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  • Writer's pictureThe Beacon Today

Meet South Florida’s low-maintenance gateway insect

The small, blue and comparably unremarkable Miami blue butterfly has flitted to the point of near extinction, according to the North American Butterfly Association. Nestled in the southernmost point of the United States, the Miami blue butterfly population has declined rapidly, but relatively unnoticed.

Four decades ago, the butterfly could be found commonly throughout South Florida. However, the population dwindled during the 1980s, leading scientists to believe them extinct after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to the North American Butterfly Association.

But seven years later, the species was spotted again in Bahia Honda State Park. Since the species’ rediscovery, scientists and conservationists have worked tirelessly to preserve what is left of the subspecies and begin to rebuild the shattered population.

The McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the University of Florida specializes in the conservation and research of pollinating insects. Their research has led them to the Miami blue butterfly.

Currently, a team of graduate students, underneath the guidance of Jaret Daniels, director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, is endeavoring to restore the Miami blue population.

Sarah Cabrera, one of Daniels’ graduate students at the University of Florida, referred to the Miami blue butterfly as a “gateway insect.”

“Butterflies are ambassadors to help people relate to insect conservation,” Cabrera said.

Insect conservation is an area of conservation that is often overlooked due to the perception of insects as “pests and a nuisance," according to journalist Christian Schwagerl of Yale Environment 360.

Conservationists are pointing to human influence as the primary contributor to the decline of insects globally. Species of beetles, moths, and bees have all found their way onto the United States endangered or threatened species list. The population decline in some of the world’s smallest residents is not without big implications, according to Cabrera.

“We are losing massive amounts of insects," Cabrera said. "It has effects up and down the food chain.”

Schwagerl points to the wide use of nitrogen based fertilizers as a cause for the decrease in insect population. The nitrogen fertilizers are effective in protecting a particular crop, whilst simultaneously destroying the delicate ecosystems that protect another plant species.

Schwagerl cited a study in which Stanford ecologist Rodolfo Dirzo concluded that there has been a 45 percent decline globally in the population of invertebrate insects over the past four decades. This is potentially problematic to humans because insects serve as a primary base for most food chains.

“The researchers emphasize that pollinating insects improve or stabilize the yield of three-quarters of all crop types globally — one-third of global crop production by volume,” Schwagerl said.

Dirzo is not alone. Schwagerl cited other studies within her article that show that researchers worldwide have noticed a dramatic drop in the population of the primary base for the world’s food chain. The culprit, they argue, is human presence.

“I suspect it is a multiplicity of factors, most likely with habitat destruction, deforestation, fragmentation, urbanization, and agricultural conversion being the leading factors,” Dirzo said.

It seems that Cabrera agrees. She pointed to habitat destruction of the coastal ecosystems as a primary contributor to the Miami blue’s population decline.

“Severe habitat loss, highly fragmented habitat, or complete habitat loss [of the Miami blue butterflies’ natural habitat is a major problem],” Cabrera said.

However, the future for insects is not without hope. Research projects like the one with which Cabrera is involved endeavor to rebuild a fallen population through understanding the environmental factors a particular insect needs to survive and reproduce long-term.

“Species introduction is not simple,” Cabrera said. “We need to understand enough about this butterfly to truly meet its needs, really taking time to understand the butterfly, what is going on in the system, host plants, and what is missing in the system.”

As a result of the studies performed about the needs of the Miami blue butterfly, researchers can advise people of the best ways to contribute to its propogation based on location. For those in South Florida, the University of Florida research team recommends planting native plants when possible and cutting back on heavy pesticides. According to Cabrera, native plants are easier to take care of than non-native plants because they are adjusted to Florida’s seasonal rain cycles.

The Miami Blue butterfly has survived habitat loss, pesticide exposure and many hurricanes since its supposed extinction in 1992. With the effort of research programs like the University of Florida’s, the low-maintenance gateway insect will be around to fight for the return of its population for many more years.

By Jessica Lykins and Michaela Payne

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