, it is advisable to go for native regional varieties that are best adapted to local conditions, do not suffer from disease and offer a rich variety of fruit aromas and flavours.

We buy seeds and seedlings from local gardeners and ask them if they are local native species. Native plants are not usually found in the shops of multinational companies.

Another option is to collect seeds or seedlings from the surrounding countryside. This way we do not risk introducing something non-native into the garden that will then be sown in the surrounding countryside where it will cause mischief. But this has strict rules. We never take endangered or protected species and we never take from a protected area, park or reserve.

A little wilderness

We can grow creeping or climbing shrubs (for example, blackberries and ivy), but wild species can also find their place here. It is advisable to place such a corner in a less frequented part of the garden, where nobody minds and the animals have the necessary peace and quiet. Throw in a pile of cut wood and stones or leave an old dead or gradually dying tree, which will also greatly enhance the potential of your garden.

Leave areas of tall grass. A short mown lawn is almost dead and animals will avoid it from a distance. By mowing frequently, not only will you not help the animals, but you will encourage the soil in your garden to dry out quickly.

How to care for a flowering meadow

An English-style lawn may look very pretty to some, but to animals it is synonymous with an inhospitable desert. With a flowering meadow comes insects, and with insects come the animals that feed on them – such as all our songbirds, lizards, bats and many more. The meadow provides food, shelter and a place to breed.

Flowering herbs are particularly damaged by frequent short mowing. They then fail to seed and over time grasses and groundcover plants dominate.

If we want a garden full of flowers and butterflies, we need to suppress grasses and encourage flowers as much as possible.

When mowing, try occasionally substituting a lawn mower for a traditional scythe or sickle.

How to mosaic mowing

  1. The grasses mature gradually from May to September. To control them, they should be cut at the time of flowering.
  2. If selective mowing of grasses is not possible, the solution is to mow in stages. For example, divide the area into three sections, which will be mowed separately once or twice a year. Primarily select the areas where the least amount of grass is currently flowering. The insects will gradually move between the strips.
  3. Always purchase regional seeds for sowing or reseeding flowering meadows.

What to offer butterflies and bumblebees?

We should offer bumblebees and butterflies flowering herbs and woody plants for as long as possible during the year. Bumblebees, for example, wake up early in the spring, when pussy willow, coltsfoots and snowdrops are in bloom. In turn, flowering herbs in autumn can help still awake butterflies survive the delayed winter.

In addition, butterflies are also tied to their food plants, on which they lay their eggs and on which the caterpillars subsequently feed (e.g. thymus, nettle, lotus, fennel or even hawthorn). They will also fly to a dry shelter where they can survive the winter – this could be our attic or rotten wood.

Aromatic plants, especially plants from the deadnettle family (e.g. oregano, lemon balm, mint, sage, thymus), umbellifers (e.g. dill, coriander, chervil) and legume plants, are the best sources of nectar and pollen. Also basket flower, lavender, thistles, great is also holy rope and dwarf elderberry. Daisies, sunflowers and marigolds also serve well. In addition to sunflowers, bumblebees also like to visit various legumes (e.g. clover or peas). Many vegetables such as radish, dill, curcuma, black salsify or lettuce can also be left to flower and shed seed.

How Parnassius Apollo and other butterflies tackle Climate Change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our century. Along with habitat destruction, they are the main drivers of the global biodiversity crisis. There are more species in danger of extinction than ever before. Many studies show that butterflies are among the species that have responded the most to climate change, usually in the form of northward or elevation range shifts. Climate change affects their life cycles, flight times, essential interactions and ultimately survival. 

Parnassius apollo is an exemplary case of these challenges. Since the first half of the twentieth century, P. apollo populations have declined and become rare or extinct in several European countries. The main causes for such a decline are anthropic, such as inadequate shepherding, pollution, tourism, collecting or habitat loss. However, species sensitivity to habitat alteration and climate change also plays a crucial role. 

Sensitive Metamorphosis

Butterflies go through a series of swift and dramatic transformations during their life circle. This metamorphosis is sensitive to climatic changes since the transformation from one stage to the next is synchronous with the rhythms of nature and similar to many other natural cycles. A lot of butterflies possess a special sensitivity to warm environments. Thus a slight increase in temperature, imperceptible to humans carries vital significance to butterflies. It has triggered new patterns in their metamorphosis process and even driven the creatures out of their native habitats.

One of the ways of species adaption is through changing the time of year at which they are active. Such timing of life circle events is called “phenology”, so when species start things earlier in the year they are said to be “advancing its phenology”. Advances to some extent have been observed in a wide range of butterflies and moths.

Studies show that species with more flexible lifecycles are more likely to benefit from an earlier emergence driven by climate change. Some species are able to go from caterpillar to butterfly twice or more per year, allowing population growth to occur. However, there are also other species that are less flexible and restricted to a single reproductive cycle per year. They have no benefit from emerging earlier. Moreover, species specialising in one specific habitat type tend to be harmed by advancing phenology.

Butterflies on the move

As a result of climate warming native butterflies all over the world are currently on the move. They are leaving their homes and going to places with cooler temperatures. Long migrations possess a lot of perils. Sometimes the obstacles on a way make a move impossible, which brings us to the human role in the lives of butterflies. Habitat fragmentation caused by land development combined with climate change threatens butterflies’ survival, depriving them of safe stopover points where they can rest and replenish their energy.

This migration is particularly visible in mountain regions. Thus studies show significant and constant shifts of butterfly distributions in the eastern Alps towards higher elevations. As these changes differ among species, they might result in serious community modifications with possible effects on species interactions and competition. A particular concern is caused by species with a low disposition to dispersal because they usually remain in one habitat for many generations. 

Parnassius apollo populations are small and isolated with distribution restricted to mountain ranges. Global climate change shuffles their vegetation habitat structure, causing plant species to move toward mountain summits. That changes biotic interactions between insects and plants. Climate change also directly affects species distributions, with the elevational distribution of Parnassius species shifting upward on mountains. Yet mountain ranges are finite and even the highest mountains present ecological and evolutionary limits for parnassians.

Protecting one species to protect all the others

As climate change continues, butterflies may find themselves unable to live with us. Due to our reckless treatment of their habitats, we can lose these joyful and beautiful creatures. Yet the protection of butterflies from climate change is important not only for the sake of their beauty. Butterflies play an important role in our ecosystems. Their caterpillars consume large quantities of plants and act as prey for other species. They also act as pollinators of a wide range of plant species. The destruction of butterflies might result in unpredictable cumulative effects for other species in the ecosystem. 

Parnassius apollo acts as an umbrella species for the protection of biodiversity on the ecosystem level and habitat mosaics. By protecting the species itself, other species and habitats associated with it, are also protected. 

The four steps of the endangered beauties: the lifecycle of a butterfly

The butterfly and moth develop through a process called metamorphosis. Translating from Greek that means transformation or change in shape. Insects have two types of metamorphosis. Grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies and cockroaches have incomplete metamorphosis. Their young (nymph) usually look like small adults but without wings. Butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and bees have complete metamorphosis. The young (larva) are very different from the adults and usually eat different types of food.

There are four stages in the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths: the egg, the larva (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis) and the adult butterfly. Each of these stages is unique to individual species of butterflies. Depending on the type of butterfly, the life cycle of a butterfly may take from one month to a whole year.

Egg: The Hatching Stage

A butterfly enters life as a very small oval, round or cylindrical egg. The shape depends on the type of butterfly that laid the egg. Eggs can be laid in spring, summer or fall depending on the species. Females lay a lot of eggs at once so that at least some of them survive. The eggs are usually laid on the leaves of plants, which afterwards will become the food for the hatching caterpillars. The mother uses a glue-like substance to “stick” the egg to the leaf. The egg has a small, funnel-shaped opening for water and air to enter. It also contains nutrients for the caterpillar to grow inside.

Caterpillar: The Feeding Stage

Butterfly larvae are called caterpillars. Tiny caterpillars hatch from the eggs. The first meal for most caterpillars is the eggshell. Then caterpillars start eating the leaf they were born on. That’s why it is very important for the mother to choose the right kind of leaf for her eggs – each caterpillar type has its own preferences. 

Caterpillars do not stay in this stage for very long. They have to grow quickly, so they eat continually. Their exoskeleton (skin) does not stretch or grow, so they “molt” (shed the outgrown skin) several times during their growth. Each time their appearance change, sometimes quite dramatically. Caterpillars can grow 100 times their size during this stage and increase their body mass thousands of times. Food eaten at this time is preserved and used later as an adult.

The caterpillar stage is considered to be the most dangerous in the butterfly lifecycle as the mortality rates are very high. Caterpillars are subject to weather conditions, disease, parasites and predators. Many adult butterfly species lay hundreds of eggs with only a few surviving to become adults.

Pupa: The Transition Stage

When the caterpillar has reached its full size, it turns into a pupa. The pupa of butterflies is also called a chrysalis. This transformation looks like a change from a resting caterpillar to a shell-like covering. The pupal shell is developing underneath the caterpillar’s skin. It can take many forms and shapes depending on the species of butterfly. Once the caterpillar is firmly in place the exoskeleton will split off exposing the pupa. Depending on the species, the pupa can be suspended under a branch, hidden in leaves or buried underground.

From the outside, it looks as if the caterpillar is resting, but inside the body is undergoing an incredible cellular transformation or “metamorphosis”. The transformation consumes so much energy that the pupa loses more than half of its original weight. The limbs and organs are all transformed by the time the pupa is ready to emerge as a butterfly. The time a butterfly spends in the pupa stage varies greatly per species, ranging from a few days to a year.

Adult: The Reproductive Stage

The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis with its soft wings folded about its body. It happens because the butterfly had to fit new parts inside of the pupa. The butterfly then hangs with its wings down and pumps the wings with fluids from its body in order to straighten them out. It had to wait several hours for the wings to harden and dry before flying away.

Having accomplished that the butterfly starts flying and searching for a mate. Adult butterflies always seek a chance to reproduce. The fertilized female finds the right type of leaf to lay eggs on and starts the life cycle over again. The lifespan of most adult butterflies is about 2-3 weeks but it can vary greatly among species. Species that overwinter as adults can live for several months.

Apollo butterfly’s lifecycle

The apollo butterfly goes through all of the abovementioned phases of life. The butterflies are on the wing in Central Europe in the lowlands generally from the end of May to July/early August and in high altitudes from June to early September. In the Southern Alps, the first adults appear in early May.

The butterflies breed between the months of June and July. Apollo females usually mate shortly after emerging from pupae, males – on the second or third day. During mating, the males deposit a gelatinous secretion on the abdomen of the female which prevents the female from mating a second time. The female butterfly is capable of laying up to several hundred eggs on the leaves of plants. They have a round shape with a radius of a millimetre, smooth in texture. Caterpillars hatch from the eggs between April and June. The larvae are black with small orange spots. Immediately after hatching, they start feeding actively. Further transformations require a lot of energy. While maturing, the caterpillars molt their skin five times. After they have finished their molting process they fall to the ground and turn into a chrysalis. After two months in the ground, the cocoon opens and a butterfly comes out. It takes around three months for Apollo to turn into an actual butterfly.

The process repeats over and over again. The lifespan of Apollos from larva to adult stage lasts one year. Laid by an adult butterfly, the eggs hibernate and then after a series of transformations, they turn into butterflies, striking us with their beauty.


Further reading

The Life Cycle of Moths and Butterflies by Mary E. Walter

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