The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Take photos of butterflies to help scientists learn more about these amazing insects

Friend of the Earth is making a list of butterflies and moths -- many of which are endangered -- with the help of citizen scientists.

The Friend of the Earth group has started a Global Butterflies Census. There are nearly 180,000 butterfly and moth species, and as many as one-third may be threatened with extinction. People around the world take photos of butterflies and moths and send them to the group so scientists can figure out how to help the insects. LEFT: Remy Flisi, 5, of Herndon, shows a butterfly submitted for the survey. RIGHT: Elletra Gregori, 7, from Italy, submitted several photographs, including the nine-spotted moth in the bottom image. It's best to photograph the butterflies without handling them. (Audrey Flisi; Family photos)
Placeholder while article actions load

Butterflies and moths are some of the most beautiful insects on Earth. They also play an important role in keeping ecosystems healthy. They are pollinators, which move pollen from one flower to another when they land on them to drink nectar. This fertilizes the flowers and helps them develop the seed-containing fruits that they need to reproduce. More than 80 percent of flowering plants need pollinators — including a lot of our favorite foods.

There are nearly 180,000 moth and butterfly species around the world. As many as one-third of them may be threatened with extinction. This is mainly because their habitats are being converted for farming or being bulldozed for buildings and roads. Climate change and chemicals in the soil and water also hurt these insects. Figuring out how to help them is difficult, because scientists know very little about most kinds of moths and butterflies.

Friend of the Earth is an organization that is trying to increase scientific knowledge. This will hopefully help humans do a better job of protecting these insects. In January 2021, Friend of the Earth started a Global Butterflies Census. People anywhere in the world are invited to take photos of moths and butterflies and send them to the organization. This kind of citizen science allows entomologists — scientists who study insects — to learn what kinds of butterflies and moths are alive and where.

“This is a method that helps the experts have more data so they can [advise] governments to protect certain areas or make new laws” that will keep moth and butterfly populations strong, says Paolo Bray. He’s Friend of the Earth’s founder.

Helping people understand the benefits of the insects is also important. Bray says that in some cultures, butterflies are seen as bad luck, so people kill them when they find them. He hopes that getting people in those cultures involved in this project will show them how special these pollinators are.

So far, citizen scientists — including kids — have sent slightly more than 1,300 photos of 561 species in 28 countries. Naturalist Clarissa Puccioni puts the entries into a database. Among them have been photos of two rare butterflies from Malaysia and 18 moth and butterfly species that are endangered in Europe. Several other species have been found in places far from where they usually live and travel.

The butterfly census is ongoing. Getting involved by yourself, with friends or with your school class is easy. Ask a grown-up to download WhatsApp on their phone. Take photos of any butterflies and moths you see while you are out on walks. Get as close as you can, but do not to disturb the insect or pick it up. Then send the photo to +39 351 2522520.

Along with the photo, be sure to include your coordinates — the longitude and latitude of your location. The Google Maps app will tell you the coordinates when you press on your location and drop a pin. Scroll down and you will see something like 38.90298 N, 77.03082 W (our coordinates at KidsPost in Washington, D.C.).

Friend of the Earth will send you an identification of your butterfly. It will also add it to an interactive map that shows where all the census butterflies and moths have been found so far, along with information about the species and your name. How many butterflies can you find this spring and summer?