I am a strong believer in listening to people who know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, sometimes people who usually know what they are talking about shoot themselves in the foot, often by insisting that they know more than they really do.
An example is the current controversy over captive rearing of Monarch butterflies. This is an increasingly popular hobby for many gardeners and others who wish to help restore the population of this beautiful species. The rationale is that 90%+ of Monarch caterpillars do not survive to adulthood (due mainly to predators), but a large majority of those raised indoors do survive so that they can be released as mature butterflies.
Judy and I raised a few Monarchs indoors this year for the first time (fewer than 10), and I can attest that it’s exciting and fun.
But then along came the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, certainly a worthy organization. However, they published a blog post that was highly critical of captive rearing of Monarchs. This has caused a lot of people to become pretty upset.
Essentially, the post argued that captive rearing was counterproductive because:
- it allows less fit Monarch caterpillars to survive, thus weakening the Monarch gene pool;
- it could lead to a mismatch between the number of Monarchs and available resources (too many Monarchs, too little Milkweed);
- it promotes the spread of parasitic disease due to crowded conditions.
For more detail, go read the whole thing.
A response to the Xerces Society was posted by Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch and Professor of insect ecology at the University of Kansas. Taylor is agnostic on the subject of captive rearing – neither for nor against. In fact, he considers the debate to be an unwelcome distraction.
Taylor argues that the number of captive reared Monarchs released is simply too small to have a significant impact, good or bad, on the overall Monarch population.
What’s more, he says, there is really no data that shows any impact, positive or negative, of releasing captive-reared Monarchs.
The Xerces Society did cite one study that seemed to show a lower survival rate for captive bred Monarchs as opposed to those bred in the wild. However, one of the authors of that study has written that the Society drew unwarranted inferences from his work.
In part, that’s because he was looking at captive bred Monarchs versus wild bred, but captive reared Monarchs are not captive bred. Rather, they are bred in the wild and then brought inside as eggs or caterpillars to be reared.
Beyond that, the issues raised by the Xerces Society are speculative. Certainly, Monarch caterpillars should not be raised in crowded conditions and enclosures need to be cleaned and sanitized – but this is something pointed out in every resource on rearing Monarchs that I have seen.
Taylor argues that habitat loss is the most urgent challenge for Monarch conservation. He cites estimates that one billion additional stalks of Milkweed, mostly in the Upper Midwest, are needed to build a sustainable Monarch population. To read all of Taylor’s post (via Kylee Baumlee’s blog, Our Little Acre), click here.
So apparently, gardeners raising Monarchs at home will not boost the Monarch population in any meaningful way. But there’s no reason to think that it does any harm.
Perhaps the greatest value of rearing Monarchs is not its impact on the butterfly, but its affect on people. Based on our own experience and that of friends, I would say that rearing Monarchs unquestionably creates more Monarch enthusiasts. For Judy and I, it was almost a bonding experience with the species.
More Monarch enthusiasts, I think, means more people willing to dig up more of their lawn and plant more Milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants. It means more people who will support projects and policies that contribute to Monarch conservation. And that is certainly a positive thing.