© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

These Kansas scientists want you to send in dead butterflies and moths. No, really.

Physical scientist Julie Dietze with envelopes residents sent in with butterflies and moths.
Courtesy of Julie Dietze
Physical scientist Julie Dietze with envelopes residents sent in with butterflies and moths.

Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are studying how environmental contaminants like pesticides and antibiotics are impacting butterfly and moth populations.

As butterfly and moth populations decline worldwide, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are asking residents of Kansas and five other states to mail in the dead insects.

The researchers are investigating how environmental contaminants such as pesticides or antibiotics might contribute to shrinking butterfly and moth species.

To do this, scientists need to test dead butterflies and moths from areas with high levels of agriculture and factory farms – like Kansas. The U.S. Geological Survey is relying on residents to get them those samples.

“We can’t answer the questions without everybody’s help,” said Julie Dietze, a physical scientist at the Kansas Water Science Center who is leading the project. “There’s not like a vendor where you can order 25 luna moths from a walnut forest.”

Butterflies in the lab at Kansas Water Science Center.
Courtesy of Julie Dietze
Butterflies in the lab at Kansas Water Science Center.

Scientists are also asking for butterfly and moth samples from Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama and Georgia – more agricultural states without many environmental protections that would limit the legality of collecting and mailing the insects.

Monarch butterflies – the iconic orange-and-black species with a shrinking population – also travel through several of these states on their annual migration from Canada to Mexico.

Dietze said pesticides and antibiotics can contaminate butterflies and moths in a number of ways. The bugs might fly right through a garden or crops recently treated with pesticides, getting the spray on their wings and bodies. Or, they could feed on nectar from plants that took up antibiotics through water.

“Antibiotics and pesticides are the two things that are not supposed to be present in an insect,” Dietze said.

The scientists have a list of contaminants to test for, including pesticides and antibiotics frequently used in agriculture, hormone levels and even artificial sweeteners.

“One butterfly or moth could make a difference,” Dietze said. “If we found an artificial sweetener in a giant silk moth, that’s a big deal.”

Julie Dietze works in the lab with a Sphinx Moth from Texas.
Courtesy of Julie Dietze
Julie Dietze works in the lab with a Sphinx Moth from Texas.

The specimens that people send in will be added to a publicly accessible database so that scientists and residents around the nation can view or even study the butterflies and moths collected.

Any butterflies and moths that residents submit should be at least two inches and must already be dead when collected. Submissions can be made through Nov. 1. For more information about how to submit, view the project flyer below.

The mailing address is:
USGS LRC
1217 Biltmore Drive
Lawrence, KS 66049

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.