Insects setting hearts aflutter Butterfly farmer cashes in on use in weddings, funerals

September 27, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Janet E. Springer is a farmer who keeps most of her livestock in her suburban Hampstead home, penned in the living and dining rooms.

Springer owns Maryland's only known butterfly farm, a 2-year-old business that has tapped into a growing market for butterflies to be released in celebration of weddings, birthdays or graduations, or to symbolize the release of the soul at a funeral or memorial service. Circling above the heads of guests, butterflies splash color against the sky.

Springer raises monarchs and painted ladies, species she chose because they are attractive and showy -- monarchs with their distinctive orange and black bands, painted ladies with wings mottled in brown, orange and white.

At weddings, "Often someone is chosen to say something such as, 'This represents life,' " before guests and members of the wedding party release butterflies into the air, said wedding consultant Gersha Porter of Owings Mills. At the going rate of about $100 for a dozen, butterfly releases are expensive. But "it usually is very pretty," she said.

A biologist who gave up a 20-year career in microbiology to start Angel Wings Butterfly Farm, Springer said the two species she ** raises eat weeds, "so we're not releasing a pest to harm farmers' crops."

Possible harm is a concern for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The agency finds itself caught between conservation groups that want to ban butterfly releases and small-business owners ,, who want to supply the growing demand for the beautiful insects, which according to Native American legend carry whispered wishes to the Great Spirit.

"It's not as simple as the big, bad USDA saying you can't move pretty butterflies," said Robert V. Flanders, senior entomologist in the plant protection and quarantine division.

Butterflies released far from their native habitat can multiply overwhelmingly because they have no natural predators, he said.

Diseased butterflies would spread their illnesses to the native population, he said.

Banned in Arizona

Butterflies can prey on endangered plant species, Flanders said. Arizona, for example, bans releases of monarch butterflies because the state has several endangered species of milkweed.

Or the butterflies can become pests because of sheer numbers.

"If you release 50 butterflies in your back yard, when was the last time you saw 50 butterflies in your back yard? Fifty fully gravid females laying eggs on trees can cause a lot of damage to the trees," Flanders said.

In an effort to balance the conflicting views, the USDA has approved nine species of butterflies for interstate shipment.

The agency does not allow butterfly shipments to cross the Continental Divide because of the absence of natural predators, and because it doesn't want to mix the gene pools. Eastern monarchs, for example, migrate to Mexico for the winter; Western monarchs, to the California coast. Crossbreeding could affect the migration patterns, Flanders said.

Butterfly farming ranges from in-home operations like Springer's to a 2.5-acre converted horse pasture in Costa Rica that ships hundreds of thousands of pupae annually to butterfly houses.

It's not capital-intensive, but it's certainly a labor-intensive occupation, said Sandra Jones, a homemaker and owner of Jones Creek Butterfly Farm in Alpharetta, Ga. "This occupies 50 percent of my time," Jones said.

Springer turned her lifelong hobby of butterfly watching into a business after she met Rick Mikula, a Hazleton, Pa., butterfly farmer. He gives seminars on how to get started in the business, writes books on butterflies and butterfly gardening, and works with television producers on butterfly programs.

He also maintains a World Wide Web site -- www.butterflywebsite.com -- with hundreds of pages that can be downloaded, ranging from information on butterfly gardens to state maps showing native species.

Get started for $500

A butterfly farmer can get started with an investment of about $500, a figure that includes the $195 cost of his seminar, Mikula said. "Like every other profession, for the amount of hours you want to put in, there can be a nice return."

Demand for butterflies exceeds supply, but that doesn't guarantee success, he added.

"People who are just coming to make a dollar don't survive in the business because it does take a lot of hard work. But those who really love butterflies and are willing to do the work, they get established."

Said Springer, who attended one of Mikula's workshops to learn the basics of farming: "I would say you can make a meager living at it. I haven't yet, but it's a seasonal business." Her standard for meager is an income of at least $20,000 a year.

At Angel Wings Butterfly Farm, Springer starts her day by checking the caterpillar cages to see who's out of food.

"They eat constantly, all day and night. They're just eating machines," she said, noting that in the two weeks before it forms a chrysalis, a caterpillar can eat an entire milkweed plant.

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