Farming Butterflies

The wedding was beautiful, the natural harmony of the union symbolized by the release of a thousand white butterflies into the blue skies of a perfect afternoon. But was it "beautiful" for the butterflies?

Conservationists and most butterfly breeders want the same thing; healthy, robust butterflies populating the Earth. Yet, heated opposition divides the two camps. Conservationists believe the ceremonial release of farmed butterflies has an unknown potential to negatively impact native species. Breeders believe their business not only enables a magical moment with nature, but helps to increase butterfly populations.

Although scientists agree that data are lacking on the effect of farmed butterflies on native populations, it’s the potential impact that drives the opposition. "Disease is the most serious threat," says Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Glassberg says raising large numbers of butterflies in close quarters "fosters the spread and concentration of existing diseases and encourages the development of new ones." Scientists are also concerned that breeders may inbreed butterflies, potentially altering their survival behaviors.

NABA tells people who ask about releasing butterflies for weddings or other occasions that "this well-meaning but misguided practice
inappropriately mixes genetically distinct populations of the same species, may disrupt migratory behavior of native butterflies, confuses scientific studies of butterfly migrations and [because releases are at the wrong time of year or in the wrong location for the species] usually results in the untimely death of the butterflies released."

Ann Potter, wildlife biologist for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, explains that it is difficult to study the behavior and movement of native butterflies when scientists cannot determine whether individuals are naturally present or released. "It makes research problematic," Potter says.

Some breeders, such as Christopher Singer, founder of the Live Monarch Foundation, welcome scientists to team up with them. Singer’s butterflies are raised from eggs laid by wild-born gravid females, then released. He works with scientists who mark and track the insects.

Most agree that releasing farmed butterflies has some kind of an impact on the environment. But the exact nature of that impact is yet undetermined. Andrea Schepmann, management and horticultural specialist for the Krohn Conservatory in Ohio, concludes, "It falls to all of us, as organizations, scientists and communities, to pull together, to continue to track butterflies and their habitat, so all of our long-term records will fit together to give us an accurate picture to work with."