Spring is typically a busy time for commercial butterfly breeders, the people who raise butterflies to sell for use at weddings, funerals, festivals, in museum exhibits and at other live events. But with social distancing and stay home/work safe quarantines in place, the butterfly business has been “stopped cold in its tracks,” said Connie Hodsdon of Flutterby Gardens, a breeding operation in Bradenton, Florida.

Hodsdon, executive director of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), a trade group of about 50 small businesses that breed and sell butterflies, said she and others on the IBBA board are working to help their members continue marketing their livestock during the pandemic.

Charlotte Merritt and her daughter Naomi keep up the good work in the larvae room of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. Photo by Edith Smith

Jodi Hopper, of Wish Upon A Butterfly, a farm outside of New Castle, Pennsylvania, said she had hoped to offer a free butterfly for pick-up only and possibly ask for a donation from those who could afford to make one “just to use up the butterflies I had, but the stay at home messed that up.”

“For butterfly farmers, we only have a small window in which to be profitable,” said Hopper. Until the quarantine is lifted, she said butterfly farmers’ “hands are tied….Who knows, we may get an explosion of requests for funerals once this is over,” she added.

The main customer base for Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, Florida, is museum exhibits and butterfly flight houses. “That part of our customer base has simply stopped,” said Edith Smith, cofounder of the family-owned farm.

But retail orders have picked up. Individuals are still ordering plants and caterpillar/adult butterflies, according to Smith.

“We’re still shipping tons of plant and butterfly (larvae through adult) orders,” she said.  Retail orders have increased over last year, Smith explained, but “it’s too early to tell if this is a natural increase or if any of it is due to people being shut in and unable to travel, looking for home hobbies and educational material.”

Festivals, weddings and funerals that use butterfly releases for education and/or other purposes are on hold until stay home/work safe quarantines pass. Photo by Matt Buikema

Both Hodsdon and Smith have survived hurricanes at their Florida farms.

“Nothing like this has happened before,” said Smith. “We need bleach to disinfect rearing containers. Now, if we can even find bleach, we’re limited to one or two bottles. We normally buy six at a time.” Paper towels are essential to a clean butterfly breeding operation, she explained–and during the pandemic they’re hard to find and only available in limited quantities. Same with gloves.

Hodsdon agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges.

“A hurricane unleashes its furry and then you clean up and life gets back to normal pretty quickly,” she said.

Other breeders like David Folk of Folk’s Butterfly Farm in Nescopeck, Pennsylvania, are making use of the down time.

“We’re building a new butterfly garden, pavilion, gift shop and flight house” said Folk. A butterfly-shaped garden will host weddings, birthday parties and “much more,” once COVID-19 has passed, he said.

Opa butterfly release

Butterfly releases at funeral services: here, family members commemorate the passing of their 93-year-old patriarch with the release of 93 butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball

“Everyone will want to be outside and I hope they will be in my garden looking at the butterflies,” he said.

Smith and Folk say they were not caught off guard with a surplus of livestock they were unable to ship when coronavirus hit. Breeders typically build up their inventory in anticipation of the busy season.

Hodsdon had several hundred monarchs that were planned for an event that was canceled because of the coronavirus. She said she plans to release those butterflies in front of hospitals this week.

“Someone will see them and it will allow their minds to think of something else,” she said.

TOP PHOTO: Milkweed greenhouse at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm is open for business. Photo by Edith Smith.

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