THE JOY OF BUTTERFLIES

Lepidoptera farming for fun and profit

by Joel Dames

SEATTLE — In 1994, Lt. Sheri Moreau took early retirement from the navy and put to the test her belief that “your goal in life should be to figure out what you most love to do, then figure out a way to make a living doing it.” With a goal of connecting with nature and wildlife, she began her second career as a butterfly farmer.

“When I was 9, Mom gave me permission to create a weed garden in a corner of our backyard. Pretty unsightly compared to the rest of the yard — but always full of fascinating minibeasts. I loved it! I spent an idyllic childhood running barefoot through the woods, net and collecting jar in hand, a powerful microscope back home.”

As one of about 60 people in the U.S. who call themselves butterfly farmers, she raises butterflies for release at weddings, anniversaries, funerals, grand openings, even prison releases. She ships live butterflies overnight in individual packets and boxes, and larger amounts in display cages containing sometimes more than 100.

Since the farming and release business runs from March through September, during the winter months she mounts dead butterflies, lectures, offers training sessions, and updates her Breeder’s Manual. Purchasers of her manual get unlimited support, so she spends lots of time on the phone and responding to mail.

Moreau recommends providing a garden pub of nectar-producing flowers local butterflies prefer and luring them to it. Milkweeds, for example, act as host plants for monarchs. The caterpillars eat the milkweed, then the butterfly sucks nectar from its flower. The milkweed thus serves as both host for the caterpillars and nectar flower for the adult monarchs.

From April through September, Moreau starts her day in the caterpillar-rearing room, feeding caterpillars cut plant material from the greenhouse. Any chrysalides which have formed are removed and hung in the emergence facility “to prevent inadvertent cannibalism.”

Inside her office, she reads e-mail, handles billing and orders, and contacts people all over the country. By 11 a.m., she’s packaging butterfly shipments for overnight UPS and FedEx delivery. Then, back out to the greenhouse to work on plants and to cut food to feed the caterpillars for the next morning. On nice days she nets flying butterflies in the garden for breeding stock.

“Some days I’ll play hooky and spend the day prowling the countryside looking for butterflies and plants. Some nights in May through August I set up light traps to catch wild silk moths, and those have to be checked at 3:30 a.m. to get the moths before the birds wake up and eat them.”

Moreau works 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week. For all her work, she makes about $8,000 a month, but says some butterfly farmers gross as much as $20,000 a month.

For Moreau butterfly farming is as much a passion as a job. She cautions prospective farmers, though, that it is a job requiring lots of patience and attention to detail. “Feeding and sanitation of caterpillars and butterflies is a seven-day-a-week job. Like any other business, it requires an ability to handle multiple tasks, such as advertising and marketing, sales, inventory, ordering and a marketing budget plan.”

According to Moreau, there are no commercial breeders outside the U.S. on the butterfly/moth suppliers list. Last year Takeshi Kumon, a patent attorney who maintains a Web site called Butterflies of Japan, received e-mail from a woman in California who was to attend a friend’s wedding in Japan. She asked Kumon if she could bring live butterflies into Japan.

“As this seemed almost impossible, I helped her when she arrive in Tokyo to collect butterflies to release for the wedding,” Kumon said. Not an easy task, especially with butterflies disappearing from urban centers.

Some butterfly species are already extinct or endangered due to human impact on their natural environments. We can conserve and lure them back by including some native plants in our gardens and parks. Indeed, butterflies have been with us ever since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

This month Schatz Publishing releases its premiere issue of “Butterfly Farming.” Schatz Publishing: Tel. +1 (888) 474-6397 or schatzpub@aol.com.

Contact Sheri Moreau at sheri@butteflywings.com or visit her Web page at www.butterflywings.com.