Call it the metamorphosis of a tradition.
First, the old idea of throwing rice at the bride and groom got a bad name for possibly harming hungry birds. After birdseed took over, the wedding guests kept slipping and threatening liability lawsuits. Now, live butterfly releases are the rage.
About 60 companies are selling butterflies through the Internet and marketing them as festive touches for all kinds of occasions. The fashionable release of butterflies began just a few years ago, wedding consultants say. And some call it a passing fad.
Many butterfly enthusiasts and scientists are hoping that's the case. Jeffery Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, calls live butterfly releases "an act of environmental terrorism." Scientists argue that, at best, we don't know what the consequences will be on wild butterfly populations. Captive breeding increases the threat of parasites, and releases make it difficult to track migration routes.
The US Department of Agriculture allows only nine species to be released, and breeders must apply for a permit. Two of the most popular butterflies for release - Monarchs and Painted Ladies - are migratory.
Since Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate to Mexico and those west of the Rockies migrate to California, many breeders will sell only Monarchs in their own region. "I understand there are genetic differences in Monarchs, and I don't send my Monarchs west of the Rockies," says Dennis Scholl, a Pennsylvania breeder. "But there isn't any data at this point that releasing butterflies raised from wild stock is harmful."
Legislation currently in Congress would crack down on breeders and tighten enforcement of existing regulations. Meanwhile, some states like Arizona have banned shipments of butterflies for release anywhere in the state.