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How a Butterfly Farm Works

The daily operation of an established butterfly farm has many components. Principally the entomological facet of breeding the butterflies, the horticultural duties of   propagating the appropriate food plants and flowers, and inevitably the accounting and other paperwork. We will concentrate on the breeding process here. Although there are many methodologies in breeding butterflies, the following is one example of a typical procedure.

A butterfly farm should be managed in a way that allows it to function symbiotically with the indigenous butterfly populations. An ideal habitat should be created by planting flowers and food plants in abundance on the farm and in the vicinity. With the development of these plants, the farm should become a butterfly sanctuary of sorts by providing food and nectar in abundance.

Female butterflies, caught from the wild or from captive-bred stock, are released to fly freely within large enclosed structures that house the required host plants. As each butterfly species requires a specific host plant for its survival, the farmer must anticipate the species that he or she intends to breed by planting the necessary plants well in anticipation. A typical flight area measures about 25 sq. meters by 3 meters high, though there are no optimal dimensions. A fresh female can typically lay upwards of a hundred eggs. Some species will lay their eggs singly over many days. Others lay gregariously in a few sittings.

The ova must be removed daily from the flight areas and placed in a secure location where predators (ants, spiders, wasps, parasitic wasps, lizards, etc.) cannot get to them. The ova are placed in small, parasite and predator proof plastic boxes.

Searching for hundreds of tiny butterfly eggs in a large enclosure stuffed with foliage is not necessarily the exercise in tedium that it would seem.. The females of all species will lay only on their respective host plant. Furthermore, each species will have a preference as to where the females lay their eggs. While one species will lay on the underside of old and dried leaves, another will lay only on the tendrils of the freshest new growth. With some experience, a person will quickly discover the best places to look and make quick work of collecting the ova.

The collected ovae must be checked daily. The first instar larvae should be removed with care and place on potted food plants which in turn are placed inside cages. During the larvae's first two weeks, of first three instars, the caterpillars eat very little. After their third instar, the larvae become voracious. It is imperative that the farmer have planted with months of anticipation sufficient food plants to feed the larvae in their latter stages. Because of the increased volume of food plant that each larva consumes, it becomes impractical to feed them on potted plants. Rather, they must be fed on cuttings. Generally, a fistful or two of the food plant will be cut for each cage. The stems will be placed in a jar of water to preserve the foliage's freshness for twenty four hours. The larvae are then placed on the cutting to feed as they wish.

The cages must be cleaned daily. This entails removing the stems of the devoured food plants from the previous day; removing the excrement from the floor of the cages; inserting new, freshly cut host plant; and returning the larvae on to their plants. The importance of cleanliness and diligence cannot be overly stressed. Failing this, even for one day, the larvae are likely to die from and assortment of diseases, viruses or starvation. When rearing just a few or thousands of larvae, cleanliness and attention to details are indisputably a key success factor for any butterfly breeding operation. Once completed their fifth and final instar, the larvae pupate. They may attach themselves as pupae on the ceiling of the cages or on the food plants. Care must be exercised while cleaning the cages lest they inadvertently discard pupae. Someone must check the cages and remove the pupae daily. As the pupae are usually of such short duration, only by collecting the pupae daily can a farmer be sure of the age of the pupae. A pupa should not be more than three days old before it is shipped. Butterfly farming is by no means an easy endeavor. In the wild, butterflies may expect to enjoy a 3% survival rate between ova and adult. The 97% that perish along the way may be devoured by prey, succumb to virus or diseases or not be able subsist if the climatic conditions (drought, wind, temperatures, etc.) are not right. A successful farmer, by isolating the butterflies from Mother Nature's biological controls, may with luck raise the survival rate from 2% to as high as 90%.

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