Harvesting the Crop With Wings


THIS crop has wings! Yes, you read correctly​—this farmer’s harvest has wings. Of course, every good farmer knows that his labors revolve around producing a good, healthy crop. The same is true with this cultivator​—he vigilantly keeps out such stealthy predators as insects, spiders, and birds. At harvesttime his work intensifies, as he tries not to lose the precious commodity he has so diligently nurtured throughout the season. If he is successful, his crop​—consisting of pairs of the most exquisitely colored wings in the world—​will emerge thousands of miles from where it was raised. What is this unique crop? Yes, your guess is right on the mark​—butterflies.

Butterfly farming is a trade of great value. It cleverly provides a beautiful and ecological way of helping to preserve diverse species of butterflies. Now, do a myriad of questions come fluttering quietly into your mind? For example, what exactly is a butterfly farm? How does it operate? And what is its purpose? Before we answer these questions, let us consider how the farming of these delicate creatures came about.

It Began in China

For centuries the Chinese had the custom of breeding moths specifically for their silk industry. The call for butterfly farms, though, surfaced very recently. In the 1970’s, a live butterfly exhibit was held on the island of Guernsey, off the coast of England.

The noble idea of the Guernsey endeavor was to recreate a tropical forest complete with butterflies, whose endless colors and designs would breathe life into it. This, logically, would require the transport of butterflies indigenous to the tropics. But how do you get tropical butterflies (with a life span in some species of only two to three weeks) shipped live and without loss to a destination thousands of miles from their native land? The need for farming butterflies commercially thus developed.

How a Farm Operates

The delightful opportunity of seeing such a farming operation firsthand is breathtaking. To witness up close a kaleidoscope of many vibrant-colored wings is an amazing sight. Awake! visited the biggest  farm and export operation of its kind in Central America, Butterfly Farm, in Costa Rica. This farm not only exports harvested pupae (cocoon or chrysalis) but also has an educational program for those who would like to know more about the life cycles and biology of butterflies.

As you enter the enclosure of the butterfly garden, you will immediately be enthralled by the sight of hundreds of butterflies flying about you, dressed in dazzling color combinations​—some fluttering and diving, others gracefully floating by. These blazing multicolored creatures contentedly ignore your presence as they go about their daily routine of eating, mating, and laying eggs. How can you not be impressed? Seeing and smelling the butterfly host plants​—native wildflowers and banana plants—​you soon realize that they serve as both food and nest to the butterflies.

The totally enclosed garden keeps the tiny eggs safe from predators. In the wild the survival rate from egg to adult is only 2 percent of all eggs laid, but in refuges like Butterfly Farm, the rate increases to as high as 90 percent.

The right plants are essential for proper breeding and development of butterflies. Therefore, the garden teems with host plants for the female to deposit her eggs on and for the larvae and caterpillars to gorge on. Nectar plants serve as food for the adults. Each butterfly species lays eggs on only one type of plant, and the larvae, in turn, feed only on that specific plant. It is imperative, therefore, to have an abundance of the host plants on the farm.

A female will lay 100 eggs or more at a time. They resemble tiny droplets of water as small as the period at the end of this sentence. Not only does she lay her eggs exclusively on the host plant but each kind of butterfly lays her eggs only on a specific place on the plant. The farmer can thus find the eggs quickly, remove them, and store them. Every day the host plants are checked for eggs, and every day the eggs are checked for emerging larvae. After emerging from the eggs, the hungry larvae feast on the empty eggshells. At Butterfly Farm, they are then placed on potted host plants inside small cages. The importance of cleaning the cages throughout the life cycle of the larvae cannot be overemphasized, as neglect can breed disease and cause death.

After their third instar, or stage between molts, the larvae truly live to eat. It is said that if a six-pound [3 kg] human baby were to gain weight at the same rate as a caterpillar, or larva, does, the baby would weigh eight tons at the end of two weeks!

The fifth and final instar finds the larvae attached to a branch or the ceiling of the cage, struggling skillfully to shed their skin, underneath which is a hardened shell, otherwise known as the pupa, or chrysalis. This is when the farmer needs to be effective and efficient.

The pupae need to be collected daily, as that is the only way of determining their age. The pupae​—between 40 and 100 of them—​are  painstakingly packed into cardboard boxes between layers of cotton. The farmers and exporters have a window of about ten days in which to ship the pupae to the distributor, who then passes them on to the client, typically a butterfly house or similar type of institution. If shipping is not completed within the time frame, the butterflies will emerge en route and die. If successfully transported, the butterflies will come out of their chrysalis thousands of miles away from their home, quite unaware of their change of address. Butterfly Farm ships between 4,000 and 6,000 pupae a month to institutions around the globe.

Butterfly farms are proliferating worldwide. They already exist in El Salvador, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and, of course, Costa Rica. Also, the number of butterfly houses continues to increase with each passing year, making the viewing of these remarkable creatures possible for people in many parts of the world.

No doubt, farming and harvesting the crop with wings will continue to play an important part ecologically in the preservation of rare species of butterflies. The trade may also contribute to public awareness of the delicate balance of earth’s resources.

[Pictures on page 18]

Farmers use netting to protect eggs and larvae (1). Pupae, like the one shown here (2), are packed in boxes and shipped worldwide (3)

[Credit Lines]

Top left monarch butterfly and pupae: Butterfly House, Mittagong, Australia; middle left butterfly and butterflies on leaves: Courtesy of Buckfast Butterfly Farm

[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

K. Schafer/Audiovise