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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
- Five monarch butterflies taged and released at San Antonio Festival made it to Mexico
- Monarch Zones: bold move or bad idea for expanding monarch butterfly population?
- How to plan a successful butterfly garden
- Endangered Species Act: wrong tool for the job?
- Mostly native butterfly garden outperforms lawn every time
- A year in the life of an urban butterfly garden
- Downtown River walk plot converts to pollinator garden, creature haven
- Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not is Not a Simple Question
- How to raise Eastern Swallowtails
- How to raise Monarch butterflies at home