Alleged monarch poaching sheds light on insect resale market

Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory executive director says butterflies that are released for events could carry diseases and parasites that affect local people

A lucrative business operating in the weeds could be responsible for a butterfly effect that is altering ecosystems across North America.

Butterfly larvae captured and grown commercially before being sold for weddings, funeral services and baby showers may come from Cambridge.

And while butterfly releases aren’t a new practice, they could have serious environmental implications if not done correctly, local experts say.

Norma Rossler-Glasier thought she noticed something strange when she was walking around Dumfries Conservation Area two weeks ago and saw two people rummaging through milkweed.

At first she thought they were researchers until she asked what they were doing.

“The woman said there were a lot less monarch larvae this year,” Glasier said. “The husband said they were harvesting them for money.”

It became clear to Glasier that the couple were looking to collect any moth larvae they could find to later sell them to release at events.

What most alarmed Glasier was the fact that monarch butterflies were recently added to the International Union for Conservation’s Red List, which chronicles the plight of endangered species around the world.

According to the IUCN, scientists estimate that the species’ population has dropped by 20 to 90 percent in recent decades.

Adrienne Brewster, executive director of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory discourages such discards, saying the damage they can have on an ecosystem could be devastating.

Unregulated, commercially bred insects could potentially spread diseases and parasites, badly affecting local populations, she said.

“We always err on the side of caution when it comes to releasing insects into the wild,” Brewster added. “We see it as a big deal, especially if something is supposed to be regulated, we always look at it with a serious approach.”

Brewster said insects like butterflies are essential to our ecosystem and how we live our daily lives. Every insect and animal has a crucial role to play in ensuring mother nature continues to thrive.

Invertebrates make up Earth’s enormous biodiversity, and conservation of these animals is vastly underrepresented, Brewster said.

Online butterfly sales range from $185 for 12 monarchs to $100 for 15 painted ladies. The business of reselling these insects can be lucrative, especially if the larvae are harvested for free from conservation areas.

The Bereaved Families of Ontario (BFO) hold an annual butterfly release to honor loved ones who have passed away.

Each year, they expect to release 200-300 butterflies during their Walk to Remember and Butterfly Release event.

“It’s a way for families who have lost someone to celebrate their lives and release some of the grief they’ve been clinging to,” said BFO Executive Director Jaime Bickerton.

Bickerton understands the complaints about outings and switched to painted ladies for outings instead of monarchs.

The BFO buys its butterflies from a third-party company with which it has worked for several years. Each butterfly costs $40 to release and is considered a donation to the organization that helps bereaved families deal with the loss of a loved one.

But the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory wants people to be aware of the implications of releasing these insects, saying they could literally trigger a butterfly effect of negative impacts on the environment.

The Grand River Conservation Authority oversees Dumfries, where Glasier saw the pair taking larvae. The GRCA recommends not taking anything into conservation areas and “only leaving with photos and souvenirs”.

“Our guests are asked not to touch, disturb or chase wildlife – this includes insects, as it can cause stress and harm,” said Cameron Linwood, supervisor of strategic communications for the GRCA.

Glasier couldn’t help but say nothing to the couple that day, adding that she kept thinking about what she could have done differently.

“It makes my stomach turn that I didn’t tell them anything,” Glasier said. “Like, it’s conservation, the whole point is to preserve nature.”