The Battle Over Butterfly Releases
Butterfly releases, the practice of releasing commercially bred butterflies for weddings, school events and other special occasions, has been increasing in popularity of late.
Butterflies have a dual identity. They are known for their beauty and, as any backyard gardener knows, they are also known as agricultural pests.
Because of the potential to wreck havoc on agricultural products, commercial butterfly breeding for release is regulated by both state and federal agencies.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the interstate transfer of live butterflies. Currently they provide permits for the transportation and release of eight species. These are the showy species, just the types that people like to see. They are comparatively large butterflies with bright colors.
- Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) - Monarchs are the only species that cannot be shipped across the continental divide.
- The Zebra Longwing Butterfly (Heliconius charitonius)
- The Giant Swallowtail (Heraclides cresphontes)
- Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
- The Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
- Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
- Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
- American Painted Lady (Vanessa virgiensis)
In 1998, The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) came out against the practice of butterfly releases saying,
"Butterflies raised by unregulated commercial interests may spread diseases and parasites to wild populations, with devastating results. Often, butterflies are released great distances from their points of origin, resulting in inappropriate genetic mixing of different populations when the same species is locally present. When it is not, a nonnative species is being introduced in the area of release. At best, this confuses studies of butterfly distribution and migration; at worst, it may result in deleterious changes to the local ecology."
Responding to the article, a spokesman for the International Butterfly Breeders Association said,
"There is no basis in fact to support the statement that butterfly releases are harmful to the wild butterfly population. As in all types of agriculture, disease prevention in butterfly and moth farming is key to a quality product and vital to a successful operation."
Who's right? There is no easy answer. The controversy is relatively new and the number of releases is still so small as to not allow for reliable research that is generalizable to the larger environment.
While the effects of butterfly releases on the environment is little understood, the issue of the effects of butterfly releases on the butterflies themselves can be intuitively grasped. Butterflies are fans of warm weather and sunshine. Many are reliant on specific plants and flowers for not only their food but also their larvae's food. Any butterfly release in alien habitat or unfriendly weather conditions is certain to doom the butterfly.
© 2002. Patricia A. Michaels. All rights reserved.