Unsure About Butterfly Releases?

A Position Paper

by the International Butterfly Breeders Association

Compiled and presented by: Melanie J. McCarthy, The Monarchy Butterfly Farm

Recent controversy–brought about by media reports and the statements of some butterfly enthusiasts–has resulted in questions about butterfly releases and whether they are harmful to the environment or to the wild butterfly population. Some of those questions and our answers to those questions follow:

  1. Do hand reared butterflies carry diseases that can pose a serious threat to wild butterfly populations?

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. Butterfly farmers do not release or use for breeding any livestock that indicates the presence of disease. For example, in the case of the Monarch butterfly, all responsible Monarch breeders test for the presence of O. elektroscirrha protozoa, the disease of most concern to the North American Butterfly Association. Commercial breeders who do not maintain pathogen-free breeding conditions are out of business in a season or less. Furthermore, predators, parasites and pathogens have far more impact on wild butterfly populations where less than 2% of all eggs are able to mature into adult butterflies.

In a recent Associated Press article (written by Mike Branom dated 10/11/99) Don Lewis, Professor of Entomology at Iowa State University is quoted as follows: “It has been a good year (1999) for butterflies in general and we’ re looking forward to a prolonged fall so we can enjoy the show.” Mr. Branom reports, also, that eyewitness accounts corroborate this with reports of unusually high numbers of Monarchs in September of 1999. This is evidence of a healthy wild Monarch population, even after years of captive- bred butterfly releases. All butterfly populations, however, are cyclical and are affected by many factors including unseasonable and destructive weather conditions.

  1. Will laboratory or farm raised Monarchs be ‘mixed up’ and unable to find their way to overwintering sites?

Decades of research has proven that, in fact, captive raised Monarchs retain their instinct to migrate. The Monarch Watch organization based at the University of Kansas has distributed to schools (throughout states east of the Rockies) thousands of larvae in educational kits resulting in classroom rearing, tagging and releasing of thousands of Monarchs. Dozens of these butterflies have been recovered at the Monarch overwintering sights in Central Mexico. Only Monarchs emerging in late summer and fall migrate. Those raised and released in spring and summer will remain in the local area and continue their life cycles.

During the last few hundred years, this butterfly has been expanding its range from its traditional U.S. homeland to become one of the world’s most widely distributed butterflies. Every year some turn up in southern England and in 1998, 30 were seen and recorded there! Further south in Europe they have managed to establish themselves in the Azores and Canary Islands. Recently this expansion has continued and they can now be found in southern Portugal and Spain, where they mix with the African Monarch which is expanding it’s range northwards! West of the U.S. they have spread to inhabit most of the Pacific Island, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. The New Zealand Monarch population has also established a migratory behavior and overwinters in concentrations similar to their U.S. relatives. It appears that, in time, all regions with suitable climates and wild-growing Asclepias (milkweed) will be conquered by this wonderful butterfly.

  1. How is this industry regulated?

In order to ship butterflies across state lines for release, breeders must obtain a permit from the USDA-APHIS-PPQ-SS (United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Protection Service, Plant Protection and Quarantine, Scientific Services). There are strict guidelines and the USDA permits butterflies to be released only in states that have appropriate habitat.

  1. Do the butterflies die in shipping?

It is rare that butterflies die in shipping and breeders do everything they can to prevent that from happening. The shipping policy of the IBBA was developed to protect the butterfly from expiring en route to its destination. The policy states that livestock will be packaged for shipping in containers that provide protection from temperature extremes, drop shock and compression injury. Professional, established butterfly breeders would not be able to stay in business for as long as they have if butterflies died in shipping.

  1. Will there be an undesirable mixing of genes between captive bred and wild populations of butterflies?

Scientists have no evidence that gene pools are adversely affected by releasing farm-reared butterflies into the wild.

  1. What is behind the criticism of butterfly releases?

Many serious hobbyists have taken a respected hobby out of nature and turned it into a commercial business. We are one of the only industries that actually raises livestock for the sole purpose of letting it go free. Many of the controversial statements are centered around words such as “might” or “could.” There are strong emotions regarding the controversy and it might be that some people, in principle, simply do not like to see butterflies ‘commercialized.’

  1. Are there benefits to rearing and releasing butterflies?

“The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Butterfly World” by Paul Smart in its introduction, states:

Sadly, butterflies are threatened by habitat destruction almost everywhere . . . . In some countries people have begun to conserve desirable wildlife, but even here many important food plants are regarded as ‘weeds’ and removed—patches of rough, wild vegetation are anathema to town planners and highway authorities . . . . a positive contribution may be made by aiding conservation projects and by helping to breed and release healthy butterflies in suitable habitats, though this should always be done as part of a documented and properly organized project.”

The IBBA believes that by releasing butterflies on special occasions, individuals will associate the magnificence of butterflies with a very significant event in their lives. The love and appreciation for butterflies will initiate interest in butterfly gardening, encourage the decreased use of insecticides by property owners and help in efforts to preserve butterfly habitats. Butterfly releases also have the potential to spark a new interest in and appreciation of entomology in both young and old.

In addition breeders often provide considerable time and resources to schools and other organizations in their communities such as senior citizen centers, nursing homes, children’s hospitals, prison programs and more. You will also find them actively supporting organizations which promote conservation of our wildlife and other natural resources.

  1. What is the IBBA?

The IBBA (International Butterfly Breeders Association) is an international non-profit membership-based trade association promoting high standards of ethics, competence and professionalism in the breeding of quality lepidoptera for a variety of purposes. We accomplish this through research, grower education, market development, and habitat conservation and restoration. Our membership base includes entomologists, lepidopterists, biologists, educators, business people, hobbyists and students.