Part of the The Butterfly Conservatory exhibition.

Detail of a butterfly with wing partially spread, sitting on a leaf.

During this century butterfly diversity has decreased alarmingly in some parts of the world, pointing to the need for better environmental management and public education. The greatest threat to the world's butterfly species is the ongoing loss of suitable habitat. This loss is due primarily to human activities, including agriculture, logging, urban expansion, industry, recreation, and pollution.

Some human actions take a direct toll on butterfly populations. Pesticides do not always distinguish between "pests" and harmless species. Some herbicides harm butterflies' food plants. Ultimately, global climate change will alter the distribution of plants and affect butterflies in ways that we do not yet understand.

What can we do? We need to change our uses of land and conserve or restore butterfly habitats. We need to promote basic research on butterflies to increase our knowledge about them—because we know so little about many species, it is difficult to establish protective measures. And we need to increase public awareness and education about butterflies, through exhibitions like this one.

Butterfly Farming

All of the butterflies in this exhibition were from butterfly farms—commercial ventures praised by environmentalists.

In regions where tropical forests have been destroyed by logging, agriculture, and development, butterfly farms offer a way for people to make a living by using the forest instead of cutting it down.

Butterfly farmers keep adult butterflies in netted cages or other enclosures. The eggs laid by the butterflies are gathered by hand and, after they hatch, the caterpillars are raised on a diet of their host plant. When the caterpillars enter the pupal stage, they are immobile and easy to transport. Farm workers quickly collect and pack the pupae, which are exported around the world to collectors and exhibitions like this one. The Museum's butterflies were from farms in Costa Rica, Texas, and Florida. There are also butterfly farms in South America, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and other tropical regions.

Butterfly Release

Most butterfly farms sell only to exhibitions, educators, and responsible collectors, who keep the adult butterflies in captivity. Breeding butterflies for release into the wild at special events poses serious risks to wild butterfly populations and is not endorsed by conservationists.