NYTimes, Commercial Butterfly Breeders Raise Awareness of OE to Help Monarchs

In the last two weeks, both the New York Times and professional butterfly breeders have made progress in raising awareness of a little known but possibly significant factor in the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration–a spore driven, Monarch-centric disease known as OE.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch butterfly scales.  The spore-driven disease can be devastating to the butterflies.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, known in the Monarch community as OE, infects Monarchs and other butterflies that host on milkweed, sometimes resulting in butterfly crippling or death. Spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, thus scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

Several sessions at the Butterfly Professionals Conference held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, November 12 – 16, were dedicated to educating about 100 attendees on prevention of the disease.   The organization has been called to task in the recent petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act for releasing butterflies that could carry OE into the wild population.

Connie Hodsdon, a butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton, Florida, addressed the joint meeting of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), the Association for Butterflies (AFB) and the International Association of Butterfly Exhibitioners and Suppliers (IABES), in a 90-minute session focused exclusively on OE.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed at CPS Energy Pollinator garden

Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed. The Asclepias curassavica strain of milkweed, a Monarch favorite, can host overwintering OE spores in addition to Monarch butterflies and should be slashed to the ground each winter, scientists say. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“You have to start clean and stay clean,” said Hodsdon before sharing slides of mottled, dark speckled OE-infected Monarch chrysalises.  She then launched into a detailed description of the methodology she employs for preventing or eliminating OE from butterfly livestock.

Her approach includes multiple bleach baths of Monarch eggs, breeding vessels, and all plant material in a special product imported from Great Britain called Milton, separate rearing rooms for different broods of butterflies, and regular testing with a microscope for OE spores.

“We have to do everything in our power to make sure our Monarchs are an asset to the species,” Hodsdon told the conference crowd.  “If you can’t, find another species to raise.”

Later, butterfly breeder Edith Smith, owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, Florida, continued the call-to-action for breeders to be meticulously clean in their operations and monitor livestock closely–not just for OE, but for more pervasive and difficult-to-cure plagues.

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Smith, who teaches various workshops and seminars about butterfly diseases that nature uses for population control, has been raising butterflies commercially since 1999.   She proposed that OE should be eliminated before it even enters the breeding operation.

“These are diseases that butterfly breeders must keep out of their breeding facilities,” she said.

Both Smith and Hodsdon keep a 100x microscope on hand along with clear, invisible tape. They check Monarch and Queen butterflies for OE spores by rolling the abdomen of young butterflies along the tape, then viewing the tape under the microscope. If football-like spores are prevalent, the butterfly is destroyed rather than used as a breeder or sold as livestock.

“If this is done and any milkweed that wild butterflies can touch is disinfected, OE shouldn’t ever be an issue,” said Smith.

A week after the IBBA Conference, the New York Times caused a storm with citizen scientists and butterfly gardeners by focusing on possible negative impacts of planting Tropical milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies.  Some scientists believe that planting Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, outside certain ranges creates hotbeds of OE that could negatively impact the population and the migration. Monarchs will only lay eggs on their host plant, which is any member of the Asclepias species.

In an article headlined For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back, and promoted heavily online as “Monarch Butterflies:  Loved to Death?” science journalist Liza Gross explored the pros and cons of planting Tropical milkweed.   To read our original story on this topic, check out Tropical Milkweed:  To plant it or not, it’s not a simple question.

The article featured an interview with Dara Satterfield, a PhD student at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.  A native of Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield’s dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife. Monarchs are her species focus.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield first visited San Antonio to inspect our milkweed patch along the San Antonio River Walk in early 2013. Photo by Monika MAeckle

Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on OE. (NOTE:  Dr. Altizer recently hosted a webinar for commercial butterfly breeders on how to prevent OE at their farms.)

This is the line that really whipped up butterfly fans:  “…Well-meaning efforts by butterfly lovers may be contributing to the Monarch’s plight.”  The piece then stated that planting Tropical milkweed, the only Asclepias species available commercially, might be doing more harm than good because it might cause butterflies to stick around, not migrate and spread the OE spores year-round.

Confused?  Are you wondering what to plant when scientists and conservationists encourage us to help Monarchs by planting milkweed, yet when we do, we’re told it promotes a deadly Monarch butterfly disease?

Me, too. What’s a butterfly gardener to do? I tracked down Satterfield to provide direction.

“The monarchs are showing us something…and the pattern is clear and consistent,” Satterfield said via email, explaining that Monarchs are much more likely to be sick in places where Tropical milkweed grows year-round.

“In a nutshell, this is how we would summarize for gardeners: Choose native milkweeds whenever possible,” she said.  Satterfield insists that Tropical milkweed should be limited in areas where it might survive the winter–coastal Texas, California, Florida, for example.   Overwintering of the plant enables winter-breeding and high levels of OE infection, she contends.

She recommends if you DO plant Tropical milkweed in a place that rarely freezes, best practice would include cutting the plant to the ground so as not to harbor overwintering OE spores.

For the record, consensus on the science of how Tropical milkweed effects or not the Monarch migration is as elusive as the butterflies themselves.   Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch told the New York Times that Tropical milkweed constitutes “a tiny, tiny portion” of the milkweeds encountered by Monarchs returning in the spring.  “Should they be there? Probably not. But will they do immense harm? Probably not.”

But, to play it safe, slash that Tropical milkweed to the ground this winter if a good freeze doesn’t do it for you.

LAST CHANCE TO TAKE OUR POLL!  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Endangered Species Act Petition: Wrong Tool for Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

As Monarch butterflies finished their tardy, impressive sweep through Texas in early November demonstrating a 2014 population rebound, those in the Monarch community debated the wisdom of listing the iconic migrating butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

If the Monarch butterfly were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you could only harvest 10 from your own yard each year. Photo by Veronica Prida

In late August, the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

This year’s seemingly healthy population, predicted by experts to be two, perhaps three times as large as last year’s record low, is a welcome turnaround from the post-2010 decline associated with the prolonged Texas drought and other challenges to the migration. The rebound has created a bit of a disconnect, arriving the same year as the petition to consider the iconic migrants’ threatened status.

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use. The ecosystem that supports the Monarch butterfly migration–and pollinator habitat in general–is tattered.  Dr. Chip Taylor stated it well in a recent blog post: “Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.”

Agreed.

So, is petitioning the federal government to list our favorite butterfly as “threatened” the best way to accomplish that goal?  After giving it much thought, I think not.

Threatened status might motivate large corporations and government agencies to be more considerate of Monarchs and other pollinators, but for private citizens with no government or scientific affiliation, such status could be counter productive.

Monarch cateripllars

Not in your backyard: if ESA threatened status is applied to Monarchs, each household will be allowed to raise only 10 Monarchs per year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As one who enjoys Monarchs visiting my urban garden eight months of the year and roosting along the Llano River in the fall, I take particular issue with the federal government telling me what I can do with my land.

Milkweed and nectar plants fill my San Antonio pollinator gardens.   We’ve also undertaken a riparian restoration in the Texas Hill Country where Monarchs roost each year, an effort that includes planting native milkweeds and other nectar plants along our riverbanks along the Llano River.

In the course of any given year, I raise several hundred butterflies, not just Monarchs, for fun, joy, and to give as gifts. My goal is to inspire appreciation and understanding of our outdoor world and reinforce the majesty of nature in a small, everyday way.

According to the 159-page petition’s final line,  if “threatened” status is approved, such activities would be a crime.  People like me and you will be allowed to raise “fewer than ten Monarchs per year by any individual, household or educational entity”–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

This seems to strike at the very heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic and widely embraced–the crowdsourcing of understanding its migration and the groundswell of interest in conserving it.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Citizen scientists and individuals like Catalina Trail were instrumental in the discovery of the Monarch roosting spots in 1976.  File photo.

Let’s not forget that regular folks like us helped piece together the puzzle of the Monarch migration back in 1976 through Dr. Fred Urquhart’s monitoring project and the intrepid explorations of individuals like Catalina Trail, the first person to chance up on the roosts in Michoacán.  Making lawbreakers of regular folks for participating and reserving that privilege only for scientists would do more harm than good.

If milkweed becomes part of critical habitat as defined by the ESA under this petition, that would mean destroying milkweed–or getting caught destroying it–would become a crime punishable by fines or mitigation.   Civil penalties can come to $25,000 per ESA violation and criminal fines up to $100,000 per violation, and/or imprisonment for up to one year.

Many landowners will simply not plant milkweed or will do away with it entirely just to avoid problems.  In some parts of the universe, this is known as Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up, the “practice of killing and burying evidence of any plants or animals that might be threatened or endangered.”   We have seen this attitude first hand in Texas.  Ranchers have been known to destroy first growth Ashe Juniper to preserve grass lands and conserve water to avoid ramifications of disturbing the preferred habitat of the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.

Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cited as the enforcement agent for these rules– but how likely is it that agency personnel will have the bandwidth to do so? If enforcement is not practical, what is the point of the rule?

The petitioners take special issue with the commercial butterfly breeding industry, which supplies eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and live butterflies for schools, nature exhibits, conservation activities and events. The petition specifically details how conservation education activities like the rearing of Monarchs in school classrooms or at nature centers will be immune to regulation, “provided that the Monarchs are not provided by commercial suppliers.”

That means if a teacher in a classroom or home school situation in New York City wants to teach metamorphosis to fifth graders using Monarch butterflies, she can only do that with  butterflies personally harvested in the Big Apple. The best intentions often lead to unintended consequences, and that is what I fear in this instance.

“If only wild caterpillars can be collected and brought into the classroom, we will run the risk of excluding urban children…. precisely what we don’t want,” Dr. David Wagner, author of the guide to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, Dr. Felix Sperling of the University of Alberta and Dr. Bruce Walsh, of the University of Arizona, co-wrote in a 2010 article in the News of the Lepidopterist’s Society.

Again, this seems like a case where federal regulation will do more harm than good since the children that most benefit from the tactile experience of raising butterflies are often those living in urban settings with limited access to nature.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Limiting access to butterflies in the classroom to those found only in the wild will severely restrict access to Monarchs by urban children (who most need it), some scientists say.   Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

One of the most contentious issues in the petition is a claim on page 74 that “millions” of Monarch butterflies are released into the environment by commercial butterfly breeders each year.

The claim appears greatly exaggerated to the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), which challenged the number in a press release headlined, “Number of Monarch Butterflies Released Annually Closer to 32,000 than ‘millions and millions’ as Claimed by Endangered Species Act Petitioners.”

[DISCLOSURE:  I serve on the board of the International Butterfly Breeders Association but do not raise butterflies commercially.  I also am a member of the Xerces Society and have hosted both Dr. Chip Taylor and Dr. Lincoln Brower at our ranch.]

The IBBA challenged the basis for such a claim, noting that the “millions and millions” citation was, in fact, lifted from a single newspaper op-ed piece published eight years ago.  The author, Professor Jeffrey Lockwood, University of Wyoming, acknowledged the number was guesswork.

“That such an unverified claim surfaced in a formal petition before the Secretary of the Interior demonstrates a serious failure in documentation at best,” Kathy Marshburn, IBBA president, said in the press release.

Dr. Tracy Villareal, an IBBA board member, oceanographer, and part owner of Big Tree Butterflies butterfly farm in Rockport, Texas, called the claim “misleading and poor scholarship.” Villareal told me by phone that he would grade such secondhand references unacceptable in a graduate student’s dissertation.

“The authors made no attempt to determine the composition of the 11 million–how many of each species, for example. Nor did they attempt to contact the author to determine how he arrived at this number.  It took me about four hours from my initial email to Professor Lockwood to find out how it was done.”  Read the IBBA’s challenge to the numbers for yourself.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores can be debilitating for Monarch butterflies.   Concerns about infecting the wild population with the nasty spore persist, and studies continue.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it. In particular, the unpronounceable Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses special concern since it debilitates the butterflies and appears to thrive in conditions where the creatures congregate en masse, are crowded, and/or where milkweeds overwinter, carrying the spores into the next season.

Yet, scientists agree that OE is present in the wild population, too, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Only when health or conditions are degraded does the disease overtake the butterflies. The science is still uncertain on this.  Studies continue.

Like any industry, commercial butterfly breeding attracts good citizens and bad, but it seems highly unlikely that people who gravitated to the challenging task of breeding butterflies for a living would intentionally release damaged goods into nature. That just makes for bad business. Does the industry need better checks and balances on the health of livestock released into nature?  Absolutely.

The IBBA, an international organization of 104 breeders, plans to release new counts for the number of butterflies released annually at its conference that begins November 12 in Ft. Lauderdale. The organization also will host a discussion on changing or increasing self-policing practices of its membership to keep livestock as disease-free as possible.  As Villareal said in a recent email exchange on the DPLEX list, a listserv frequented by hundreds of folks in the Monarch community, “Working from clean breeders is a critical first step in production. I repeat this for everybody in the back row. CLEAN BREEDERS ARE CRITICAL.”

The ESA petition has created conflict in the small-but-passionate world of butterfly advocates.  A far better use of the community’s time and energy could be spent on initiatives and public education campaigns to restore migratory habitat.

It’s already happening in many ways, through government and small-but-significant public- private partnerships.

In June, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for all federal agencies to “substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, and to build on federal efforts with public-private partnerships.”  Pollinator Week Proclamations have been declared in 45 states, recognizing the vital services that pollinators provide.  The EPA released guidance to help scientists assess the potential risks various pesticides pose to bees, and the USDA announced an $8 million initiative to provide funding to farmers and ranchers who establish new pollinator habitats on agricultural lands as part of its Conservation Reserve Program.

Hardberger Park Land bridge

Yes, please.  Hardberger Park land bridge would facilitate safe movement of wildlife–including pollinators. Photo via Rivard Report

Here in my hometown, we are working with the leadership of San Antonio’s Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation to include pollinator habitat in their upcoming reimagination of the historic 65-acre downtown park that was home to the city’s 1968 world’s fair. Our local public utility, CPS Energy, recently supported the installation of a pollinator garden right downtown at their headquarters on the San Antonio River Walk.   And on our city’s heavily developed northwest quadrant, Hardberger Park has a dedicated butterfly garden. The park conservancy is raising money for a spectacular land bridge that will facilitate safe movement of pollinators and other wildlife.

Let’s focus on individual actions and crafting effective public-private partnerships that raise awareness, plant more milkweed and nectar plants and make rebounds like 2014 common fare–and keep the federal government out of our yards.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Address Commercial Butterfly Breeders in San Antonio Nov. 7-10

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, will address almost 100 professional butterfly breeders this week at their annual conference in San Antonio.   Dr. Taylor oversees the citizen scientist tagging program that tracks the Monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to Canada and back each year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country last year.  Dr. Taylor will be in town this week to address the International Butterfly Breeders and the Association for Butterflies combined annual convention.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The conference, a combined effort of the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association (IBBA) and the Association for Butterflies (AFB), will bring professional butterfly breeders and butterfly enthusiasts–mariposistas, as I like to call them–to the Drury Inn at La Cantera Parkway in San Antonio, November 7-10. The far-flung butterfly fans will gather from as far away as Costa Rica and as close as Rockport, Texas for education, networking and fun.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady butterflies and Monarchs are the “money crops” of the commercial butterfly breeding industry. Photo courtesy Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

This year’s convention commemorates the IBBA’s 15th year and the founding of the multimillion dollar commercial butterfly breeding industry.   The butterfly breeding business supplies butterflies to schools, museums, zoos and exhibits for education and scientific purposes.  Live butterflies also are tapped to commemorate weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

The conference is open to the public.   “Butterfly beginners are welcome,” said Kathy Marshburn of Vibrant Wings Butterflies in South Carolina and Texas. Marshburn, who serves as IBBA president and conference organizer, pointed to sessions on butterfly gardening, parasites and how to raise butterflies as worthy investments of beginners’ time.

Butterfly garden harvest, May 8, 2011

Getting a caterpillar to the chrysalis stage can be challenging. Come learn the tricks of the trade from the professionals. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This will be my fourth IBBA convention.   Back in 2010, I attended my first in the unlikely venue of Las Vegas.  It set me off on a learning streak.

By the end of 2011 I thought I might want to raise butterflies full-time, as a profession.  I quit my corporate marketing position, applied for USDA permits to ship butterflies to the 48 contiguous states and cultivated my membership in the IBBA.

While my fantasy of becoming a professional breeder lasted only five months (Raising butterflies is too stressful–I’d rather meet copywriting deadlines!), it has been a great investment in my butterfly education. I’ve learned an immense amount and continue to enjoy the friendship and enlightenment offered by my professional butterfly breeder friends. 

Most impressive is the amazing generosity and knowlege-sharing of this fine group of ferociously independent professionals, the majority of whom chose this career because of a sheer love of butterflies.

If you want to learn or refine your butterfly rearing or caterpillar wrangling, I strongly encourage you to check out the program.  Depending on how many sessions you attend, cost ranges from $35 to hear Dr. Chip Taylor at the keynote dinner on Saturday night to $50 for a day pass.  Or you can spring for the whole three-day conference, which includes meals, for  $95–truly a butterfly bargain.   You can register online.

Todd Stout

Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, will lead a “butterfly hunt” in San Antonio. Courtesy photo

The conference kicks off on Thursday with a “butterfly hunt” led by Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, a butterfly breeder and lepidopterist who has scouted some of the best places to see butterflies in San Antonio.

“We’re looking forward to seeing lots of butterflies, including common mestra, variegated fritillary, lysine sulphurs, sleepy orange, and dainty sulphure,” Stout relayed via email.

You can learn how to raise Monarchs and Painted Ladies, what to plant in a butterfly garden, enter “The Secret World of the Monarch Metamorphosis,” take classes on pests and parasitoids, and meet the authors of more than half a dozen books on rearing, chasing, and gardening for butterflies.   Oh, and if you’re a devotee of butterfly oriented jewelry or merchandise, don’t miss the silent auction.  Vendors of butterfly paraphernalia, breeding supplies, books and more will also be on hand during breaks.

The conference will peak on Saturday evening when Dr. Taylor addresses the group.  Taylor has been involved in Monarch conservation for decades and is synonymous with the citizen scientist tagging program which he and his team oversee each year.  He’ll tackle the complex topic of the Monarch migration in the context of climate change.

“All of us face the challenge to engage in conservation of pollinator habitat,” said Dr. Taylor by phone.  “Monarchs are the poster child and the threats to their migration are symbolic of what we’re doing to pollinators in this country–ignoring the fact that 80% of our crops require insect pollination and 70% of our vegetation, period, requires insect pollination.  We do this at our own peril.”

Hmm….is there a role in there for professional butterfly breeders?  Can’t wait to find out.

Take a look at the program.   I look forward to seeing you there.

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Butterfly Farmer Edith Smith Keeps it All in the Family at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Ever heard of butterfly farming as a profession?

Neither had I–until four years ago when I dug into the craft and science of raising butterflies at home.  Rearing butterflies in my kitchen was such fun, I thought I wanted to be a professional butterfly farmer.  I quit my corporate marketing position in late 2011, applied for USDA permits to ship butterflies to the 48 contiguous states and cultivated my membership in the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association (IBBA).

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm–Courtesy photo

Yes, the IBBA.   The trade association of more than 100 butterfly breeders serves as a great place to learn about rearing butterflies from people who do it professionally. 

Each year the IBBA stages a conference. It’s geared to professionals but is open to others. I joined the organization and attended my first butterfly convention in Las Vegas as a curious observer in 2009.   The 2013 Convention takes place in my hometown of San Antonio this November in conjunction with another butterfly breeders group, the spin-off Association for Butterflies.   The combined event will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the founding of the butterfly breeding industry.  Feel free to join us.

In the butterfly breeding business, Monarchs are the money crop.  --Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the butterfly breeding business, Monarchs are the money crop. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Apart from these annual gatherings, the far-flung, ferociously independent butterfly farmers rarely see each other in person. Most were drawn to the profession for the love of the species rather than monetizing their passion.  They communicate constantly through an active, members-only listserv that functions as a commodities exchange:

“Need six dozen Monarch pupae for funeral this weekend.  Please contact me offline.”

“Painted lady larvae available.  Email me directly.”

But this hyperactive email list also works as an insiders’ guide to detailed information on the persnickety process of producing butterflies on demand.  From best practices for propagating host plants to how to deal with common caterpillar maladies,  I have learned much from this group.

One of the most generous resources on the IBBA list is Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, Florida.  Smith grew up on a peanut farm in the Sunshine State, 15 miles north of Ocala, “in the middle of nowhere,”  as her father used to say.  She found her way to butterfly farming in 1999.   The farm evolved, as many butterfly related activities tend to do, from a gardening passion–in this case, an herb farm she and her husband started.  She and her retired pharmacist husband Stephen Smith now raise several thousand pupae and/or butterflies a week.

Edith Smith and her husband Stephen, who's career as a pharmacist and science background greatly assisted the development of their Shady Oak Butterfly Farm.  --Courtesy photo

Edith Smith and her husband Stephen, who’s career as a pharmacist and science background greatly assisted the development of their Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. –Courtesy photo

In the beginning, the Smiths sold butterflies, caterpillars, and chrysalises to a single broker.   “We raised about 12 species at that time but had not yet tried Monarch or Painted Lady butterflies,”  said Edith via email.

LIke many butterfly lovers, Smith was taken aback by the general population’s obsession with Monarchs.   Many professional and novice lepidopterists don’t understand the focus on Monarchs when so many other amazing butterfly species abound and merit attention.  Monarchs get all the press, and in the butterfly breeding business, the dramatic migrant is a money crop–constituting the bulk of sales in the multi-million dollar industry.

“Because we sold only to one broker who resold to exhibits, we didn’t realize that Monarchs and Painted Ladies were the two main sources of income for most butterfly farmers,” said Edith.   The couple quickly changed their strategy and added the two bread-and-butter species to their line-up. Generally, Monarchs are the preferred species for releases at weddings, funerals and celebrations, while Painted Ladies are often used en masse in science classrooms and home school situations as part of science curricula.

The Smiths were selling 500 – 1,000 pupae per week by the end of their first year.  They increased their species count from 12 to 20. Back then a high volume broker could buy a chrysalis for $1.  Today a chrysalis can cost $3 – $10, depending on the species and who’s buying it.

These days, Shady Oak, one of the largest farms in the industry, produces up to 6,000 pupae per week and grosses about $300,000 per year.  “But costs are high,” said Smith, noting the operation includes a staff of six family members and an equal number of greenhouses to raise host plants.

Four laboratories, a shipping/packing area and various screened 12’x12’x16′ butterfly “apartments” allow for mating and hatching of various species on the Shady Oak grounds.  The Farm ships to myriad flyhouses, zoos and natural history exhibits and supplies livestock to hundreds of weddings, funerals, events and schools for celebration, commemoration and education each year.

Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Smith led a tour of one of the Farm’s “rearing rooms” for IBBA members at the 2011 convention in Gainesville, Florida.   –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Shady Oak once opened to the public for tours and field trips, but now the farm offers visits by appointment only.  Smith also welcomes fellow butterfly farmers and like several breeders, hosts educational seminars and an internship program aimed at teaching best practices. “Our first seminar was in 2003 with 64 people,”  she said.  These days, for health reasons, Smith prefers one-on-one week-long internships. “We have met the most fantastic people!”  she said, including visitors from 12 countries.

Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye.  Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye. Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

The Smiths are especially proud of their Blue Buckeyes, their specially bred blue-winged Common Buckeye.   Just like other types of farmers and ranchers, a butterfly breeder can breed for desirable traits.   In this case, the Smiths focused on the beautiful iridescent blue sometimes observed on the wings of the Common Buckeye, Junoeia coenia. 

Whenever the Smiths noticed blue in the background of recently emerged Buckeye wings, they isolated the creature’s eggs for breeding.   Over time, each generation produced more pronounced iridescent blue in the background of the Buckeye’s wings.  Eventually, “Buckeye butterflies emerged with the entire background of their wings a remarkable metallic blue,” notes Smith on her educational website, Butterfly Fun Facts.  See the video below for a glimpse at this amazing creature.

Smith is always quick to share advice and rearing tips on her Facebook page, her websites, on the proprietary IBBA listserv, and through the Association for Butterflies.  Isn’t she concerned about disclosing trade secrets?

“The more we all share the better off we all are!” she said via email.   That attitude led her to help found the Association for Butterflies along with Jodi Hopper and Mona Miller, an educational-oriented organization for professional breeders that helps to promote best practices for butterfly lovers of all stripes.

Smith believes the butterfly breeding industry must share and improve its practices to continue growing.  “There’s more demands for butterflies than we farmers can supply,” she said.  “Teaching others to raise butterflies means that when supply is low, we will be more likely to find someone to dropship to our customers.”

Smith also credits her farm’s proximity to the University of Florida and the McGuire Center for Biodiversity and Lepidoptera in nearby Gainesville.  “The people there are very generous with their time and knowledge.  They have helped us more than we can say.”

At age 58, Smith is turning her attention to writing books about butterfly rearing and implementing a two-year succession plan. Her eldest daughter, Charlotte, has become part owner of the farm, which the couple incorporated last year.   Daughter-in-law Michelle manages the office, takes orders and often packs and ships 40-50 orders of live butterflies, pupae, caterpillars, eggs and/or butterfly gear a day.   Shady Oak also employs several other staff members that keep the place running smoothly.

Smith and her husband Stephen plan to attend the IBBA/ABF Joint Conference in San Antonio this November.   If you want to meet Edith and learn about raising butterflies from her and others who do it for a living, check out the convention page for further details.

As for me, I will remain a NONprofessional butterfly farmer/rancher for the foreseeable future.  After completing my first paying gig as the Texas Butterfly Ranch, which was to supply 500 live butterflies to the University of Texas at Austin’s First Annual Insecta Fiesta in April of 2012, I realized immediately I’m a better marketer than rancher.  Special thanks to another generous farmer, Connie Hodson of Flutterby Gardens, for helping me fill the order.

Lesson learned:   it’s much easier and less stressful to  produce blogposts and marketing plans on deadline than to deliver hundreds of live butterflies by a predetermined date. For now, I’m sticking to my profession and raising butterflies for fun.

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