Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Dark Side of Butterfly Releases

The popularity of public grounds to include gardens for butterflies and the desire of well meaning organizations to educate the public on ways to support butterfly conservation has seen an increase in the beloved activity of releasing butterflies. In my neck of the woods alone there have been three butterfly releases in the past two weeks. One such annual event, now in its 20th year, brought hundreds of eager children to a nearby park to partake in the release of 1,500 painted lady butterflies. When my children were younger we participated in this event thinking that it would be a joyous experience. We were far from awestruck. In fact that was the last time we ever partook in such an event, until this past weekend.

A new butterfly garden was dedicated at Lake Lanier Olympic Park on the heels of the Pan American championships,the Olympic qualifiers. The release was held during my sons' paddling club end of season races. Most certainly it was scheduled at this time because there were a few hundred children at the venue that day. Of course I had to check out the garden and hence was handed a butterfly in a triangular envelope. I was very tentative because of my previous experience at a butterfly release. Albeit it skeptical, I thought I would give it another try.  Sadly, it was another disheartening experience and hence I am writing this post.

So what is the down side to a butterfly release?

The magical scene where thousands of majestic butterflies go fluttering up in the air beautifying the sky with their fluttering wings is a scene only found in movies. It simply is not the reality of such an event. These butterflies have been purchased from commercial breeders, usually from other parts of the country, such as California, who ship hundreds of butterflies overnight for events such as weddings, memorials, dedications and fundraisers.

Mail order butterflies are placed in envelopes which are packed in an insulated box with an ice pack to keep them in a state of forced hibernation for shipping. When the envelopes are opened by eager children and adults the butterflies are stunned, sometimes dead or almost near death. Imagine being locked in a dark, freezing room for 24 hours, and then released into bright sunlight in a crowd of monsters. If you survived, at best, you would be disoriented and dazed too.

Open envelope to find dead butterfly

Children anxious to see the butterflies flutter away, poke at them to encourage flight, while the misunderstood butterflies are trying desperately to gain some energy. Many of the butterflies land on the ground struggling for their life. They are accidentally stepped on by little feet and big feet alike. Attending my first ever butterfly release, I was horrified to witness dead butterflies littering the ground after the crowd had dispersed. The lucky ones who made it to the blooms desperately sipped nectar in a struggle for survival.

And if this heartbreaking event is not bad enough, the ceremonial release of butterflies, in truth is a practice that poses serious risk to local wild butterfly populations. Commercially grown butterflies present a serious threat to wild populations by rapidly spreading disease, such as Ophryocystis, a devastating parasite which can wipe out entire colonies.

New York Times, Sept. 15, 1998. Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, and one of the few scientists sudying Monarch diseases says "In natural populations there are all sorts of parasites present that aren't a problem until you do captive breeding at high densities in close quarters. In addition, many people raise caterpillars on drugs that can suppress diseases caused by protozoa and bacteria but not eliminate them. When such apparently healthy butterflies are released, they can act as carriers, spreading disease."

Monarchs, Painted Ladies, American Ladies, Red Admirals, Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries and Heliconians are allowed to be shipped under regulations of the USDA. Some of these butterflies are not naturally found in all parts of the United States, making it even more inappropriate to release them. Several organizations, including Georgia's own Calloway Gardens, have stated that they oppose the practice of butterfly releases. You can view their statements here.

So, while many organizations and participants of butterfly releases may view such an event as a celebration of nature and completely harmless to the environment, the reality is that this practice should be stopped. There are many other ways to educate the public on the benefits of butterflies than this misguided practice.