Over the last few years, butterfly kits have become more and more popular in both homes and schools. I've seen these kits, often sold as "toys", in use in public school classrooms, and all the students seemed to enjoy the experience. However, I cannot share their enjoyment. Rather, I worry about the implicit lessons that are being taught to children who participate in butterfly kit activities.
What lessons do children learn from observing butterflies in a cage? They learn that nature is a novelty which exists for them to play with. They learn that non-human forms of life are mere objects to be purchased and then disposed of. They learn that animals are safest when controlled.
Children who are exposed to "toy" butterflies do not learn about the ways butterflies participate in complex ecosystems of interdependence. They do not learn about the behavior of butterflies in the wild. They do not learn about nature. Instead, they learn about the imprisonment of other living things.
The particular butterfly kits that I've seen in use have a really cute name : "The Butterfly Garden." The problem is that products like "The Butterfly Garden" are not gardens at all. They're boxes made of artificial materials that will end up in the trash after their owners are finished with them. These kits don't grow anything but captives.
Why would anyone purchase butterflies in a box when they can be observed for free? Butterflies are everywhere that they can find their food: nectar from flowers. If you don't see butterflies outside your home, there are two possible reasons: either you haven't bothered to plant a flower garden or you have planted a flower garden but have killed all the butterflies in the area by spraying pesticides to get rid of "bad bugs". If either of these is the case, you're teaching your children more bad lessons - that it is acceptable to destroy nature when it interferes with our aesthetic preferences.
Plant an organic (herbicide and pesticide free) flower bed and you will attract a variety of species of butterflies, skippers and moths. They'll come for free year after year and even use your garden as a place to multiply! As you check your garden with your child after school and on weekends, you will both learn much more than you could by looking at a captive insect in a mesh cage. In your garden you'll observe butterflies (and other animals too) interact with plants to form a little ecosystem right outside your door.
If you don't have any property of your own on which to plant a garden, find a place where someone else has and take your child there to search for butterflies. Even in inner city neighborhoods, there are always abandoned lots where weeds grow and flower, attracting pollinating insects. Even these lots are more natural than bug prisons that arrive through the mail.
The only reason that I can think of for someone to buy butterfly kits instead of observing butterflies in nature is convenience. Apparently many parents and teachers are just too lazy to attract butterflies in a natural way. They find a pre-packaged simulation of nature much less bothersome than the real thing.
If you must expose your child to captive butterflies, please do so at the zoo. Butterfly exhibits are the rage in American zoos -- we even have one here in Memphis where practically everything is 10 years behind the times. I won't pretend that zoo exhibits of butterflies are actually natural or good for the environment, but they are much less harmful than keeping caterpillars and butterflies in little mesh cages for students to gawk at.
As described in an article from the July issue of International Wildlife magazine, the butterflies that end up in zoos are harvested as a part of programs that support the sustainable use of rainforests by locals. With these programs, care is taken not to impact wild butterfly populations, and farmers who participate are transformed from advocates of logging into protectors of their local forests.
Zoo exhibits at least attempt to simulate a natural environment, and that's more than can be said for butterfly-in-a-box products.
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