Having a flutter: a lack of food for butterfly larvae has eaten into numbers. Photo: Getty
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Butterflies are beautiful but we need to love their larvae too

The numbers of monarch butterflies are at a record low and a large part of this is because of the disappearance of the milkweed plant, eaten by caterpillars.

Sometimes, to prove a point, you have to starve a larva. It’s all too easy to be bewitched by the beauty of a passing butterfly but not so easy to admire the foraging of a voracious caterpillar. We should, though: it turns out that the two are linked.

Researchers in the US have been putting monarch butterfly larvae on strict diets and observing the consequences for the butterflies they become. This kind of butterfly is in grave trouble. Every year, the insects perform an extraordinary 3,000-mile migration from Canada and the northern US down to central Mexico, where they gather on a few mountaintops for the winter.

In 2012, about 60 million monarchs arrived in the Mexican mountains. That was a record low until the 2013 figures came in – the number arriving was almost half that of the previous year. It was the lowest figure since records began in 1993.

A big problem is the widespread disappearance of the milkweed plant. Monarch larvae eat only milkweed and urbanisation and industrial farming practices have made it scarce.

Hence the research, which was published last April. The researchers found that restricting the monarch larva’s milkweed intake reduces the size of its wings when it emerges from the chrysalis. It is likely that this stunted growth makes the migration much harder work.

Monarchs also seem to need food to maintain their looks. The colours of the orange-and-black wing patterns are deeper, with more striking contrast, in monarchs covering the most distance. It may be that feeding up the larvae to produce better fliers will also produce more beautiful butterflies.

The aesthetic argument is one of very few available to conservationists. Researchers can’t point to any specific benefit that monarchs bring: they don’t seem to play a crucial role in any ecosystem and their removal from specific ecosystems “would probably not have lasting repercussions”, as one report put it. The monarchs don’t contribute anything apart from a beautiful spectacle when they migrate.

British butterflies are even worse off – they don’t have a spectacular migration. In March, the UK government issued a draft of its “pollinator strategy” document, which outlines what might be done about the severe decline in numbers of pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and moths. The charity Butterfly Conservation said that it “strongly welcomes” the proposed strategy (though it dismisses as “ludicrous” the idea that pesticide companies should self-regulate).

Yet there is a slightly dejected tone to the charity’s chief executive’s observations. He points out that while bees are acknowledged to have economic value as pollinators of agricultural crops, butterflies are not and are therefore less likely to receive government help. In the age of market forces, it is not enough to be beautiful.

However, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in March, butterflies’ relatively short life cycle and “high dispersal capacity” make them very useful markers of climate change.

That is certainly true of the British butterfly population, which, apart from a few cold-loving species, is thriving in our warming climate. In the past 20 years, for instance, the orange-and-black comma butterfly has spread 137 miles northwards.

If you lived in Edinburgh in the early 1990s, you would not have seen one. Now they’re not an uncommon sight: an effect of global warming that’s hard to complain about.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Photo: Getty
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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia