What do a monarch butterfly and a southwest spring firefly have in common? Both are iconic insects in their own right, vital to the ecosystems in which they exist. Monarchs capture the hearts of those who marvel at their epic migratory prowess. Fireflies dazzle the imagination as they light up the night sky with their luminous flashing patterns.
Pollinators are at the core of a healthy environment and pollinate most flowering plants, including many of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that both humans and wildlife depend on. Fireflies are significant predators in soil, wetland, and other important food webs and serve as prey for other animals. Unfortunately, despite their allure and importance, habitat loss and climate change threaten the survival of these insects and many other invertebrates, due in part to inadequate state-level protections.
In the following profiles, we share nine of our favorite invertebrates in need of protection. Each hails from a state that currently does not define all insects as wildlife, meaning that state wildlife agencies are unable to plan and manage habitat for their protection. At the Xerces Society, we are working with state partners to change that and protect these incredible invertebrates for years to come.
Southwest Spring Firefly
- State: Arizona
- Species: Southwest spring firefly (Bicellonycha wickershamorum)
- Description: Fireflies are awe-inspiring animals that not only enchant our skies, but also perform important ecosystem functions as predators and prey in local food webs. The snail-eating Southwest spring firefly (Bicellonycha wickershamorum) is a habitat specialist associated with permanent springs and streams in southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Because this species is active in the evening and associated with wetland and riparian habitats, it is especially threatened by drought; disruption of riparian corridors; light pollution; habitat degradation and trampling due to cattle grazing and recreation; and groundwater depletion for farming, ranching, urban development, and copper mining.
- State: Colorado
- Species: Uncompahgre fritillary (Boloria acrocnema)
- Description: The Uncompahgre fritillary is a small butterfly living in southwestern Colorado. It is a habitat specialist, only laying its eggs on snow willow, a plant usually found beneath melting snowfields on northeast facing slopes above 11,000 ft that provide moisture through the growing season. Listed as an endangered species in 1991, this butterfly remains on the brink of extinction with threats related to climate change and grazing. Given the fragility of alpine environments and the accelerating pace of climate change, the survival of this species serves as an important barometer of our collective commitment to the stewardship of our planet.
- State: Nevada
- Species: Western monarch (Danaus plexippus)
- Description: Monarch butterflies are yet another small but mighty pollinator. Weighing less than two grams, monarchs journey hundreds to thousands of miles every fall to overwinter on the California coast and in the forests of Central Mexico. It’s one of the longest known insect migrations in North America. In the summer, monarchs spend their time breeding on their host-plant, milkweed, throughout the inland regions of the continent. However, monarchs are undergoing long-term declines in population, likely linked to widespread pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change.
- State: New Mexico
- Species: Moon-marked skipper (Atrytonopsis lunus)
- Description: Named for the crescent-shaped white fringe on its hindwings, moon-marked skippers (Atrytonopsis lunus) are part of a diverse community of herbivores that feed on grasses as caterpillars in the Sonoran Desert. These rare skippers in the family Hesperiidae are found only in southern Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, where they are vulnerable to overgrazing by livestock, increasing wildfire frequencies, invasion by nonnative grasses, and the effects of climate change, including prolonged droughts and higher temperatures. These changes can eliminate patches of the mulhy grasses (Muhlenbergia) caterpillars feed on and reduce the availability of nectar plants like agave or native thistles.
Morrison Bumble Bee
- State: Oregon
- Species: Morrison bumble bee (Bombus morrisoni)
- Description: Oregon is home to a number of insects that are threatened with extinction, such as the Morrison bumble bee (Bombus morrisoni). This is a large, golden-colored bee that makes it home in arid shrublands around western North America, including eastern Oregon. Morrison bumble bees forage for nectar and pollen at a wide variety of flowers, especially those in the mint and legume families. An important pollinator of wild plants, researchers have also found that they are an effective pollinator of alfalfa.
American Bumble Bee
- State: Pennsylvania
- Species: American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus)
- Description: The American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) was once one of the most common and widespread bumble bee species in North America. The abundance of the American bumble bee has declined by an average of 51% over the last 20 years, with especially precipitous declines in the Upper Midwest and Northeast US, including its namesake state of Pennsylvania. The range of the American bumble bee has also contracted by an estimated 23%. This alarming reduction is likely due to multiple factors working synergistically, including disease, pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change.
Loopy Five Firefly
- State: Tennessee
- Species: Loopy five firefly (Photuris forresti)
- Description: Lightning bugs or fireflies are some of our most cherished insects, creating memories that connect us to places. Known from just a few southeastern states, the loopy five firefly blinks its unique flash pattern while flying above marshy wetlands. Its common name, loopy five, refers to the series of four to seven rising and falling flashes that males emit while trying to catch the attention of females. The floodplain where the species was discovered was bulldozed to build a golf course, and other populations need protection from habitat destruction and degradation, light pollution, and pesticides.
- State: Utah
- Species: Wool-carder bee (Anthidium rodecki)
- Description: Solitary bees provide important pollination services in wild and agricultural settings. Rodeck’s wool carder bee is named for a group of bees that collects plant fibers to use in their nests. This imperiled bee is a habitat specialist that is only found in sand dunes, and has been observed in seven states across the Intermountain West. It has not been recently observed in much of its range, with most records from only a few locations in Utah. This species faces threats from climate change and recreational activities in the sand dune habitats it occupies, including ATV use.
Western Bumble Bee
- State: Wyoming
- Species: Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis)
- Description: Bumble bees occur throughout much of the world, providing important ecosystem services by pollinating wild and cultivated plants. The western bumble bee was once a common species in western North America, but unfortunately populations have declined and the species is increasingly rare. Compared to its historic range, this species is now largely restricted to high elevation areas. While the causes of these declines are not fully understood, likely contributing factors include habitat loss and fragmentation, exposure to pesticides and pathogens, climate change, and competition with non-native species. As a result of these declines, the western bumble bee will be considered for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.
If we hope to curb the losses of insect diversity and the ecosystem services they provide, we must work at all levels to conserve, restore, and enhance habitat for these animals. Viable solutions do exist to protect the at-risk species profiled here and many others. For instance, Nevada recently introduced a bill to include invertebrates in their definition of wildlife, serving as a model for other states where the authority to protect invertebrates is either in question or does not exist. Providing states with the authority to work to conserve butterflies, bumble bees, fireflies, and other important insects, as they do with mammals, birds and other wildlife, is a fundamental step in ensuring these animals do not become endangered and that society can retain the essential services they provide.
With the threat of climate change and other factors impacting insects, state agencies must have the necessary authority to protect these vital species. Individuals can also contribute to protecting at-risk insects by asking their elected officials to support new legislation or by joining a community science program. Additionally, by volunteering, donating, or supporting advocacy efforts, everyone can help amplify conservation efforts. By working together, advocates, policymakers, and concerned citizens can make progress on this and other conservation issues to ensure that important insect species like monarchs and fireflies persist and thrive in the future.