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Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

Marital Strife

It's the latest wedding craze. Rather than throwing rice or flower petals at the ceremony's end, guests release live butterflies into the air. As one advertisement proclaims, the effect is "uniquely romantic, genuinely moving, and unforgettable." Unfortunately, such releases also may be harmful — not just to the butterflies set free but to other butterflies as well.

On one side of the debate are the people who breed butterflies for profit and those who want butterflies for their weddings. On the opposite side are the conservationists who consider the practice a form of environmental pollution.

The butterflies released at weddings more often than not come from the several dozen butterfly farms or ranches across the country. These establishments raise thousands of butterflies each year and ship them overnight in special containers with the insects either wrapped individually in small envelopes or packed together in a decorative box. A typical shipment will include anywhere from twelve butterflies to hundreds, with Monarchs and Painted Ladies being the most popular species.

At a cost of up to $10 per insect, not including shipping, live butterflies are certainly more expensive than rice or flowers. But the added expense doesn't discourage some couples, especially when they hear that the butterflies released at their wedding will enhance the environment. The act can even be considered benevolent — that is, returning captive creatures to their natural habitat.

Conservationists, though, contest the claims made by butterfly breeders. Aside from a concern that the released butterflies will take food from the mouths of native butterflies, conservationists fear that released butterflies will introduce disease into their native counterparts and alter the native butterflies' survival mechanism should the two populations interbreed.

Monarchs in Southern California, for example, don't migrate to avoid a winter chill. So what happens when a Monarch raised in Southern California is released somewhere else? Will it know where to fly when fall arrives? And what will happen when its offspring face their first winter?

Among the organizations opposed to ceremonial butterfly releases are the American Museum of Natural History, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Yet the practice seems only to be gaining in popularity. The best conservationists can hope for at this time is that, like most fads, this one soon loses its appeal.