Saturday, July 18, 2009

Butterfly Farm in Costa Rica


Farming the Flying Flowers
by Whit Bronaugh Wildlife Conservation
September/October 1993

Last year some 50,000 tropical butterflies flew across the Atlantic from a small farm in Costa Rica to a rest stop in England. After a few days they continued their migration; most headed for Europe, the rest turned toward North America. Then thy sprouted wings. This phenomenon first happened ten years ago and has been recurring annually ever since. What's going on here?

Shipped by plane as live pupae, these butterflies are on a mission. Raised from eggs on The Butterfly Farm in Costa Rica's Central Valley, the insects are flown to a broker in England, who sorts and distributes the butterflies to over 250 walk-through butterfly houses around the world, where visitors experience the unique wonder of free-flying, tropical butterflies. In a time of unprecedented destruction of tropical forests, The Butterfly Farm is an example of how ecology can combine with business to promote conservation by providing a rationale for local people to protect habitats and the rainforest. At the same time it raises public awareness of the most biologically rich ecosystem in the world.

Ten years ago, Costa Rica was suffering its most devastating economic crunch, resulting from dependence on agricultural exports like coffee, bananas, and sugar, none of which are indigenous to the country. Joris Brinckerhoff, thane a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica, thought, "Why not export the best of Costa Rica -- its beautiful natural history -- in a way that doesn't destroy the environment but actually enhances it? In 1984, with his wife Maria Sabido, Brinckerhoff converted a two-and-a-half acre horse pasture into one of Latin America's first butterfly farms specifically intended to supply butterfly houses.

Stressing the importance of preserving the butterfly habitat, the couple trained local people in conservation methods and assembled a work force of native Costa Ricans. Eventually 15 of these people started their own butterfly farms. The Brinckerhoffs also helped women in the area start a cottage industry for the making of replicas of butterflies to sell to tourists.

Brinckerhoff manages the farm as much as possible for the benefit of wild butterflies, planting thousands of nectar and larval food plants, yet allowing most of the land to revert to functional rainforest. "It's a butterfly paradise," he explains. "The adults come in to get nectar, they fly a short distance and they find a larval food plant to lay their eggs on."

To maintain genetic diversity in his breeding stock, he brings wild adults into the netted breeding enclosures. The netting is not there to keep the butterflies in, but to keep predators out. In the wild, birds, lizards, spiders, ants and parasitic wasps kill over 90 percent of a butterfly's potential offspring by attacking eggs, larvae, and pupae, as well as adults. Within the farm, Brinckerhoff reverses the odds, losing only some 10 percent of his butterflies to the food chain.

For adult butterflies inside, it's business as usual as they fly about feeding, mating, and laying eggs. Farm workers meticulously scour the plants daily to collect the eggs -- some of them the size of a comma on this page -- which will be sorted into labeled boxes. When the caterpillars hatch a few days later, they are placed on their species-specific food plant. Fresh cuttings are provided each day as the caterpillars alternately outgrow their skins and molt until they're ready to enter the chrysalis stage. At this point, most of the pupae are shipped to a distributor in England while the rest are kept for breeding or released back into the wild.

The Butterfly Farm, and others like it, can exist because of the booming industry of exhibiting live tropical butterflies in what are often called butterfly houses. Inside the houses, adult butterflies emerge from the pupa stage, pump up their glittering wings, and fly about freely, heedless of visitors going gaga. Dazzling blue morphos flash their neon wings, tiger longwings sip nectar from tropical blossoms, a large owl butterfly alights on a delighted child's shoulder.

The first butterfly house opened in 1976 on Guernsey Island in the English Cannel. Since then, over 250 have spring up, mostly in Europe. In the United States the first to open was Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida, in 1988. There are now about a dozen butterfly houses in the U.S. and Canada, with more on the way.

Most adult butterflies live only two to eight weeks so butterfly houses constantly must be restocked. Ian Wallace, owner of Entomological Supplies, in England, the largest retailer of live butterflies, marketed about half-a-million pupae last year, and the demand is growing at 25 percent annual rate. In addition to importing about 1,000 pupae each week from The butterfly Farm in Costa Rica, Wallace orders pupae from operations in 38 tropical countries.

People have always been fascinated by butterflies so it's not surprising how much business the butterfly industry has generated. Perhaps more than any other invertebrates, butterflies have found their way into our poems, songs, and art. So great was the butterfly craze during the Victorian Age that public auctions of exotic specimens frequently were held in London. Professional collectors scoured the jungles to add colorful butterflies to the displays of the wealthy. Lepidopterists have long been caricatured as nearsighted nerds in safari clothes and fogged-over glasses, as they chase after their quarry with huge nests and exclaim, "It's an Ornithoptera priamus poseidon!" But not all butterfly enthusiasts look like they stepped out of a Gary Larson cartoon. Young and old, who of us can help but feel more lighthearted and carefree at the sight of butterflies dancing on gossamer wings?

Unfortunately, in many places such opportunities are declining. The United States is home to some 700 butterfly species; 14 of them are listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Gone forever are the xerces blue, sthenele satyr, pheres blue, strohbeen's parnassius, and the atossa fritillary. Worldwide, the World Conservation Union cites 332 butterflies as being in trouble. But population data for most of the 20,000 known butterfly species is scant to nonexistent, and recent surveys in the Amazon River Basin suggest that another 2,000 species have yet to be discovered. We have no idea how many butterfly species are lost as we say goodbye to an acre of rainforest with every heartbeat. But consider entomologist Edward O. Wilson's most conservative estimate that one year's rate of deforestation, approximately an area the size of Florida, obliterates some 27,000 species of plants and animals.

Although other factors may be involved, the principal threat to butterflies, as with most wildlife, is the loss or alteration of habitat. Butterflies depend on the availability of nectar plants for the adults and host plants for the voracious caterpillars. Most species are picky eaters, often dining exclusively on one species of plant. As plants evolve into different species containing different chemical defenses to deter caterpillars, the butterflies counter by developing their new species, with the ability to sequester chemicals to use for their own defense. If the plant or habitat disappears so does the butterfly.

The Xerces Society, named for the xerces blue, the first American butterfly driven to extinction by human development, is our only conservation group that focuses on saving invertebrates, or as Edward O. Wilson describes them, "the little things that run the world." This small butt effective organization has been active in preserving monarch wintering sites in California and has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to protect endangered butterflies like the Oregon silverspot, the homerus swallowtail, and the bay checkerspot.

Other projects around the world are in progress. In Madagascar, for example, the NYZS/The Wildlife Conservation Society and Xerces are collaborating on a project to document patterns of butterfly diversity and to develop ways to preserve that diversity. Typically, however, insect conservation receives little presss or funding. The public is far more familiar with efforts connected with whales, pandas, and spotted owls. Low on the sentiment scale, insects have a negligible cuddle quotient; more often the responses associated with insects are the exclamations "Yuck! Ouch!" and "Aaaaiiieeeee!" Insects bite, sting, creep, crawl, infect, and eat our crops. In short, they bug us. But our myopic view of the insect world overlooks millions of species of insects that are helpful or interesting or even beautiful in the way that they fulfill their ecological destiny. The majority of the world's insects live in tropical forests, which, despite the press that they've received recently, remain far from the experience of most Americans. Butterfly farms and houses are working to enhance this picture by making butterflies the popular emblem of the insect world and the ambassadors of tropical forests.

How do butterfly farms and houses fit into the conservation scheme? One way is giving the indigenous population an incentive to conserve the jungle near their villages. Frank Elia, manager of the Day Butterfly Center of Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, says, "Every step in this business is positive because it generates interest, awareness, and income related to preserving butterflies and tropical forests." On butterfly farms like Brinckerhoff's, all the pupae are captive-reared exclusively for sale as live insects. A similar but generally separate trade (that earns over $100,000,000 annually) in specimens exists to satisfy the needs of museums and collectors. Manufacturers of decor products such as butterfly-decorated lampshades represent a third market, one that is high volume but of relatively low value. One supplier, the non-profit Insect Farming and Trading Agency in Papua New Guinea, brings in half-million dollars annually, most of which goes to the 450 farmers who attract egg-laying adult butterflies from the surrounding rainforest by cultivating the nectar and larval food plants on small open garden plots. For the wild butterflies these plots are like a supermarket -- lots of food and few predators. Farmers may earn as much as $1,000 or more each year by harvesting two thirds of the emerging adults, leaving enough to replenish and sometimes enhance wild populations. Considering that the local annual per capita income is under $100, the butterfly farmers have a big incentive to preserve the rainforest that supports their livelihood. In Irian Jaya, the World Wildlife Fund is helping to cultivate birdwing butterflies (with wingspans of up to one foot) for collectors. This preserves the butterflies as well as their rainforest habitat. To ensure the survival of the homerus swallowtail in Jamaica, conservationists plan to establish a locally run butterfly farm that will supply collectors with perfect specimens and may even help to eliminate the black market. The farm will generate local support for at national park to protect butterfly habitat.

A new non-profit organization called Wings For The Earth seeks to preserve tropical rainforest through sustainable insect management. Olaf Malver, an economist and president of Wings For The Earth, describes their strategy as, "putting bandages on wounds." The key, he says, is to turn indigenous people into guardians of their own forests by helping them develop an insect collecting and farming business that is dependent on the integrity of the surrounding forest. Wings For The Earth presently supports butterfly rearing operations in the rainforests of Colombia, Ecuador, and Uganda.

Increasing public interest in natural history and concern for the environment has greatly boosted the popularity of butterfly houses. "We're on the cusp on an opportunity to dramatically increase the power of people to affect butterfly conservation," says Robert Michael Pyle, a lepidopterist and founder of the Xerces Society. "But it won't happen unless the curiosity and 'gee whiz' reaction is translated into action".

At the Day Butterfly Center, Butterfly World, and other butterfly houses, educational tours, classes on butterfly gardening, breeding and watching, and other conservation issues encourage public activism. School groups may request free admission, and inspired visitors can buy nectar and host plants to improve their butterfly habitat at home. Butterfly World in Florida also participates in various butterfly research projects as well as in the captive breeding programs and the creation of butterfly farms in tropical forests.

Joris Brinckerhoff's butterfly farm spans the spectrum of the business. In addition to enhancing local butterfly populations and providing livestock for butterfly houses abroad, he serves as a broker for small butterfly farms, run by former employees, around Costa Rica. He has converted his main breeding enclosure into an exhibit for tourists and school groups. Along with explanations of the working of the farm, tourists get a solid dose of butterfly biology, emphasizing the interrelationships of plans and wildlife and the impacts of deforestation. Despite having one of the most progressive environmental programs among Latin American countries, Costa Rica suffers from one of the highest rates of deforestation. A believer in the power of education to bring change, Brinckerhoff plans an environmental day camp for all ages.

Biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich compare the role of species in fastening together the ecosystem with the function of rivets on an airplane. Butterfly farms and houses won't prevent all the rivets from popping loose; but, perhaps, enough of them will hold to keep the butterflies and rainforests aloft.

[The Butterfly Farm] [Centralamerica.com's Top Menu]

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Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan and volcano from my apartment balcony in Panajachel. Taken by Catherine Todd June 2008.