Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Counts, Pollinator Week Highlight Butterflies' Vital Role

Pollinator Week, June 22-28, couldn’t come at a more appropriate time in Georgia. The first of 12 butterfly counts in the state start this week.

The purpose of Pollinator Week, recognized by Gov. Sonny Perdue with a proclamation, is to teach pollinator-friendly practices and raise awareness of the importance of the birds, bees, bats, beetles, butterflies, moths and flies needed to produce 80 percent of flowering plants and a third of food crops.

There is evidence some pollinator species in North America are declining, according to the National Academy of Sciences. As Georgia’s butterflies flutter through the state, biologists with the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources want to remind residents that butterflies are key pollinators for many flowering plants and crops.

DNR biologists and volunteers working with the North American Butterfly Association are coordinating counts to provide a better idea of the status of butterfly populations in Georgia.

“Compared to Georgia’s vertebrate wildlife, relatively little is known about our insects, even highly visible and beautiful species like butterflies,” said wildlife biologist Tim Keyes of Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section. “As public interest grows in these charismatic and important insects, the knowledge can help contribute to baseline knowledge of species distribution, abundance and eventually their response to habitat, weather and climate changes.”

Keyes will lead a July 6 count at Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge near Macon. Other events are scheduled from Rabun to Dougherty County (details at www.naba.org/counts.html).

Retired entomologist Jerry Payne organizes the count at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge and Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area north of Macon – set for Friday, June 26 – and takes part in five others.

Butterflies are sensitive indicators of the environment’s health because of their dependence on specific plants where they lay eggs and feed, and even certain habitats, Payne explained. Counting them also has its rewards. “They’re colorful as fireworks and a lot less dangerous,” he said.

The data volunteers collect is compiled into a report that researchers use to study geographical distribution and population sizes. Comparisons of years of data – 2009 marks the 35th year of counts – yield some of the best information for determining the health of butterfly species.

Georgia is home to about 165 of those species. While monarchs are the best known of the butterfly migrants, many other species, including cloudless sulphur, gulf fritillary, painted and American ladies, and Georgia’s state butterfly, the eastern tiger swallowtail, are also migratory, although the exact nature of their migratory flights is not well understood.

For a list of Georgia’s butterflies and more information on how you can participate in the counts or other Pollinator Week activities, visit these Web sites: DNR Wildlife Resource (www.georgiawildlife.com), the North American Butterfly Association (www.naba.org/counts.html) and Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org/pollinator_week_2009.htm). Weather can change count dates.

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