Small Business
Starting a butterfly farm
July 23, 2001: 6:37 a.m. ET

Breeding these beautiful insects for release can be fun and rewarding
By Kamala Nair
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Imagine gazing at dozens of regal Monarch butterflies fluttering overhead, coloring the sky and the trees at your wedding celebration with their splendor. Or releasing a cluster of delicate painted lady butterflies, adding the perfect accent to a graduation or a birthday celebration.

The butterfly is an insect like no other: its fragile beauty has turned it into a symbol of both joy and hope. It's no wonder that releasing butterflies at events like weddings, birthdays and funerals is growing in popularity.

Demand for these colorful creatures has skyrocketed of late and is increasing every year, which means things are definitely looking up for butterfly farmers across the United States.

Experts will tell you that owning a butterfly farm is not as easy as it may seem. In fact, raising healthy insects requires a surprising amount of attention. Rick Mikula, a founder of the International Butterfly Breeders Association, commented that while owning a butterfly farm is challenging, it is also a satisfying pursuit, spiritually and, possibly, financially.

"To quote a close friend who I feel put it quite nicely: 'Never have I worked so hard, for so little, and loved it so much,'" said Mikula, known, for his efforts to popularize butterfly releases, as the grandfather of American butterfly farming.

Out of the gate

Laura Gillespie, 34, decided to start her own business following the birth of her daughter two years ago. Frustrated by the long hours that her office job required, she left her cubicle behind to pursue a dream. Although Mikula advised that a background in horticulture is helpful, Gillespie had no such prior background before she started her own butterfly farm.

A Monarch butterfly
What she did have was a start-up kit, which provided her with larvae and information on raising healthy butterflies. She combined these tools with the business savvy she gained from her former profession and launched Burlington Butterfly Farm in her hometown of Burlington, Wis.

As with many new businesses, getting the word out is often the hardest part. Even though Gillespie's was the first butterfly farm in the area, she immediately put a marketing plan into action. She placed ads in local newspapers and worked at bridal shows. She also benefited from the free publicity she received through a series of newspaper articles written about her farm. And finally, she said having a Web site has also been a boon in garnering new clients. Now in her second season, Gillespie says that the number of orders she receives has climbed significantly since her first year.

According to Sheri Moreau, Director of the Butterfly Conservancy, standard start-up costs vary wildly. "Costs depend on the area of the country, land and greenhouse availability, length of growing season, and water costs, as well as the scale of your effort," said Moreau.

In Gillespie's case, she spent about $2500 to build a greenhouse and stock it with soil, pots, and breeding and rearing cages. Shipping butterflies across state borders also requires a USDA issued permit.

Money to be made

One of the benefits of farming butterflies, over other agricultural endeavors, is that they mature quickly. Once the eggs hatch and become caterpillars, it takes only a matter of weeks before they transform into beautiful butterflies ready for sale.

The two most popular types of butterflies bred for release are painted ladies and monarchs. Monarchs are more costly than the less colorful painted lady, so customers tend to purchase the latter. For events such as weddings, customers generally release between 1-dozen and 3-dozen butterflies at a cost of about $95 per dozen for monarchs and $80 for painted ladies.

Moreau emphasized that although this is not a get-rich-quick business, within a few years butterfly farms can yield anywhere from $50,000 up to $100,000 in annual revenue. In fact, the market for butterflies has grown so rapidly in the past 20 years that there are now 157 professional butterfly farmers in the United States alone.

Mikula, who has also written several books on the subject of butterfly farming, said many of the top suppliers are one-person operations. There are over 100 professional farmers in the IBBA who make a living solely as butterfly farmers. In order to do so, most cannot count on releases to keep them in business year round, as butterfly farming is a seasonal business.

In addition to selling butterflies to party givers, many farmers also supply the zoos and museums with fluttering butterflies for their live exhibits. Schools, too, have become customers because many teach the subject of metamorphosis through the aid of hatching kits and the observation of live caterpillars.

Controversy over releases

This seemingly innocuous industry, however, has been colored with controversy in its short life. Some organizations, such as the North American Butterfly Association, condemn the practice as unethical and are lobbying for its abolition. The NABA argues that releasing commercially bred butterflies may interfere with the migration of wild butterflies, spread disease and create inappropriate genetic mixes.

The IBBA disagrees. Moreau believes butterfly farmers who adhere to regulations are helping, rather than harming the butterfly population. "In the wild, roughly two adult butterflies make it out of every 100 eggs laid. A conscientious and hygienic butterfly farmer can reverse those numbers from 2 percent to 98 percent," she said. However, Moreau fears that this controversy could eventually lead to the shut down of the whole industry.

Those in the business hope that this is not the ultimate fate of butterfly farming. If they accomplish nothing else, at least they impart a little happiness and beauty into the lives of their customers. Mikula concluded that the best part of their job is the joy it brings to people.

"I have always felt that I do not give the gift of butterflies, but rather, I am allowed to give the gift of sight," he said. "I get to open their eyes to the wonderful creatures sharing our gardens." graphic


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Burlington Butterfly Farm

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