All Aflutter

The Flap Over the Mail Order Butterfly Industry


graphic of a bouquet of flowers with butterflies, one of which has a skull patternChristina Lum,

In the summer of 2007, Karen Oberhauser, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, posted a statement on her Web site,, that reversed the thinking behind much of her professional career.

After nearly 15 years, Oberhauser made the somewhat surprising decision to stop distributing live monarch butterflies to teachers and students as part of an educational outreach program called “Monarchs in the Classroom.” Oberhauser’s brief Web site statement, entitled “No Live Monarch Distribution in 2008,” noted that mortality rates in her lab for the previous two years were higher than acceptable and that the “possible effects of releasing unhealthy monarchs into the environment” could no longer be justified.

“I’ve always had this sort of tension in me thinking, you know, it’s not a completely positive thing that I’m doing,” Oberhauser says. “I always felt that tension. But I always felt the benefits outweighed the costs.”

Shortly after posting the announcement, Oberhauser received a number of critical e-mails from members of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA) – an industry trade group – who took issue with her observation that “Many large-scale monarch distributors and researchers, including our lab, are having disease problems.” That sentence, modified by an IBBA member to read “all monarch breeders are having huge disease problems and have no monarchs available for release,” was posted on the IBBA e-mail listserv and sparked a heated dialogue between Oberhauser and the commercial breeders about the potential risks of releasing captive-bred butterflies into the wild.

Some IBBA members – including Jacob Groth of Swallowtail Farms in California, one of the largest butterfly farms in North America – asked Oberhauser to remove the statement from her Web site, claiming that it was a misleading representation of the industry. Other breeders said that if they were to distribute diseased stock, they would lose their business after one or two seasons, a common argument among butterfly farmers, who say that the market acts as a corrective and weeds out reckless breeders.

In an e-mail to me, Groth said that Oberhauser’s decision to stop selling butterflies hardly matters. She is a researcher, he says, not a commercial breeder. “Most people who attempt to breed and rear monarchs on a commercial scale end up failing after they realize how difficult it is,” he wrote. “I would put Karen in that category. Just because she studies monarchs, doesn’t mean she can successfully grow them on a mass level. Just like if an aircraft engineer can design good airplanes, that doesn’t mean he can fly them.”

In fact, Oberhauser had been raising monarchs on a large scale for many years (roughly 50,000 a year), and it wasn’t until she relocated her lab from Minneapolis to St. Paul that disease became a significant problem. She still doesn’t know what caused the outbreak, and continues to raise monarchs, on a smaller scale, for research purposes. Since Oberhauser stopped distributing monarchs, many of the schoolteachers who once purchased butterflies from her lab say the butterflies they have since purchased from commercial breeders are not as healthy.

photo of a bride in wedding gown, butterfly on the dressistockphoto.comThe $161 billion wedding industry has fueled the trend
in ceremonial butterfly releases.

The exchange between Oberhauser and the commercial breeders was only the most recent debate in a now decade-long battle over the controversial practice of ceremonial butterfly releases. For the scientific community, the spread of disease, the possible infusion of non-adapted genes into local populations, and interference in the tracking and recording of wild butterflies are reasons why releases should either be severely limited or prohibited all together. In 1997, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) issued a statement signed by a number of leading lepidopterists condemning the practice as a form of “environmental pollution.” The statement read: “There’s no need to release butterflies. They’re already free.”

For the entrepreneurs who raise and sell butterflies for release at weddings, funerals, and other events, the absence of any evidence that the industry has had a negative impact on wild populations is proof that the scientists have overstated their case. The commercial butterfly breeders often note that critics of the industry rely on hypotheticals – this “could” happen or this “may” happen.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming, in a 2006 op-ed in The New York Times, characterized the controversy as “a microcosm of contemporary conservation-versus-corporation conflicts.”

This may be a somewhat simplified view, since many butterfly breeders (most of whom operate relatively small farms) consider themselves every bit as interested in conservation as NABA members. “The fact is that NABA and IBBA and all these other organizations, butterfly organizations, we have a lot more in common than where we differ,” says Zane Greathouse, president of the IBBA.

And even within the scientific community, there is hardly consensus on just how serious the problem is. Chip Taylor, a professor of entomology at the University of Kansas and founder of Monarch Watch, has defended butterfly releases as a way to educate the public. Like Oberhauser, Taylor has distributed monarchs to classrooms and individuals for many years. In a statement reprinted in the IBBA’s scientific data handbook, Taylor writes that, “Releases, in the present form, are a minor issue.” Taylor, however, has acknowledged that there are many unanswered questions and that under no conditions should diseased monarchs be released into the wild. A number of years ago, in his Monarch Watch newsletter, he asked: “Could there be serious consequences of releasing classroom-reared monarchs in the eastern population?” and “What might it take to have a genetic impact on monarchs?” These very questions have led to calls for a moratorium on butterfly releases.

NABA vigorously opposes butterfly releases in any form. The organization’s president, Jeffery Glassberg, calls the breeders “environmental terrorists” and likens their position to that of the tobacco industry, which refused for years to acknowledge that cigarettes cause cancer. “There’s no proof that they’re going to wipe out 90 percent of the North American butterflies until it happens,” he says.

The controversy has been sustained, in part, by a paucity of basic data – not only on butterfly disease morphology, but also on the industry itself. No one knows the exact number of butterflies released, in what states, and at what time of year.

In the early days of the industry, there was some concern that the USDA would ban butterfly releases altogether or that they would regulate the industry with such a heavy hand that it would be impossible to make a business out of it. The IBBA was formed in the late 1990s to counter early criticism of butterfly releases and to act as a kind of lobby vis-á-vis the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is charged with regulating the industry for the purpose of safeguarding agriculture. Because butterflies and moths are defined as pests (as caterpillars, they eat plants), they fall under the regulatory authority of the USDA.

Today, nine butterfly species can be released in those states where they commonly occur and where they do not pose a threat to plant species. Monarchs and painted ladies make up the vast majority – some estimates are as high as 99 percent – of the release business. Although the USDA issues permits valid for up to four years for the interstate shipment of butterflies (and each state requires its own permit), the agency does not keep track of how many butterflies are shipped. So even a review of the number of permits issued last year would tell you little about how many butterflies were shipped, say, from Florida to Minnesota or from Georgia to Maine.

It is impossible to know precisely how many commercial farms there are today as opposed to 10 years ago. Butterfly breeders are not required to register with the USDA. Farms are not inspected and there is very little oversight. “We are far from having our thumb on the heartbeat of the industry,” says Wayne Wehling, senior entomologist at the USDA.

It is clear, however, that the industry has grown rapidly in the last decade.

The butterfly trade would hardly exist if not for the wedding industry, which contributes roughly $161 billion to the US economy each year, and has encouraged the practice as a green alternative to releasing helium balloons or throwing rice. The idea was first mentioned in Beverly Clark’s popular book Planning a Wedding to Remember, published in 1995. In a section called “Other Special Touches,” Clark writes: “Today’s ecology-minded brides, who are looking for new ways to do something special for their weddings and the environment, might consider the newest concept in weddings, and release dozens of monarch butterflies.” Clark says that releases will increase the butterfly population and are thus good for the environment. As Swallowtail Farms proclaims on its Web site: “Orange is the new green.”

Clark and her husband Nelson run Beverly Clark Enterprises and a number of Web sites that market hotels to newlyweds. They helped invent what Rebecca Mead, author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, calls the “traditionalesque.” The phrase – from historian Eric Hobsbawm’s 1983 essay “Inventing Traditions” – describes how those in the wedding business seek to create new traditions that appear rooted in the past and that appeal to a certain desire for authenticity but are “really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge.” What was new 10 years ago has become a trend – though perhaps not yet a tradition – one that draws speciously on Native American mythology, and which most breeders believe has not reached its peak.

“It’s nowhere near the tipping point,” says Connie Hodsdon, a butterfly farmer in Tampa Bay, FL. Hodsdon, who started a business in butterfly garden design and installation before becoming a full-time commercial breeder, says that her business tripled in March of this year and that there is still a huge area for growth. On average, she ships out 45 orders of 50 butterflies a week, a marked increase from just a few years ago.

And that number does not include the wholesale distribution of larvae, eggs, and mature butterflies to other farmers who then sell them for release – for example, northern farmers whose breeding season starts later, or others who sell more butterflies than they can raise themselves. The industry has also spawned a secondary market in display cages and baskets, butterfly gifts and jewelry, and butterfly farming and gardening consultant services.

Edith Smith, who owns Shady Oak Butterfly Farm and is a founder of the Association for Butterflies, which offers free courses for wedding and event professionals, says that this year has been unlike any other. “[Sales] are way up,” she says. “We are turning down orders, hundreds of butterflies, all the time.”

The release business has been assisted by the ease and reach of online advertising and sales. In fact, the IBBA itself grew out of a popular online hub,, started by Rick Mikula, who runs Hole in the Hand Butterfly Farm in Pennsylvania, and his brother Jack, a web developer. Rick Mikula’s popular “Spread Your Wings and Fly” seminars provide instruction in rearing butterflies for release and in marketing to the wedding industry.

The IBBA currently has 112 mem- bers, 89 of whom are located in the US. Marc de Roche, a member of the IBBA in Switzerland, said in an e-mail that there is only one indus trial breeder in Europe and that releases are infrequent and generally quite small. He says that within Europe there are no restrictions on sending eggs, chrysalids, and pupae from one country to another. Releases are becoming more popular outside the US, especially in Australia and Latin America. This year, the IBBA held its annual conference in Costa Rica.

IBBA president Greathouse, a former fifth-grade science teacher who has conducted seminars with Mikula, owns one of the largest butterfly farms in North America. Greathouse Farm in Earleton, FL sells roughly 5,000 butterflies and other insects a week, the majority of which are shipped to zoos and natural history museums. In the last two years, sales for ceremonial releases have increased dramatically, from 20 to 40 percent of total sales. Greathouse attributes the growth to more aggressive advertising and a new marketing strategy. “The truth is,” Greathouse says, “I can sell, during my peak season from the middle of May to early in August, I can sell every live pupae or butterfly I can get my hands on.” According to Greathouse Farm’s Web site, they have sold more than 1.3 million butterflies.

For more than 15 years, Sonia Altizer has studied a single protozoan parasite that infects monarch butterflies. As a first-year graduate student in Oberhauser’s lab, she knew she wanted to focus on insect pathogens and was thinking of concentrating on dung beetles and their parasites, or maybe bumblebees. At the time, Oberhauser was conducting research on monarch mating behavior when a parasite infiltrated the lab colony. The adults emerged deformed, their wings crumpled and abdomens misshapen. All of the butterflies – several hundred of them – died. butterfly graphic

“She had this pile of dead and dying, kind of gooey, deformed monarchs,” Altizer says, “and she dumped them on my desk one day and she said, ‘Sonia, you like diseases. Can you figure out what’s killing these butterflies?’”

Since then, Altizer has focused much of her research on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (Oe), a parasite that infects caterpillars when they ingest spores from contaminated eggs or milkweed leaves. A low-level infection is not fatal and is impossible to detect without examining each butterfly after it emerges from its cocoon. The spores, which are found on the outside of the insect’s body, can then easily be transmitted to offspring during reproduction, or deposited on milkweed plants (“like a salt shaker showering down spores,” Altizer says), the leaves of which are then consumed by the caterpillar. Because parasites replicate at a very high rate, a single spore can, in just one generation, become millions. The offspring of a caterpillar infected with a single parasite could have a very high prevalence of Oe.

There is great geographical variation in the prevalence of Oe among wild monarch populations. The non-migratory population in south Florida has a high rate of infection; at least 70 percent of all butterflies there are infected. However, the eastern migratory population, which annually makes an arduous 3,200-mile journey to Mexico for the winter, has a very low prevalence of infection: less than eight percent. Monarchs in California, which migrate shorter distances in the winter, have about a 30 percent prevalence rate.

Altizer’s research strongly supports the hypothesis that migration culls out infected animals. By the time the monarchs have made it to Mexico, a significant number of the infected butterflies have dropped out of the population. The butterflies then spend five months in the oyamel forests of central Mexico’s trans-volcanic mountains, where they mate. When their offspring return north in the spring, they come back to a relatively clean habitat. Milkweed plants that have accumulated spores over the summer die off and are replaced with new plants. Thus it is likely that prevalence of Oe spores is much lower in the spring than it was at the end of the previous summer.

photo of massed monarch butterfileswww.stevebridger.comAccording to one hypothesis, butterflies’ natural migration culls
out infected animals. Problems could occur if captive butterflies
are released just as the wild ones are returning from their
winter migration.

There is concern that problems could occur if captive butterflies, some of which are already infected, are released just as the wild ones are returning from their migration.

“If people are releasing infected monarchs in the spring [the height of the wedding season],” Altizer says, “when they’re naturally re-colonizing what would be otherwise clean breeding habitat, we could be ratcheting prevalence up artificially in the wild.”

In the last decade, the prevalence of Oe among the eastern migratory population has more than doubled, from roughly two and a half percent to between six and eight percent. “And the question is,” says Altizer, “is that part of a natural cycle of increase or is this reflecting something, you know, a more recent change?”

Breeders who are part of the IBBA subscribe to a code of ethics, which includes to “ship only healthy, vigorous butterflies.” The breeder stock, which comes from either the wild or from other commercial farmers, is usually tested for Oe, and the eggs and milkweed plants are bleached to ensure they are free of spores. A commercial breeder I spoke with bleaches and rinses her milkweed (a tropical variety native to Africa) for six minutes, then hand-washes it to make sure there are no caterpillars or eggs on the plant material itself.

Most commercial breeders do not check the butterflies for Oe once they emerge from their pupae. Doing so is too time-consuming, and breeders reason that if the stock is clean, the offspring will be clean also. Thus a low-level infection would not be detected and could then be transmitted to future generations.

In 1999, in an effort to counter concern that butterfly releases could increase the prevalence of Oe or of other diseases among wild populations, Groth of Swallowtail Farms had a sample of monarch livestock inspected by Dr. Harry Kaya, a well-known insect pathologist at UC Davis. After examining 14 small larvae, 15 large larvae, and 18 chrysalis skins, all of which “appeared healthy,” Kaya concluded that Swallowtail Farms has “no detectable insect pathogens in [its] rearing program.”

butterfly graphic

The study and congratulatory letter from Kaya are posted on Groth’s Web site under the headline, “Swallowtail Farms’ Butterflies are Certified to be Disease Free.” But just two years later, after being named one of the fastest growing companies in Sacramento, Groth was forced to destroy all of his livestock when a pathogen – not Oe – was discovered, costing the company about 40 percent of its total sales. Groth says that the outbreak was the result of employees “cutting corners and not following protocol.”

Beyond the somewhat misleading chronology (the “certificate” was issued before the outbreak), the study itself raises a number of questions. According to Altizer, just over 40 animals represent only a tiny subset of the total number of monarchs raised in a season. A much larger sample size, for example 50 to 100 animals from various stages (e.g., 50 adults, 50 old caterpillars, etc.) would be needed to detect an infection rate of 10 percent, a number that could indicate a biologically significant problem.

Moreover, if all the insects selected appeared healthy, those monarchs that may have died or that appeared unhealthy were not included in the sample. It is often instructive to compare both dead or sick and healthy-looking monarchs to detect disease-related problems. Also, analyzing only healthy animals lowers the chances of detecting microbial infections.

Finally, based on Dr. Kaya’s letter, it appears that only severe or blatant infections and not subtle infections were ruled out. Additional tissue sections would be needed to test for all possible bacterial, viral, protozoan, and fungal infections.

That is not to say the butterflies Dr. Kaya inspected were not healthy. They were. (In his e-mail to me, Groth also noted that random samples of release butterflies are tested weekly.) But the study hardly serves as a clean bill of health for the entire rearing operation. According to Altizer, “This is like a person asserting that they never get sick based on a physical exam performed on one day in their life 10 years ago when they were feeling quite well.”

The Swallowtail Farms’ experi ence reveals some of the limitations of tracking diseases among captive-bred butterflies. That the butterfly release debate has focused almost entirely on Oe, a kind of celebrity parasite that affects the most popular and familiar North American butterfly species, is worrisome, and shows how little we know. Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm says that for breeders, Oe is the easiest disease to control and eradicate. “Why they aren’t checking for other diseases,” she says, “I don’t know.”

When a bride or a bride’s mother gets a whole bunch of butterflies in the mail the day before the wedding and then they just let them go, there’s not a lot of learning going on.

Part of the answer is simply funding. There is no CDC for insects and the USDA doesn’t have the resources to examine specimens from the many commercial operations throughout the country.

“For the vast majority of butterflies,” Altizer says, “we have no idea what fungi, what viruses, what bacteria are out there, and it’s mainly because nobody’s looked.”

The butterfly release industry shows no signs of slowing down. Even if the wedding business tapers off, most commercial breeders believe that something else will replace it. “As long as there are people to raise them,” Smith says, “there will always be a market.” And despite Greathouse’s claim that there are fewer differences between the IBBA and other butterfly organizations today than there were 10 years ago when the controversy first erupted, there is a philosophical rift among enthusiasts that continues to widen.

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For researchers such as Taylor and Oberhauser, raising butterflies was never a business, but an extension of their teaching. Taylor maintains that butterfly releases can be a positive way for people, especially students, to make connections to the natural world even though the market has changed dramatically. Oberhauser feels that educational outreach and commercial breeding can no longer be reconciled. The risks, she says, are too great and the uses to which butterflies are being put are questionable.

“I think when a bride or the bride’s mother or whoever gets a whole bunch of butterflies in envelopes in the mail the day before the wedding, they never even make any kind of a connection to them and they just let them go,” she says. “I don’t really feel like there’s a huge benefit. There’s not a lot of learning that’s going on.”

Altizer cites a butterfly festival at the Georgia Botanical Garden as an example of how releases might be done responsibly. The festival was in the fall. People went out before the event, captured wild monarchs, held them for a few days, and then released them as a celebration of the migration.

When asked by teachers where they can purchase butterflies, Altizer urges them not to buy butterflies, but to plant a butterfly garden with native shrubs and flowers at their school. The butterflies will eventually come, she tells them.

If the teacher orders butterflies from a breeder, a good part of the lesson is lost, she says. “It teaches kids, where do butterflies come from? They come from the mail.”

Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at

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