Can you kill butterflies?

My interest in butterflies began with the lawn ones. I watched the Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) basking in the sun on a hot day. I watched Large white (Pieris brassicae) and Common brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) hovering in the air. When I decided to learn more about these creatures, I started with the Internet. I read some interesting information about their biology, symbolism in different cultures, and whether they can be grown at home. Then I began to explore the darker aspects of our human relationship with butterflies. When browsing the internet, you can find tips on collecting butterflies. One can learn how to catch, kill butterflies, conserve them and display. Fortunately, there are questions and doubts about the legality and ethics of such practices. These are voices pointing to the fact that we are talking about a living creature, about a being that lived and wanted to be itself, not an exhibit.

Obsession of collecting. How desire to kill butterflies emerged.

The fact that we like to look at the beauty, colour, and shapes of nature is no secret to anyone, but how did it happen that we decided to kill this beauty and close it in a display cabinet ? Were our motivations purely aesthetic?

Already in antiquity, interesting specimens were presented in temples. Often the bones and skins of animals appeared among the exhibits. In ancient Rome, temples presented a variety of exhibits from all over the empire. In my hometown of medieval Kraków, three bones hang at the entrance to the Wawel Cathedral. Legend has it that these are dragon bones. According to research, these are the remains of the whale, mammoth, and rhinoceros.

Between 1400 and 1600, cabinets of curiosities began to gain popularity. It was a time when Europeans went out into the world – to Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. They brought valuable items and raw materials, such as gold, silver, and spices from there. Their curiosity caused that in addition to goods, a range of animals, plants, fossils, minerals, and bones began to arrive in Europe. The desire to describe and catalogue reality led to the creation of the collection. The mighty used entire rooms to display their exhibits, creating spaces filled with finds from floor to ceiling.

Although people have admired butterflies for thousands of years, it was not until the 17th century that scientists began collecting butterflies to study and classify them. And British naturalists in the 19th century began to treat them as objects of desire:

“On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death,”

Alfred Russel Wallace

It was travellers like Wallace who became the inspiration for many ordinary Britons. City dwellers began to take a closer look at the native fauna and flora. Throughout Europe and North America, collecting insects was considered not only a normal activity, but also a way of honouring God and His earthly works. During the Victorian era, in the mid-nineteenth century, collecting and naming God’s creatures was a recognized endeavour undertaken by all people. Men, women, and children all collected, beautiful, colourful butterflies which turned out to be the perfect collector’s item. They satisfied a variety of human needs. Not only was it possible to create an eye-catching collection thanks to them, but they also justified running in a meadow with a net and staying outside the city. Lectures, social clubs, and field trips gathered people from all classes. Victorian cities and towns in England were gray and smoky, and so were most of their inhabitants. The pursuit of a beautiful, colourful insect in the open air has become a nice alternative to everyday life. Lust also gripped the wealthy, like Lord Walter Rothschild’s. His collection included 2.25 million butterflies. The specimens came from all over the world. The lord did not chase butterflies alone, he had people who often risked their own and others’ lives, and set off to hunt in distant regions of the world.

The fashion for collecting butterflies has reached all classes of society, regardless of gender and age. There were also many theories to justify it. Despite this, already in the XIX century there were voices criticizing this activity. William Henry Hudson, whose deep bond with and love for nature cannot be overestimated, treated collecting butterflies with great hatred and contempt.

For Hampshire Days on this subject, Hudson said:

“Lyndhurst is objectionable … because it is the spot on which London vomits out its annual crowd of collectors, who fill its numerous and ever-increasing brand-new red-brick lodging-houses, and who swarm through all the adjacent woods and heaths, men, women, and children (hateful little prigs!) with their vasculums [for plant collecting], beer and treacle pots [for moth collecting], green and blue butterfly nets, killing bottles, and all the detestable paraphernalia of what they would probably call “Nature Study”.’

William Henry Hudson

Hudson was a man far ahead of his time who sought a deeper connection with nature than butterfly collecting was capable of. He understood the devastating effect of human pressure and the dangers to the ecosystem. However, a lot of water had to pass in the Thames for collecting to go out of fashion. The First and Second World Wars contributed to the decline in popularity of this hobby. In Great Britain, in the 1960s, collecting butterflies ceased to be an official hobby promoted among school children. Finally, butterfly collecting was driven underground under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, which protected many of the UK’s most wildlife-rich sites.

On the verge of extinction.

Collecting butterflies, as well as other whole animals, and their parts, has not completely disappeared. Over time, this hobby changed its face. Thanks to globalization, the world has shrunk, travel has become more accessible to more people, and planes have linked the distant corners of each other. Global, online sales platforms were also created, which made it easier to trade goods from around the world. Among the goods that are sold, there are also butterflies: dead, prepared, preserved, and framed, but also live pupae and adults. The global butterfly market is worth over $100 million (An Obsession with Butterflies, Sharman Apt Russell).

On the market, you can find insects obtained from butterfly farms. They are bred in specially adapted premises in accordance with the law and are intended for sale. Some species can still be caught in the wild. However, this market still has a dark face. In 2007, Hisayoshi Kojima was arrested, claiming to be “the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler”. He fell into an ambush set by U.S. federal agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was caught trying to sell a collection of butterflies, which included endangered species. As agent Ed Newcomer adds, insects were obtained for him all over the world by a network of collectors and indigenous peoples.

According to reports, the current global illicit market for trafficking in endangered species is estimated at between $10 billion and $15 billion a year. (, Helen O’Neill, accessed May 17, 2022)

Traders use the internet to sell their goods, but they don’t work, as many people might think, on the darknet. They post their specimens on such well-known portals as eBay or Etsy. Some of these species are sold to collectors for thousands of dollars. In a book about the story of the butterfly dealer Hisayoshi Kojima, Jessica Speart lists the amount of $8,500 for which he was offering an undercover agent a pair of Ornithoptera Alexandrae. Sales platforms try to fight the trafficking of illicit goods, but traders find ways to outsmart the system.


Getting human attention was tragic for a butterfly. He had to die because of his beauty and elusiveness. He was no exception to the animal world. Many creatures, birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects died at the hands of a man overwhelmed by the lust for beauty. The abundance of some species is so low that an efficient collector could catch the entire population in one day. Environmental contamination, urbanization, deforestation, and climate change have become an even greater threat to insects. Along with the development of cities and globalization, habitats began to disappear at an express pace, the land was torn from nature by cities, plantations, factories, and roads. Many animal species have lost their homes and their numbers have started to decline. By the time humans noticed what was happening when they shook themselves off, it was too late for some species. They have disappeared forever.

For others, there was still a chance. There were advocates of beauty and diversity who decided to fight back. The desire to protect green areas and their inhabitants began to spread in ever-wider circles. It would seem that the trade-in of dead butterflies is as far removed from the idea of their protection as possible. However, ironically, it is the legal opportunity to sell endangered species that may become one of the elements of their protection. This was the idea behind the plan to change the status of Ornithoptera alexandrae, the world’s largest diurnal butterfly. It was assumed that if the local people of Papua New Guinea could profit from the sale of legally obtained specimens, they would also be involved in the protection of the areas where the butterfly lives.

Beauty without death

I believe in the European idea of progress. Does the thought, which led Europeans towards the new, which made them question what they already knew, always lead the right way? Certainly not, sometimes you can find yourself at a dead end. It is important to be able to take a few steps back and go out on a new path, then with the knowledge that we have already found during the search. Failed attempts and missed ideas teach us something. So, to have beauty, do we have to pay for it with someone else’s life? Certainly not. The development of photography has allowed us to capture the beauty of butterflies in motion. Scientific research allows us to get to know the world of these beings, to which we would not otherwise have access. And the art? In art, we can also discover the fleeting beauty of winged creatures. It can be ours, ours forever. Closed in frames. We can feed our eyes with it in a cruelty-free way.


  1. Apt Russell, Sharman,  An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect, New York, 2003, Basic Books
  2. Griece, Gordon, Cabinet Of Curiosities:Collecting And Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World, New York, Workman Publishing, 2015
  3. Oates, Matthew, In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair, Bloomsbury,
  4. Speart, Jessica, Winged obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler, William Morrow
  5. Williams, Wendy, The Language Of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives 
  6. Williams, Wendy, Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect, New York, 2020, Simon&Schuster
  7. Yu, Mae Sarah, The Butterfly People-and their impacts on the creatures they love, Dartmouth College, 2011
  8., LIANE HANSEN, dostęp: 17.05.2022)
  9., Helen O’Neill, (dostęp: 17.05.2022)
  10. (dostęp: 17.05.2022)
  11., Mark Stratton (dostęp: 18.05.2022)