Butterfly abundance is determined by food availability and is mediated by species traits



  1. Understanding the drivers of population abundance across species and sites is crucial for effective conservation management. At present, we lack a framework for predicting which sites are likely to support abundant butterfly communities.
  2. We address this problem by exploring the determinants of abundance among 1111 populations of butterflies in the UK, spanning 27 species on 54 sites. Our general hypothesis is that the availability of food resources is a strong predictor of population abundance both within and between species, but that the relationship varies systematically with species’ traits.
  3. We found strong positive correlations between butterfly abundance and the availability of food resources. Our indices of host plant and nectar are both significant predictors of butterfly population density, but the relationship is strongest for host plants, which explain up to 36% of the inter-site variance in abundance for some species.
  4. Among species, the host plant–abundance relationship is mediated by butterfly species traits. It is strongest among those species with narrow diet breadths, low mobility and habitat specialists. Abundance for species with generalist diet and habitat associations is uncorrelated with our host plant index.
  5. The host plant–abundance relationship is more pronounced on sites with predominantly north-facing slopes, suggesting a role for microclimate in mediating resource availability.
  6. Synthesis and applications. We have shown that simple measures can be used to help understand patterns in abundance at large spatial scales. For some butterfly species, population carrying capacity on occupied sites is predictable from information about the vegetation composition. These results suggest that targeted management to increase host plant availability will translate into higher carrying capacity. Among UK butterflies, the species that would benefit most from such intervention have recently experienced steep declines in both abundance and distribution. The host plant–abundance relationship we have identified is likely to be transferrable to other systems characterized by strong interspecific interactions across trophic levels. This raises the possibility that the quality of habitat patches for specialist species is estimable from rapid assessment of the host plant resource.