Stock image of a peacock buttefly sitting on wild flowers

Taking part in the annual Big Butterfly Count was found to reduce anxiety by almost 10%. © Jack Soldano/ Shutterstock.

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Counting butterflies can reduce anxiety

Taking part in the UK’s Big Butterfly Count has been found to reduce anxiety by almost 10%.

As well as helping scientists collect data, citizen science projects could have the mutual benefit of enhancing mental wellbeing and nature connectedness among participants.

If you feel a sense of calm when watching butterflies, you are not alone.

A new study by the wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation has revealed that counting butterflies can reduce anxiety and increase feelings of connectedness to nature.

Researchers surveyed people before and after taking part in the 2022 Big Butterfly Count, a UK-wide citizen science project in which participants spend 15 minutes recording the number and type of butterflies they see.

The results, published in Biological Conservation, showed that this brief tuning in to nature reduced anxiety by 9% on average. Participants also reported that they noticed butterflies more often for around six to seven weeks after taking part in the count.

Data collected from the Big Butterfly Count is used to monitor the numbers of different butterfly species in the UK. Butterflies react very quickly to changes in their environment, so they are a good indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem.

Citizen science projects like this are vital to help scientists understand how populations of species are changing. While data collection and raising awareness of conservation have been their primary objective, the bonus impacts that the simple act of taking part has on participants has so far received less consideration.

Dr Blanca Huertas, Principal Curator of butterflies at the Natural History Museum, says, “it is very important that people get involved in citizen science projects as the benefit is mutual. It is a way for people to engage with nature, feel helpful and connect with others.”

“It is also very important to have an ‘army’ of helpers collecting data. Scientists don’t always have the resources to collect data or continue long-term monitoring programmes, so it is really valuable. We need lots of data to answer big questions about the world and the problems nature and the planet is encountering.”

A `Big Butterfly Count' poster set in a wild flower garden to help children and others identify different types of butterfly

Taking part in citizen science projects like the Big Butterfly Count could help people become more connected to nature. © Barking/ Shutterstock.

Why is nature connectedness important?

Nature connectedness refers to how connected an individual feels to the natural world and is used as an important measure of the relationship between people and the natural world.

A growing body of evidence shows how an increase in nature connection leads to an increase in human wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours where people are more motivated to protect the natural world. Therefore, trying to find solutions to improve nature connectedness is essential for conservation and restoring biodiversity.

The increased nature connectedness reported by participants of the Big Butterfly Count highlights the broader impact that citizen science projects can have on nature conservation.

Carly Butler, a Researcher in nature connectedness at the University of Derby and lead researcher on the study, said, “our study showed that even small periods of time spent watching and counting butterflies are beneficial, with the benefits of reduced anxiety and stronger nature connectedness being the same whether people carried out just one 15-minute count or took part multiple times.”

“This is key in proving that simple, small pockets of time connecting with wildlife and nature have a profound and beneficial effect on how we feel.”

The study participants were asked to record the emotions they felt while taking part in the count. The results show a range of positive and negative emotions, including joy, fascination, sadness, and concern. The latter was likely driven by participants not seeing as many butterflies as expected and fear over what is happening to the planet.

“Interestingly, the more intensely participants felt these emotions, the more their feeling of closeness to nature and noticing wildlife increased afterwards,” says Carly. “Participants reported they felt motivated to help butterflies and nature more, by doing things such as transforming their gardens into butterfly-friendly havens.”

Stock image of a woman in a park watching wildlife with binoculars

The more intensely participants felt strong emotions during the survey, the more their feelings of closeness to nature and noticing wildlife increased afterwards. © Stephane Bidouze/ Shutterstock.

Are butterflies endangered in the UK?

Despite the benefits that watching butterflies can bring, numbers of the insects in the UK have decreased significantly since the 1970s.

Over half of all British butterfly species have been placed on the UK Red List as being identified as under threat of extinction, with climate change and habitat loss being the main drivers of decline.

Butterflies play a vital role in the ecosystem as both pollinators and components of the food chain. They are particularly sensitive to the environment, so their decline is often seen as an early warning sign for other wildlife losses. Monitoring their numbers is, therefore, a crucial indicator as to whether nature is in trouble.

Gardening is a great way to help butterflies and moths. Separate research by Butterfly Conservation has shown that gardens can act as a safe haven for butterflies, and butterfly-friendly spaces can play an important role in sustaining populations.

“Butterflies feed on nectar when they are adults. At this stage, they aren’t too fussy and will feed on a range of flowers like buddleia, for example,” says Blanca.

“However, if you want to help protect specific species, it is important to learn which species of plants they feed on as caterpillars. One way to help butterflies and many other insects is by discouraging the use of plastic like fake grass or flowers.”

“The lack of shelter and food is sending insects and butterflies away from our gardens and terraces. If you grow native species, even in a pot on a windowsill, you are helping nature!”