So You Want to be a Butterfly Farmer
by Sheri Moreau
If you are seriously considering becoming a full-time commercial butterfly farmer (rather than a hobbiest), below is a series of questions to get you started thinking about what you will need to succeed in this business. You MUST have the following:
(1) Good (or corrected) eyesight (eggs and newborn caterpillars are TINY!)
(2) Caterpillar Rearing Space: A spare room in your house or a spare garage or BIG shed which you can fill with shelving and caterpillar rearing boxes. You must be able to heat or cool this room cost-effectively to between 75°-85°F, and to be able to control the humidity.
(3) Cold Storage/Sanitation: A spare refrigerator and a sink in the caterpillar room are ideal, but not mandatory. However, you will routinely need 1/4 to 1/2 of a normal refrigerator to store upplies in--if you have a family of teenagers, you will definitely need a spare fridge! You will also eed a place to clean and dry caterpillar boxes; a deep sink or bathtub and outdoor drying racks will work. I prefer to wash my rearing boxes in the dishwasher and dry them outdoors in the sun.
(4) Butterfly Holding Space: A spare bathroom or other smaller space where you can control the light and keep the temperature between 65°-75°F to hold the butterflies until you are ready to sell hem. The Caterpillar Rearing Space and the Butterfly Holding Space cannot be in the same room!! Caterpillars need warm temps to grow properly and quickly. Butterflies need cool temps to have a decent shelf life.
(5) Butterfly Breeding Space: At least one 8'x 8'x 8' screenhouse in a sunny place in your
backyard filled with nectar plants and a few host plants to encourage your breeding butterflies to mate and lay eggs. Certain species can be raised using smaller breeding cages, but they will not be nearly as productive at laying eggs. Handpairing butterflies IS possible; we can show you how, but is not always successful.
(6) Greenhouse/Screenhouse: A green thumb and a greenhouse to start and raise caterpillar host food plants are essential to this business. If you live in a hot part of the country, you will need a screenhouse rather than a greenhouse, but you will still need to pull plastic over the screenhouse when cold weather sets in. Although you can get by, especially in the southern parts of the country, with smaller greenhouses, you should plan on at LEAST one 16'x96' greenhouse. You will probably want three or more.
(7) Land: at least an acre or better yet three of land to raise milkweed and other host plants on in quantity--or you will have to pay a commercial grower to grow them for you--a significant profit loss. When starting out, your backyard or a couple of community garden plots may suffice, but you will outgrow such a small space very rapidly: caterpillars eat a LOT! Yes, you can harvest some plants legally from the wild, but these must be cleaned, and bad weather (drought/flood/El Niño) can leave you empty-handed if you rely on nature to provide!
(8) Basic supplies: A microscope and assorted other rearing supplies such as rearing containers, shelves, disinfectants and spray bottles; packing boxes, cotton batting, and shipping supplies; marketing materials, etc. All of this will come to around $1500, but can be purchased as needed, not necessarily all at once. Some of these items you may already have around the house. Others you can obtain creatively (garage sales, the dump, etc.).
(9) A decent computer, printer, and Internet access are ESSENTIAL. A plain paper fax machine that can handle convenience copying is a nice plus.
(10) A lot of patience and attention to detail; this is a very labor-intensive business. Feeding and sanitation of caterpillars and butterflies is a 7 (yes-seven!) day a week job, in season. It is VERY difficult to find a qualified caterpillar sitter, so you will need to be present most if not all of the time. We can teach you methods of slowing down and speeding up productivity and efficiency, but you will have to experiment within the confines of your own conditions/environment.
(11) The ability to handle multiple different tasks, just as in any small business, such as: advertising & marketing, sales (a lot of talking to brides!), bookkeeping & accounting,
stockkeeping/inventory/ordering of supplies, packaging & shipping, plus the "alternative
agriculture" end of the farm business: breeding insects, dealing with disease prevention, and growing food plants.
(12) The understanding that in most parts of the country, butterfly farming and release events are seasonal business (kiss summer vacations good-bye!), and that you must cultivate other money-making options for the winter. Yes, you can continue to raise small numbers of butterflies in your house all winter if you have a decent sized greenhouse, but the market is very limited in cold weather.
Please be aware that the February 1998 National Enquirer article which said butterfly breeders earn over $100k a year is a crock. I GROSSED well under $15k my first year, as did virtually every other breeder I know. Most people who attempt to raise butterflies commercially don't last a full year, especially if they start the business without being trained in commercial techniques first.
Please also be aware that there are any number of people out there selling "butterfly farming starter kits" who claim you can raise butterflies (especially Painted Ladies) in your bathroom. While this is technically true (I raise them in a spare bedroom; you can't control the humidity in your bathroom unless you're not using it for personal hygiene), you can't make a living raising them on such a small scale--a set-up like that is strictly for a hobbiest. Moreover, NO ONE can make a living simply raising Painted Ladies--there is too much competition, and too many prettier butterflies. Bear in mind that commercial butterfly farming is completely different from raising a couple of hundred caterpillars in a spare corner of your house.
I'm not trying to scare you off; I'd love to have you buy a manual or attend a seminar, but I want you to understand the facts straight from the get-go. It IS possible to make a good living in this business, but you need to be both versatile in your skills/offerings, and aggressive in your marketing. Feel free to query other breeders on any of the above points.
Sheri S. Moreau