A tense online debate: raising monarch butterflies at home

The growing popularity of raising monarch butterflies at home has sparked a contentious debate among citizen scientists, professional academics, and butterfly enthusiasts.

Scientists and citizen scientists have expressed concerns about the legions of amateurs who are breeding large numbers of monarch butterfly “cats”–breeder shorthand for caterpillars. Newcomers to monarch butterflies, captivated by the miracle of metamorphosis they are able to witness in their yards or kitchens, often bring in eggs or caterpillars from the wild for fostering.

When health problems arise with their butterfly charges, these home breeders reach out to experts and social media for answers. Unpleasant guidance from experts often results–such as the need to euthanize sick butterflies rather than release them into the gene pool. Novice breeders respond with sadness, denial, frustration, even anger.

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises
Too much of a good thing? Responsible rearing of monarch butterflies at home requires systematic cleanliness (lots of bleach) and ample,chemical-free milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The conflict came into focus on September 11, when the Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization based in Portland, Oregon, published a blog post, Keep Monarchs Wild! Why captive rearing isn’t the way to help monarchs.

Xerces is known for its purist stances on commercial butterfly breeding and butterfly releases (they oppose both) and the use of tropical milkweed as a host plant (they don’t like it). The organization also served as one of several authors on the 2014 petition to list the monarch butterfly as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

While recognizing the power of rearing butterflies at home to engage people, Xerces’ Keep Monarchs Wild! post voiced concerns about captive rearing and, in particular, the dangers in captive breeding: when people capture wild butterflies and breed them repeatedly, the biological equivalent of in-breeding.

Xerces conservation biologist Emma Pelton shared a link to the post with the subject line “Rethinking captive breeding” on the DPLEX list, the much-followed email listserv read by hundreds of monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Captive rearing of monarch butterflies can have unintended consequences, Pelton stated in the email, including spreading parasites to wild populations and diminishing genetic diversity. Pelton suggested that instead of rearing butterflies, butterfly lovers spend their energies improving habitat, avoiding pesticides, planting native milkweed and flowers, and supporting wildlife-friendly agriculture and policy initiatives.

Monarch butterfly eggs collected from the wild. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Within one week, dozens of comments and counter arguments had been posted. The online kerfuffle included takes from several monarch scientists. Several DPLEX subscribers asked to be removed from the list, declaring their forum had been “hijacked.”

“Our position at Monarch Watch is that we neither encourage nor discourage rearing,” wrote Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. Taylor’s citizen science organization has a page on its website devoted to raising monarchs, and also offers Monarch Rearing Kits for sale. “This is a low priority issue,” he said.

Monarch Joint Venture (MJV), which serves as a de facto United Way for more than 75 monarch conservation organizations, labeled the practice of raising small numbers of monarchs for citizen science, educational purposes, or personal enjoyment, “great applications, as long as done responsibly!”

The Xerces post included a link to a recently updated MJV handout, which provides specific guidelines for responsible home rearing. The update came about because MJV receives hundreds of calls and emails a month asking for direction about home rearing, MJV outreach coordinator Wendy Caldwell wrote in a statement.

In a follow-up email to DPLEX subscribers, Xerces’ Pelton provided context for the post.

“I continue to end up with an in-box full of horror stories: people driving monarchs to overwintering sites because they raised them too late in the year, moving monarchs across huge geographic areas, caterpillars starving when there’s not enough milkweed in urban areas paired with massive captive-rearing operations, hundreds of monarchs raised en masse, photos of diseased & sick monarchs, etc.”

Other scientists bluntly expressed their sentiments that raising butterflies at home “doesn’t help the migration.”

Andy Davis, an expert on migration at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, posted an article on his Monarchscience blog with the headline “New statement from monarch conservation groups says – For the love of God, stop mass-rearing monarchs in your kitchens!” Davis cited various scientific papers that suggest home reared monarchs are less healthy and don’t make it to Mexico. Note: five of the commercially reared monarch butterflies tagged and released at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival last year were recovered in Mexico.

Then the author of one of the papers cited, Gayle Steffy, chimed in that her research was being taken out of context. “Since my paper has been quoted and debated here, I’m adding my opinion, which is that the data do not indicate that wild monarchs are better than raised ones,” Steffy said.

At one point, Anurag Agrawal, chemical ecologist at Cornell and author of Milkweed and Monarchs, declared soberly: “Let’s not kid ourselves that we are helping the population by rearing.The sink full of water has a leak, and yes, we can add a few drops back, but only plugging the leak will help. Sorry for the pessimism, but mass rearing is a flawed strategy for monarch conservation.”

The DPLEX debate left monarch followers’ heads spinning.

For better and for worse, those seeking to learn about raising monarchs responsibly are unaware of or overlooking scientific websites or the DPLEX list in favor of social media destinations like The Beautiful Monarch, a Facebook group with almost 24,000 members. It’s easy to drop in to these sites, ask a question and/or post a photo and come back later for an answer without investing too much time or energy.

David Berman is a Oklahoma State University biologist who has been researching monarch butterflies for the past three years. Berman was hired to conduct a milkweed survey in Texas. Periodically, he swings through the Texas Hill Country to monitor various milkweed patches, including the Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, that thrives on our stretch of the Llano River.

Berman recently engaged in a long conversation on the The Beautiful Monarch Facebook page.

David Berman
David Berman, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, at the Texas Butterfly Ranch in 2016.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Beautiful Monarch group member Georgi Grey of central Ohio posted a photo of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, commonly known in monarch butterfly circles as OE, on September 7. OE is a protozoan parasite manifested in football-shaped microscopic spores that infect monarchs and other milkweed feeding butterfly species. OE exists naturally in the wild but often gets out of control in crowded, unsanitary conditions. It can have a debilitating effect on monarch butterflies. Read more about the OE life cycle here.

People who raise monarch butterflies at home are encouraged to test for OE by rolling the butterfly’s abdomen on a piece of tape to get a spore count, then look at the tape under a microscope to see if the butterfly is infected before releasing it to the wild.

“How bad is too bad to release? Here are the photos I took.” Grey stated in a comment to the group that accompanied her photo.”I just started testing for OE.”

Georgi Grey just started testing for OE. “How bad is too bad to release?”Photo by Georgi Grey.

Berman happened to be checking Facebook and responded that releasing butterflies with OE is NOT a good idea. Group member Cari Waller then countered, “If the butterfly is still strong, no falling, no trouble flying, no split proboscis, etc., then it is ok to release them.”

The online conversation spiraled into dozens of comments of conflicting advice. Some group members insisted that as long as milkweed is bleached and the OE spore load “reasonable,” it was safe to release the OE-infected butterflies into the wild. Others assumed incorrectly that OE can only be transferred from the plant or a parent. The conversation resulted in more than 75 comments, 19 of which came from Berman. Within a day, admins of the group cut off the conversation because “it got too heated,” said Berman, who continued to receive private messages about the subject.

He patiently explained that spores are sticky and adhere to plants. They “can’t be easily washed off. That’s why bleach is recommended.” They also cling to your hands, he said, adding that a colleague found spores on his hands more than a week after handling OE-infected butterflies in the lab.

“I have accidentally contaminated lab butterflies more times than I’m proud to admit,” he wrote.

Ultimately, Berman appeared to influence at least some in the crowd, including Grey.

“I’m not sure I totally understand OE at this point,” Grey said via social media. “I’ve read conflicting stuff. I euthanized two that were heavily infected, yet flew fine, after that discussion – but that was before I’d heard from Project Monarch Health saying they didn’t advise euthanizing. However, on their own website I found info to the contrary! So now, I don’t really know what to do. I tested a few more, found two more with OE, but not as heavily infected, so I went ahead and released them. And have worried about that decision! And then I stopped testing, partly because I just didn’t have time.”

The only certainty is that conflicting science frustrates those seeking sound guidance, even well-intentioned people willing to invest the time to learn. It doesn’t increase understanding when some scientists take a condescending “bless your heart” attitude toward well-meaning hobbyists and the many dedicated citizen scientists who devote themselves to the cause. Nor is it constructive to walk away from the discussion, as several readers did, in frustration or anger.

In response to readers who declared their monarch butterfly forum “hijacked,” James Price of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, had this to say: “Nobody has hijacked this forum – except, perhaps, people who think they love monarchs more than anybody else but don’t have the gumption to learn and understand the science, or to do the real work it takes to make monarch recovery happen.”

Price encouraged those who choose to raise monarchs at home to “swallow hard, grit your teeth, and do the work.”

Top Photo: Connie Shaw Roblee’s caterpillars. Roblee has raised more than 1,000 butterflies this year from her home in Grand Ledge, Michigan. Photo by Connie Shaw Roblee

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16 Responses

  1. Lyndal Breen
    | Reply

    Raising butterflies, tadpoles or whatever is a good activity for people who learn about the preciousness of the many life forms, and also by caring for one creature, come to care for the plants, habitats and ecosystems that are necessary to support that species. While OE seems unpleasant, it is doing its own job as part of the balance.

  2. The Garden Path Podcast
    | Reply

    […] 2012 +Monika Maeckle at PechaKucha San Antonio Vol 6 +Monarch Watch DPlex Email list +A tense online debate: raising monarch butterflies at home +The Rivard Report: Monika’s articles on the […]

  3. Rolf
    | Reply

    I raised Monarch Butterflies here in Germany a few years ago. I found eggs on the Canary Islands.
    There are many Monarch Butterflies on the Canary Islands / Spain. They are flying all year around and do not migrate on the Islands.

  4. Nick
    | Reply

    I think the comment from Anurag Agrawal was right on point. We will not save the Monarchs by raising them. To truly save them we need to provide quality habitat, eliminate the use of pesticide, and do more research. I’ve read Agrawal’s book and was blown away at the contents. IMO he’s one of the greatest researchers of Monarchs, behind Lincoln Brewer.

  5. Paul Cherubini
    | Reply

    What do specialists in the fields of insect pathology and insect population genetics have to say about the impact of releasing
    captive reared monarchs?

    Prof. Harry Kaya, a now retired Insect Pathologist at the University of California, Davis, entomology dept. told monarch breeders 20 years ago that since the monarchs they raise have the same OE parasite that already widely exists in the wild monarch populations, further introductions should have no impact. http://imagizer.imageshack.us/a/img923/2623/YBhV0r.jpg

    In 2015 University of Arizona population genetics expert Bruce Walsh explained in detail why releases of captive reared monarchs
    cannot weaken the gene pool of the wild monarchs: http://www.butterflyboutique.net/articles/docs/Monarch.pdf

  6. Susan Hobig
    | Reply

    Not at all surprised at the mass controversy on the “revised rearing”. I for one will continue to advise habitat restoration. Plant milkweeds and nectar sources from spring to fall.

  7. Jim Wilson
    | Reply

    Monarch Watch provides tags for Monarch tagging operations by citizen scientists and by scientists.
    The tagging data sheets have a data point for Wild or Reared.
    I imagine Monarch Watch has looked at the statistics for recovered Monarchs at the roost site and what proportions/ percentages were tagged or reared.
    Are these statistics out there? I would be very interested in seeing them.

  8. Joan Shugar
    | Reply

    I have raised Monarch Butterfly’s for 4 years now. I live along the coast in Ventura on the migration path. I have Butterfly Bush plants in my yard the size of trees that bloom from Spring to Fall. The Monarch’s get nectar from them. I have netted habitats to keep the milkweed pots in while the caterpillars are munching away. When they form the Chrysalis I move them into the dining room and when they are ready to hatch I put them in a smaller habitat. We have a small Monarch Preserve here in Ventura and I take them there to release them into the flock. I raise about 50 to 75 a year and it is a wonderful hobby. I have never had problems with milkweed plants and I grow a lot of them from seeds. I have an area in my yard just for the Monarch’s. It is a hobby that I love and I have 5 other friends that do the same thing. The habitats I buy are from Florida and come in 4 sizes. Easily washed after each batch of Monarch’s. The Caterpillars love hats I make out of coffee filters that are attached to wooden clothes pins and then put on a 1/8 inch dowel. The Caterpillar will even do the J in them. I buy dowels in 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch sizes and use wooden clothes pins on the dowels and put them near the stalks of the milkweed plant. They love them. Just a fun hobby and I have never lost one from illness or not hatching normally.

    | Reply

    where can I start raising Monarchs

    • Linda Rogers
      | Reply

      The USDA allows for people raising and releasing butterfly species that are common/natural to their area. Then, if you raise them and ship them to another state, you must first apply for and have a USDA permit. See the USDA/Aphis site. The USDA is bound by federal policy to base their rules in science. So, until someone has concrete, provable science that raising and releasing Monarchs does damage to the wild populations, it’s all just a big reality show that these “Monarch scientists” use to get grants and fund their research. None of them drive old cars – get the picture? This controversy has feathered many scientists’ nests since about 1998. Dr. Orley (CHIP) Taylor of University of Kansas MONARCH WATCH does not condemn butterfly releases. Anyone wanting to learn more about the controversy should contact Association for Butterflies (AFB)…. and if you are interested in raising techniques that do not use the closed-lid plastic boxes (great for growing diseased butterflies) – check out publications available for purchase, as well as our free Butterfly Raising Library of articles on http://www.butterflyboutique.net. The REAL experts are the entomologists and lepodopterists that have been raising hundreds of species of butterflies all over the world for many decades. Believe me, raising healthy, clean Monarchs is not easy but it can be done. Linda Rogers

    • Dianna Baughman
      | Reply

      Depending on where you live, you can start raising Monarchs as early as April. I would be happy to help you get started. It is plenty of work, but fun and worthwhile. There is hardly anything more rewarding or exciting than releasing a Monarch butterfly that you have raised since it was an egg.

  10. Beth
    | Reply

    I grew up with “scientists” and have observed countless incidences of “interfering with nature” for the good of the species they were trying to save. I was also taught “out of the gene pool” when sick creatures didn’t live. Nature takes care of itself when we don’t screw it up for her. Human’s willful, ignorant destruction of habitat puts so many species at risk or downright elimination. If people want to be educated about any species and want to help, let them. Go for it!!! It’s our survival too. A Monarch today, a Rhino tomorrow and a human this month. Stop squabbling over who’s right and scientists need to get off their high horse and join the rest of us. Been telling this to my father for years.

  11. Craig Oveson
    | Reply

    All scientist agree, the number one killer of monarchs are predators. Karen Oberhauser participated in the following study in 1999 that demonstrates natural predators, not OE or anything else, causes over 95% of monarch eggs not to reach flight stage and thus reproduce and add to the monarch migration. When monarchs are released they not only add monarchs to the migration that wouldn’t have existed, they also feed the entire wildlife food chain by adding more butterflies to be preyed upon. One healthy monarch released during the first generation in the Midwest can multiply and add as many as 300 monarchs to the fall migration Generation to Mexico using a 5% predator survival rate from the egg stage to the inflight stage. Monarch Joint Venture has documented it takes 29 new milkweed to get 1 monarch to Mexico. Using MJV math raising and releasing 1 monarch early in the season and multiplying to 300 benefits the migration as much as planting 10,000 milkweed plants. The vast majority of Americans involved in monarch and pollinator conservation are also raising and releasing monarch butterflies. It’s time a standard method to raise and release up to 100 monarchs, under close to natural conditions, in one generation, protecting them from predators indoors, be observed and approved by government paid scientists. https://monarchlab.org/images/uploads/publications/PN-8_Prysby_natural_enemies_and_survival_Monarch_Chapter_4.pdf

  12. Bonnie Lane
    | Reply

    I am hoping to acquire information to establish my property as a monarch refuge. Could you provide resources to that end?
    thank you for any assistance you can provide.

  13. Steve McCurdy
    | Reply

    The saddest part of this is that scientists may have been manipulating study results to make the contrary point, without apparent consequence.
    On the lighter side, Andy Davis has just posted a blog entry that I hope is a parody. He placed late-instar Monarch caterpillars on a microscope stand to record their pulse. He only recorded data from those that sat still and did not walk away for 10 minutes. He recorded an increase in their pulse that he says indicated they were frightened and scared. There was no mention if they were molting- I guess they were scared stiff. Fully up-to-date peer-reviewed scientific paper that hand-selected study candidates rather than conducted random selections. Also, to minimize disruptions, he apparently allowed them to stay confined with their own frass for 48 hours at a time. http://akdavis6.wixsite.com/monarchscience/single-post/2018/09/23/Monarch-caterpillars-become-frightened-when-touched-by-humans

  14. Craig Oveson
    | Reply

    The original lead “scientist” of the lead group of Monarch Joint Venture Karen Oberhauser has not, that I’m aware of, raised eggs from wild caught, or OE free monarchs, under close to natural conditions with audited outside monitoring until in flight as an in depth broad study and tested them for OE after they emerge from their crysalis. I’ve been studying what she and her fellow scientists at the university of Georgia and have been researching and I’ve been raising and releasing and educating about monarchs for over 15 years. The studies I’ve seen from them use unnatural Tupperware type coffins and leaves that have been cut from plants under totally unnatural conditions. Wendy Caldwell, Karen Oberhausers student, is now the lead scientist of the lead group of Monarch Joint Venture at the University of Minnesota The monarch information deceminates from this lead group to all of the other approximately 75 MJV partners throughout the country. These partners receive your Federal and State Tax dollars in the form of grants depending on how they follow the information and teaching sent down from this University of Minnesota lead Monarch Joint Venture group. I have on many ocassions ask the people in the lead group to research the way I teach citizens to raise and release up to 100 monarchs in one generation, protecting them from predators under close to natural conditions and monitor the results. My simple inexpensive method was observed, tested, and approved and the monarchs tagged and released by a U S Fish and Wildlife biologist and butterfly expert in his lab at the Balcones Canyolands Wildlife Refuge in 2006. The late Lincoln Brower, the most respected monarch scientist in the world, told the author of this article, Monika, he recommended citizens ought to be able to raise up to 100 monarchs a year. Evidently he wasn’t worried about how it would affect the monarch population. The citizens who wish to raise and release up to 100 moarchs should have a researched and approved method to raise monarchs under close to natural conditions only protecting them from predators until in flight by the people who receive our tax dollars to help us increase monarchs. This could easily and at little expense be done on multiple U S Fish and Wildlife Refuges with biologists already on staff. Moarch Joint Venture partners and other biologists and scientist could observe this research and verify the results. If a large enough study is done the occurrence of OE should be the same as the migrating population the bred migrating and/or clean capitive bred butterflies are taken from. All of wildlife will benefit from more monarchs since they are at the bottom of the food chain.

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