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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Butterfly Art & Ethics

I have to be real about something.

It is the ethics of using real butterflies in art work.

When butterflies are killed simply for art it makes me sad.

There are people who are genuinely concerned about butterfly conservation. They use their butterfly art to further the helpful causes of natural pesticides, habitat preservation and other earth-care concerns. In my opinion, they do so ethically.

These people often use butterfly wings in their art, and ONLY after the butterfly has died naturally. If I use them at all, this is how I integrate butterflies in my art, exclusively after they have lived out their life. For instance, sometimes wings will be in pendants and in those cases, the butterfly may have indeed died naturally.

Sometimes the winged beauties expire before their wings were too tattered and ripped. This can happen if a predator eats them, if they are born deformed or if they die from parasites among other things.

I have no issue with this because the butterfly has already died. In fact, I find it helpful to upcycle the wings to further conservation so at least all isn't lost in the premature death of the insect.

But there are other folks who raise and subsequently kill butterflies simply for art and this disturbs me. Though it bothers me, I am aware that people don't need my approval and in some sense they have a right to do as they wish. "I am not the boss of them", to put it in school yard terms. That is true.

It should be noted that this is not a major conservation concern in that if they aren't being taken out of the wild, but are raised for the art, it is not disrupting wild populations. Collectors and artists are not major contributing factors in butterfly declines.

My major issues come when sellers are not honest with buyers about how the butterflies are raised and immediately killed after emerging from their chrysalis. I have seen many people pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for this type of art. They are lied to and told that the butterflies died naturally. These duped folks don't know enough about butterflies to tell the difference. They trust the slithering "artist" and they are hoodwinked.

That's why I write this.

The buyers assume that since the person is promoting butterfly art they are also supporting butterfly conservation. This is rarely the case. In other words, the buyers think they are doing something positive for lepidoptera and in reality they are funding deceptive "artists" who are profiting from the lies and killing butterflies for a buck (or a thousand).

Sometimes these "artists" rear them and sometimes they simply order chrysalides online from butterfly farms (this requires U.S.D.A. permits). Since they want wings in pristine condition they suffocate or poison them in a "kill-jar" with a cotton ball that has been soaked in poisons. They do this immediately after emergence.

This is how entomologists kill insects for pinning. To be transparent, I had to do this to pass entomology classes at the university. All entomologists do. It was heartbreaking but I do understand the value it delivers to science. I took photos of my pinned specimens because it made me sick to kill these insects and I wanted their lives to not be completely wasted. Below is my project (I know, I am not great at pinning).

All of these insects were netted while happily out being bugs, serving our ecosystem well.

Notice how faded the large black butterfly is, that is because it was several days old.

Anyone who knows anything about butterflies knows that after a butterfly has done a little livin' their wings deteriorate. Wing scales are dropped in everyday flying, bumping into flowers, mating and narrowly escaping predators. Wings are made somewhat dispensable for the sake of protecting the more important parts of the insect.

Compare this riker mouned Blue Morpho

to its Blue Morpho cousin that has been free flying in a protected aviary for weeks, living its best life.

Surely you can see the difference. From the fringed edges and tears to the faded coloring, this butterfly has really lived a full life and it shows.

Though they are perfect as new adults, in time wings fade and lose their luster and color.

A butterfly that has lived its entire two week (or so) life looks tattered like a human does at ninety-five. You would never believe that a geriatric human was eighteen.

Life beats us all up in the best of ways.

The butterflies used in art boxes are new and in perfect condition.

This is a sure sign they have not "lived" any type of natural life.

They are young, eighteen in butterfly years.

There are places that sell these types of art and are dishonest about it. There is a tent at my county fair. They claim the butterflies "died naturally" yet there is no way that they lived out their lives and still looked flawless.

I guess the truth is they died "naturally" after being poisoned.

People have kindly gifted me some of these cases, and of course they did it with the best of intentions. They thought the butterflies died naturally. I graciously received the gifts and displayed the art. There is no need to be unloving about it.

But I will never fund such an endeavor.

It is not that my way is the best or even the "right way". It is just that I believe that people who are passionate about butterflies and spend thousands of dollars displaying art with dead butterflies have a right to the truth about how those insects were killed. Then they can make an informed decision about their purchase.

Didn't we learn in kindergarten that honesty is the best policy?


Jessica Morgan McAtee

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