Counting butterflies to calm the anxious mind

A new study suggests that taking the time to watch and count butterflies can reduce anxiety, as well as providing vital information in the fight for nature.

We know that when people feel connected to Nature they are more motivated to protect it and we often champion citizen-science projects in these pages. Now, a pioneering study has proven that specifically counting butterflies reduces anxiety by 9%. The research was undertaken by the University of Derby, using Butterfly Conservation’s 2022 Big Butterfly Count as a focus.

‘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 one 15-minute count or took part multiple times,’ explains lead researcher Dr Carly Butler. ‘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.’

‘This study is the first to prove that the simple act of looking for and counting butterflies leads to a measurable decrease in anxiety,’ adds Dr Richard Fox, head of science at Butterfly Conservation. ‘We need people to care and we know that being connected to Nature sparks these caring feelings and a desire to do something positive… Simple acts, such as creating wild spaces to provide a haven for wildlife or planting butterfly-friendly plants in pots on a terrace or balcony, can have a positive impact.’

Every year, tens of thousands of people volunteer their time for the Big Butterfly Count, spending 15 minutes in a sunny spot, looking out for common butterflies and day-flying moths — the ensuing data is vital to the charity’s conservation work. The citizen-science survey was launched in 2010 and has become the world’s biggest butterfly survey. More than 64,000 people took part in 2022, and this year’s event will take place from July 12 to August 4.