Butterfly Farming: Breeding Beauty by Eric Mohrman

Butterfly Farming: Breeding Beauty
By Eric Mohrman

The story of the birds and the bees is probably familiar, but just in case, here’s a quick refresher.

When a bird or a bee loves nectar, it pokes its way into flowers to extract its meals. In the process, it picks up pollen from the anthers on the flowers’ stamens. The bird or bee then cross-pollinates by transferring pollen to the ovule-containing carpels of other flowers while gathering more food.

And that’s how baby flowering plants are made.

But butterflies are “the forgotten pollinators,” notes Lakeland resident, organic farmer, co-op operator and butterfly breeder Gil Daigneau. Typically, they’re thought of as symbols of beauty and metamorphosis rather than field workers.

About to hit 60, Daigneau’s been raising butterflies since the sixth grade. They say successfully maintaining relationships for so long takes lots of patience, communication, compromise and hard work. Not so in this instance.

“It’s great fun to raise them. There’s no downside to butterflies,” Daigneau quips.

After 12 years in the computer business, Daigneau realized it wasn’t what he wanted to be doing. He decided to put his University of Florida bachelor’s degree in agriculture to use and pursue his serious interest in local, all-natural, healthful eating instead.

In 1995, he acquired some land in Lakeland and started sowing the seeds of his chemical-free farm and co-op, Go Natural Organics, Inc. (GoNaturalOrganics.org), where he also breeds butterflies.

At any given time, Daigneau tends to hundreds of caterpillars, pupae and butterflies along with his considerable array of crops. He nurtures monarchs and multiple other species, such as buckeyes, white peacocks, great southern whites, Julias, queens and various types of swallowtails.

To summarize the life cycle, Daigneau refers to the monarch, which he says is fairly representative. Their eggs take about four days to hatch, then the larvae, or caterpillars, munch on milkweed for around 18 days. That’s all they eat; each caterpillar species eats only one or a few plants. Then they enter a chrysalis for the pupal stage. After about one week, they “eclose,” or emerge from the chrysalis. The adult butterfly pumps its wings up with fluid stored in its abdomen and instinctively flies.

Daigneau welcomes a new generation of butterflies about once per month. Many are freed to pollinate plants on his farm. Others are kept for butterfly releases, which he arranges for special events.

Auburndale resident Terri Kowalski has worked on Daigneau’s farm and helped with releases over the years. She’s also the author of two children’s books about butterflies and their role as pollinators, Butterfly’s Dream and Bee’s Birthday Surprise.

“Because the butterfly represents new life and transformation, it is used to celebrate at weddings and at funerals to honor the soul passing into its new life,” Kowalski says.

Butterflies taking flight en masse is a magnificent sight that adds intrigue and an enduring memory to any event. Kowalski notes that some butterflies usually linger behind, allowing attendees to get an up-close look at these beautiful, delicate creatures.

Daigneau has orchestrated charitable releases, too. Teaming up with Lakeland’s Kaleidoscope “Butterflies in Flight” project, which installed butterfly sculptures around town, was an obvious move. Kaleidoscope raised funds for the city’s disability-friendly CommonGround playground.

For his part, Daigneau sold envelopes containing butterflies for $5, giving Kaleidoscope $4 of each sale. Around 300 were purchased on two separate occasions.

“The people all opened their envelopes at one time, and there was just a beautiful ascending cloud of butterflies,” Daigneau recounts.

Standing before a swarm or marveling at just one, it’s easy to appreciate butterflies for their vivid colors, their gentility, their wondrous metamorphosis, their free-spirited fluttering and their association with flowers and sunlight. But making the leap from passive admirer to active breeder is something else entirely.

It’s no mystery how Daigneau’s keen interest in these insects of the order Lepidoptera developed. At age 9, he moved to Archbold Biological Station in Highlands County, where he would remain through high school. His father had been hired on as an accountant for the ecological research and education facility.

Spending a good deal of time with entomologists, Daigneau received a hands-on butterfly education that instilled more than facts and fascination. The excitement of learning through direct observation of the butterfly’s life cycle really stuck.

Daigneau considers the butterfly’s use for educational purposes a compelling reason for raising them. He visits local schools to talk about and show off his favorite insects, and he also helps students bring up butterflies of their own.

In 1998, Fred Wiechmann, then-principal (and current science teacher) at Lakeland Christian School, enlisted Daigneau to raise butterflies with his elementary students for an enlightening experience that would become an annual event called Monarch Mania. Wiechmann was eager for the children to interact with the natural world.

“If I can’t take them to nature, bring nature to them,” Weichmann says of his philosophy.

That first year put Daigneau’s determination to the test. He now speaks of the overly ambitious undertaking with an amusement only afforded in retrospect. Wiechmann wanted each of the 450 or so students in the school to raise and release his or her own monarch.

Daigneau agreed without hesitation, which Wiechmann laughingly attributes to his good friend’s “Texas-sized ego.”

Perhaps 450 caterpillars doesn’t sound like much. However, there’s only about a 50 percent success rate for maturation through to eclosure. So, to ensure every child would have a butterfly, the pair procured some 800 to 900 caterpillars and as many milkweed plants to nourish them. Many of these were obtained from the University of Kansas-based Monarch Watch (MonarchWatch.org), a nonprofit dedicated to monarch research, education and conservation.

To protect the caterpillars from fire ants, lizards and other threats as they prepared to pupate, Daigneau remained at their side on a lawn chair around the clock for two days. His beyond-the-call-of-duty dedication paid off, and the student release of 450 monarchs at the end of the school year remains his biggest release ever.

The children invariably respond to the butterfly experience with overwhelming positivity. Fortunately, the time frame of the butterfly life cycle is suitable for the short attention span of young kids, Daigneau explains.

“If it took six months, they’re not gonna watch it, you might as well forget it. But they will watch an egg for four days, and they will watch a caterpillar increase in size 2500 times in 18 days, and they will watch a chrysalis for a week to get a butterfly.”

Wiechmann decided Monarch Mania would be more manageable if limited to the kindergarteners each year. He began sending the chrysalises home with the students, which he says generated as much enthusiasm from the parents as the kids.

Outside the schools, these fragile insects can teach adults a few things, too. For example, their presence, or lack thereof, speaks volumes about local land. With about 100 butterfly species native to the state, this is especially true in Florida.

“Butterflies are an environmental barometer. If you don’t see butterflies, it means they have some real contaminants there,” Daigneau says. “I have them here at my farm so you know everything I grow here’s healthy, or I wouldn’t have butterflies.”

A certain reassurance comes from such a fundamental way of looking at things. But it also speaks to larger concerns about the plight of butterflies and our environment as a whole. There are about 20 endangered butterfly species in the U.S. The iconic monarch isn’t officially one yet, but it’s almost there.

There’s been a staggering 90 percent drop in monarch numbers in recent years, according to the Pollinator Partnership (Pollinator.org). Clearing land for development deprives monarch caterpillars of essential milkweed. Widespread use of pesticides and herbicides has also contributed to the decline.

For Daigneau, birthing butterflies is even more than a hobby, an educational tool and a way to promote plant growth; it’s an imperative. He points out that human actions put natural species under increasing duress and that more and more will go extinct.

“Without breeders, they don’t have a chance,” Daigneau asserts.

He cites the story of the Schaus swallowtail to illustrate the importance of captive breeding. Indigenous only to south Florida’s tropical hardwood hammock habitat, they are the state’s only Federally listed endangered butterfly species.

In 1992, University of Florida researchers began a breeding program to boost Schaus numbers. Their timing was impeccable; in August, Hurricane Andrew decimated the native population and its habitat. The Schaus very well may have become extinct then if researchers hadn’t been able to release thousands of lab-bred butterflies into the wild.

The Schaus thrived for years, but is again on the brink of extinction. UF researchers are now striving to reestablish the population while facing grave difficulties finding wild females.

For non-lepidopterists, it doesn’t take an elaborate breeding setup to aid butterflies and have a positive effect on the environment. Daigneau encourages everyone to lend these winged creatures a hand simply by planting some seeds.

Dale McClung of the International Butterfly Breeders Association in St. Petersburg, Fla. stresses one planting point in particular. “The plants of real concern are the host plants… the butterfly caterpillars feed on to become butterflies.”

For example, milkweed is the only sustenance for monarch caterpillars and the only place the butterflies lay their eggs. The red admiral similarly depends on pellitory, while Florida’s state butterfly, the zebra longwing, needs passion vines, especially the corky stemmed variety.

Human development strips the landscape of feeding and breeding grounds, but homeowners also contribute to the problem. Many consider plants like pellitory and passion vines to be weeds and pull them all out, McClung notes. Simply letting some grow is beneficial.

Host plants help larvae, but adult butterflies need flowers for nectar. Red, orange, yellow, purple and pink clustered or flat-topped flowers with short tubes are best. They should receive full sunlight mid-morning through mid-afternoon and be free of pesticides and other chemicals (as should the surrounding area). Daigneau specifically recommends red pentas.

“If you plant just a few of the right plants in your yard, within a month, you augment the wild population,” says Daigneau.

The end result is a boon to vegetation and a natural form of beautification. It’s also something akin to a small miracle. One can clearly hear the appreciation in Daigneau’s voice when he says, “You’ll have a butterfly that would not have existed had you not put those plants in your yard.”