Farmer Highlights

Everyday stories of Farmer (and Other) Butterfly Folk...

Butterfly farming can be both fun and profitable (Edith and Steve Smith)
For love and money (Gary Geer)
Allie Schield's Story (Allie Schield)
Inside The Monarchists Lair (Ken McGrath)
Ashland Times-Gazette (Cassy Hetrick)
Wilmington, DE News journal (Dan and Kay Greathouse)

Butterfly farming can be both fun and profitable

Monarchs, Longwings and more

By Ed Albanesi
Editor, Florida Farm Bureau: Florida Agriculture 2003

Click HERE to read this article, with associated photographs, on the Florida Farm Bureau website.

If there is still a smidgeon of doubt out there about Florida’s status as a diversified agricultural state, this story about butterfly farming should lay it to rest. Yes, you heard us right – butterfly farming.

In mid-July, FloridAgriculture visited Shady Oak Nursery and Butterfly Farm in Brooker. For the geographically challenged, Brooker is located about 15 miles north of Gainesville.

At Shady Oak, we met Edith and Steve Smith. The Smiths have been raising butterflies for about three years. We also met their daughter, Charlotte, and her two boys, Jonathan, 4, and Jacob, 2.

Steve grew up in Starke and spent part of his career as a pharmacist. Edith grew up on a peanut farm outside Ocala and studied horticulture at Santa Fe Community College.

Why would someone raise butterflies? “The butterflies are so much fun for us,” said Edith. “We really enjoy raising them.”

But growing butterflies is much more than just a fun hobby for the Smiths. It’s a way to earn a living. Although the hours are sometimes long, the return can be lucrative for those who commit themselves to the process. The Smiths retail their Monarch butterflies for $8 apiece.

Dan Greathouse, who operates Greathouse Butterfly Farm in nearby Earleton, first got the Smiths interested in butterfly farming.

“Dan brokers about 75 percent of our production and we ship some to museums and universities,” said Edith. “We sell the rest through word-of-mouth and through our Web site (”

Who buys butterflies? “Brides want butterflies released at their wedding ceremonies and many times they’re released at memorial services,” explained Edith.

Then there are those who simply are fascinated by butterflies and the metamorphosis that turns an arguably unattractive caterpillar into a majestically elegant butterfly. And the Smiths make it easy for those who are interested in the process to watch it from start to finish.

You can purchase baskets and vivariums at their Web site that contain caterpillars, chrysalises and host plants. Then you can watch as the caterpillars devour the host plant, transform into chrysalises (pupae) and ultimately emerge as butterflies. This writer watched it happen and can attest that the process is extremely fascinating (see “Metamorphosis” on Page 16).

You can also purchase butterfly chrysalises in a jewelry box for occasions such as the birth of a child or engagements. “We had one fellow who purchased a male and female chrysalis and included his fiancé’s engagement ring in the box when he proposed to her,” recalled Edith.

Some readers may wonder where cocoons enter into this process. Actually, most butterflies do not spin cocoons during the pupation process. “Butterflies form chrysalises while it’s moths that spin cocoons,” explained Edith.

Another misconception is that butterflies need a complete set of wings to fly. “I’ve seen butterflies with as much as 75 percent of their wings gone, and still flying,” remarked Steve.

The Monarch is probably the most recognizable butterfly that the Smiths raise. It is also the one that is in most demand from buyers. But the Smiths raise several other butterfly breeds.

We looked at numerous varieties of Swallowtail and accompanied Charlotte into an “apartment,” where she showed us several examples of the Zebra Longwing, the official butterfly of Florida. She pointed out freshly laid eggs, munching caterpillars, chrysalises and the adult Longwings.

Readers might also be surprised to learn that caterpillars are picky when it comes to the plants they will eat. For example, the Monarch is very partial to milkweed while the Eastern Black Swallowtail prefers parsley and fennel.

Edith said that it’s critical that their caterpillars get enough to eat. Many of their caterpillars are kept in plastic containers about twice the size of shoeboxes and fed twice each day. “If they don’t get enough to eat, they will become cannibals,” explained Edith. “They won’t eat each other but will devour pupae.”

Growing the plants to feed their caterpillars is a very important aspect of the Smith’s operation. Before they began raising butterflies, the Smiths operated a plant nursery. The transition for them was natural.

Edith and Steve, members of Florida Farm Bureau, are eager to share their knowledge with others who might be interested in starting their own butterfly farms. To that end, they have a seminar scheduled Oct. 11 at their farm.

“Raising Butterflies for Fun and Profit” will be presented in two levels. The first level, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. will be for those who do not actually want to farm butterflies. This level will teach participants how to raise butterflies in their garden or as a hobby.

Level two, from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. will be for those who want to raise butterflies in a laboratory situation for profit. Cost for level one is $75 and the cost for level two is $150.

Readers should note the reference to raising butterflies in a “laboratory situation.” There is a high degree of science associated with raising butterflies.

During FloridAgriculture’s visit to Shady Oak, we witnessed Steve checking Monarchs for the presence of ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a disease that could ultimately prove deadly to the insect.

Using tape, Steve took a sample from the abdomen of each Monarch in his lab and examined it under a microscope for the presence of OE. Every Monarch that the Smiths produce will go through this procedure. Luckily, the Smiths’ Monarchs have stayed pretty much OE-free.

The Smith’s take further preventative action against OE by washing their Monarch egg production in a 4 percent solution of common household bleach for about 30 seconds. “This will kill OE spores, in case we missed them during our visual inspections,” said Edith.

Growing and selling butterflies is a year-round business although Edith says that things slow down a bit in the winter. When the temperature drops below 60 degrees, butterflies will not take flight.

“Spring is very busy for us,” said Edith. “We ship quite a few eggs and pupae to farmers located further north. In the summer we ship mostly adult butterflies.”

If you’re interested in raising butterflies and will not be able to attend the October seminar, Edith is preparing two learning tools to help novices learn more about her fluttery friends.

She is writing a book and producing a video that will detail techniques for raising butterflies. Each will contain general information and techniques, but content will be geared to potential butterfly farmers in Florida and Georgia.

We watched Edith reset a digital recorder that was mounted on a tripod and focused on a chrysalis. “When the butterfly emerges, we’ll have it recorded on video,” said Edith.

Edith and Steve are so committed to sharing their growing knowledge about butterflies with others that their ultimate goal is to travel the country and conduct speaking engagements and mini-seminars on butterfly production.

To them, what they do is more than just a way to earn a living. “We’re the first to admit that this is something we really enjoy,” admitted Edith.


Paper: ' Houston Chronicle
Date: WED 07/30/03
Section: A
Page: 19 Metfront
Edition: 3 STAR

Butterfly farmer finds his work can be uplifting


WHEN D. GARY GEER tells people he's a part-time butterfly farmer, raising monarchs, painted ladies and giant swallowtails, he gets a variety of reactions.

"The women love it," he said, standing in the middle of his Fort Bend County butterfly conservatory. "The guys wonder if I have lost my mind, a grown man still playing with bugs."

But once the naysayers learn there's money to be made off breeding butterflies and packaging them for sale to school teachers and blushing brides, the "you-gotta-be-kiddings" are replaced with curious looks.

Geer , 50, is among a growing number of Texans who breed and raise butterflies instead of cattle. Texas and Florida are the nation's leading butterfly-producing states, according to the International Butterfly Breeders Association, based in the west-central Texas town of Winters.

Geer ships his livestock by Federal Express around the country to people who use them to teach children about biology or release them like balloons at special events. Monarchs that he donated to the Houston Museum of Natural Science were used in an IMAX film on Texas history. The distinctive insect is a native species and the state butterfly.

But while butterfly farming is a business, it also is a labor of love for Geer , who is on a mission to help create and preserve habitats, increase public awareness of butterflies and bring attention to the damage that pesticides can do to the beautiful and beneficial winged insects.

The butterflies he keeps as breeding stock fluttered around his backyard conservatory in Richmond in the afternoon heat, lighting on plants, nectar-filled feeders and the sheer, black-net walls of the tent-like structure.

Geer cupped a monarch in his hands as he explained how a computer engineer came to raise butterflies part time. It began as a hobby.

Geer , a part-time biologist, said he was out trapping birds for a migration project by Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi when the head of the school's center for bioacoustics handed him a net and told him to catch some butterflies.

He was used to working with birds, not bugs. But butterflies, enthusiasts say, have a way of captivating people.

Geer was no exception. He said he was drawn to their symbolism of rebirth and happiness, and fascinated by their complex life cycle, which begins with pinhead-size eggs laid on host plants like the ones that line a bench along the conservatory wall.

Once he got the hang of butterfly farming he began to take them to weddings and give them to the brides, grooms and children.

"There's an Indian legend that if you whisper a wish to the butterfly, and then let it go, it will be granted," he said.

The hobby became a business about a year ago. He turned part of his airplane hangar into a butterfly lab, and his yard is now a wild butterfly habitat complete with showy Mexican milkweed for the monarch caterpillars and passionflower vine, or maypop, for the Gulf fritillary larvae.

Along with growing plants with more nutrients, vitamins and minerals for butterflies, he set up a hydroponic nursery so the plants can soak up antibiotics from a solution. They then pass on their medicinal benefits to the caterpillars.

Geer , who has federal permits to raise nine butterfly species, sells them in special, individual-release envelopes and educational kits. The monarchs range from $8 each to $85 for a dozen.

"It's a fun little business, but it won't support me," Geer said.

He has farmed out some of his livestock for others to raise, but he continues to harvest and hatch the eggs himself because it is a delicate process.

"Right now, I can sell everything I can breed," Geer said.

Geer , a master gardener with the Fort Bend County Extension Office, is leading an effort to create a butterfly garden program to increase habitat.

"We will train (people) how to build butterfly habitat in response to the loss of habitat we are seeing," he said. In addition, he says, "Butterflies are important pollinators for our plants."

Allie Schield's Story


My name is Allie Schield and I am very excited to be a part of the IBBA and look forward to learning so much from all of you.

I think the best way to describe how I got involved with with butterflies is to attach an article that was printed about me 3 years ago. [See below.]

What I have to update to that article is that I have self published a marketed the book that is mentioned in the article and things are going quite well. This has brought me a great deal of self satisfaction and I am learning an enormous amount about the publishing business.

My life long dream has been to be an author and to someday have my own greenhouse so that I can become more involved with the breeding of Monarchs as well as other native butterflies. I live in (Temperate) Minnesota - NOT! So my following is large but my season is short!

I am in the process of doing book signing right now which I enjoy so much! I have met so many wonderful and interesting people at the Farmers Markets and at the signings which makes them all the more enjoyable.

Peace & Blessings!
Allie Schield
July 2003

Like the monarch butterflies she adores, Allie Schield was transformed too
By GREG C. HUFF, Gazette News Editor

Click HERE to read this article.

Ken McGrath article: "Inside The Monarchists Lair"Inside The Monarchists Lair

This article about IBBA member Ken McGrath appeared in the February 2003 issue of "Toronto Life" magazine. The picture shows shows Ken inside his "walk-in closet" a.k.a. his monarch rearing facility.

(Apologies for the quality of the scan.)

Click on picture or text to see enlargement:

Ashland Times-Gazette

While summers equate a break from the school grind for most students, those involved with 4-H, or similar club projects, might make an exception to this rule. Although they may be out of the classroom, they still are putting the finishing touches on projects that will take them into the dog days of summer, learning all the while.

In a number of cases, a student's hard work and dedication can take them all the way to the Ohio State Fair--this year, more than 30 made it to Columbus. In addition to hard work, some unusual creativity has come into play with a few State Fair bound students.

Cassy HetrickCassy Hetrick, who is entering the seventh grade at Hillsdale Middle School, recently returned from her first experience at the State Fair. She too has one of the more unique projects entered at the State Fair -- she studied the mechanics of butterfly farming, something mom Penny Wilson has been doing for the past two years.

Her carefully constructed folder depicts pages of butterfly "host" and "nectar" plants, where they lay their eggs and feed and information on the delicate Monarchs she raised in her garden of colorful flowers.

Actually stepping into the garden and tent, where the chrysalises are kept, the hard work and uniqueness becomes evident, as Cassy and her mom explain the process of butterfly farming.

"I learned about different plants, the butterfly life cycle," Cassy said of her experience. She said that at one point, there were eight butterflies at one time flying around her flower garden.

She explained it takes about 10 days for the chrysalis to merge into a butterfly, and the butterfly then has an average life-span of about two to three weeks. The Monarchs take tedious attention; Cassy must spray the mesh tent three times a day so they don't become dehydrated.

Her work earned her a participation ribbon, and she will go on to show her project at the Ashland County Fair.

The photo and article are to be reprinted only with permission from the Ashland Times-Gazette. Any reproductions may not be done without express written consent from the Ashland Times-Gazette.

Photo by Amy Van Horn
Story by Liz Alessio

Photo copyright the Ashland Times-Gazette.

Thanks to Jon Timko for supplying this article from the
Wilmington, DE News journal of April 10, 2001.

Jon says:

"Dan and Kay Greathouse did a story with a wire service recently. They are featured in the story. Then the local paper picked it up and added the local slant (that's me!).

The story was the front page of the Celebrations section of the paper. It was a great cover and a great story. Sparked a lot of local interest here. It also has NO NEGATIVE COMMENTS!!!!!!! Whoopie! haven't seen that in a while! It may have also been picked up by some other papers around the country. I'm curious if anyone else saw a similar article."

Right-click below do download the article in Adobe Acrobat format (1.16 Mb file).

Need Acrobat Reader? Click here:

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