Jessica Morgan McAtee
Mail-Order Butterflies: The Best Option?
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
You may have heard of people ordering butterfly larvae (caterpillars) in the mail. Maybe you have even tried it yourself. But, is this the best option for educating children?
Does it make sense for adults?
Don't get me wrong, when I was in an Entomology 101 class at the university, we were required to order these kits and observe. It was fun. It was successful.
It was very unnatural.
The kits typically include six or so caterpillars. They are almost always Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) for a couple reasons. One is that they have an unusually large global range. This means that in most places in the U.S., they are a local native species. The United States Department of Agriculture is understandably involved in what species we release and they don't allow folks to order butterflies that aren't naturally found in the areas they will be released in. It disrupts the ecosystem.
They come with this space-aged substance in a jar that contains the nutrients the little larvae need to successfully become adults. In the wild, of course, caterpillars eat leaves. However, in this experiment, the Painted Ladies eat a synthetic diet. This is because it would be difficult to ensure that all recipients of the caterpillar kits have sufficient amounts of host plant leaves to keep them alive throughout their juvenile development. Some brilliant folks created this lab-made food and as far as I know, we haven't got anything like it for any other host plant/butterfly. This is another reason that you get Painted Ladies in these kits. They are the only one we have this fake-food for.
My observation is that this doesn't teach children the full story of butterflies. Of course, they get to see the larval growth stages, and that is great. They get to release butterflies. However, it doesn't teach them how important plants are to butterflies.
Isn't that the main ecological lesson?
Butterflies and plants go together like peas and carrots, wine and cheese or high-heels and bunions. It is a pity that the children may not connect the dots if they simply feed caterpillars lab-food.
Another short-fall of these kits is they fail to show the egg stage. Butterfly conservation is founded on host plants that mama butterflies lay their eggs on. This critical element is removed from these kits. It's as if butterflies just eat a pasty substance we can order from the internet, and of course, this is not at all how we conserve species.
If you live in a place where butterflies are exeptionally difficult to attract, there may be a valid reason to get one of these kits. Or, if you are in a time crunch, like a teacher may be, you may need them like clockwork, and that doesn't happen in the wild.
Without access to host plants, it will always be tricky to witness the life-cycle aside from one of these kits. I am certainly not against them, I am just suggesting that we understand what they can and cannot teach. I am also suggesting we plant hosts to truly benefit butterflies and teach the next generation the same.
In South Florida and many other parts of the U.S. where we have butterflies galore, why wouldn't we simply attract butterflies naturally? Not only would it help the local ecosystem it would also help local populations. This way the entire cycle could be observed, the plants included and the neighborhood species would have more habitat.
I regularly give butterfly pupae to my friends, neighbors and family members. Yes, children love it, but adults love it just as much!
Why do we act like butterflies are only for children?
The biggest threat to butterfly survival on a global scale is habitat destruction. Planting even one host plant to attract a local species not only helps the environment, but it also allows everyone to experience the whole life cycle (host plant-egg-larva-pupa-adult) instead of just part of it. It shows children how easy it can be to help a species survive by simply planting a host plant. It excites them to do the process over and over by regularly finding butterfly eggs in their own garden.
Some people order butterflies online to attempt to stock their own garden. This is a bad idea. If our habitats provide what the species needs, they will come to us. We don't need to unnaturally bring them in. Plus, they are likely to fly elsewhere after being released. There are several instances where professional lepidopterists have reared butterflies to attempt to bring numbers back in their native environments where the butterflies are becoming scarce. These efforts are rarely successful. It is difficult to make a species stay in a place, even for experts. Don't think you can outsmart them, Karen.
Sticking with the host-plant system that has evolved naturally is the surest way to connect children and adults to nature.
Let's teach them how to help butterflies and not just order them online!
To butterfly gardening in flat shoes,
Jessica Morgan McAtee
Check out my blog for more butterfly stories.