Man raises, sells butterflies for ceremonies

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For Bill Robinson, it's about providing a product that has an immeasurable impact on the consumer.

Whether it's a somber occasion, such as a wake or memorial service, or a celebratory event, every special ceremony has unique rituals that provide unforgettable moments of joy or closure.

Robinson will sell the large, prized butterflies for any occasion, but the majority of his clientele use them as part of weddings and funerals.

"There's something about these butterflies, in particular, that people love," he said. "They're large, colorful and very recognizable - all things that make them popular, I suppose, along with their name."

While it might only be something learned in elementary school for most, the life cycle of a butterfly is more than just a science project for Robinson: it's the basis for the structure of his business.

"Every component of my business is structured around the different stages of the butterfly's life," he said. "Each step of the process is specially catered to their development, from egg to mature butterfly."

Milkweed, cleanliness are crucial

Something very unique to the monarch butterfly species is its reliance on milkweed, a plant that is poisonous to most animals but a crucial element of the orange insect's life cycle.

"Monarch butterflies use their legs to sense certain chemicals and will only lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants, where those chemicals are found," Robinson said. "It is also the sole source of food for them during the caterpillar stages."

The shortage of milkweed in the area, caused by farmers' use of herbicides, led Robinson to cultivate his own crop, which is now a 600- to 700-strong population.

Robinson said the process of raising butterflies begins with the harvesting of the eggs found on milkweed leaves, which are then placed in ventilated plastic containers. Before he can begin, however, Robinson must clean the air, surfaces and containers involved.

"We use a mild aerosol to clean the air," he said. "Then we wipe down all surfaces with bleach wipes. These insects are subject to many diseases, so we have to make sure things remain sanitary and controlled throughout the process."

Eventually, those eggs hatch into caterpillars that will feed on milkweed continuously through their maturity. To further stave off mass infections, Robinson only houses 10 to 15 caterpillars per tote. If one population experiences an illness, he can dispose of them without risking a total loss.

"I put fresh milkweed in the containers every day to ensure the caterpillars get optimal nutrients," Robinson said. "We want as many chrysalises as we can get."

Waiting and feeding

Once seven to 10 days have passed, the caterpillars that survive climb to the top of the containers and form chrysalises around their bodies.

Inside, the larvae undergo metamorphosis, a process in which they mature into butterflies.

As far as each group goes, Robinson gets a chance to relax once the caterpillars form their chrysalises.

"At this point, you just have to wait," he said.

It's when the butterflies free themselves from their chrysalises that the hard work begins.

"We have to carefully monitor and regulate them once they're out," Robinson said. "We hand feed each and every one of the butterflies to make sure they get enough of the right nutrients to keep them healthy."

Between feedings, the butterflies are placed in a wine cooler to help preserve them. Every few days, Robinson pulls the butterflies out and lets them warm up in the sunlight before feeding them a mixture of fructose, water and soy sauce.

"Every creature needs sugar and water to survive," Robinson said. "We add soy sauce because it contains a plethora of nutrients to them."

With their motor functions greatly reduced by the cold of the cooler, the butterflies require assistance to feed. Robinson will hold each one and pull out its probiscus with a dental pick and rest it in the solution.

"At that point, they can't seem to stop," he said with a laugh. "They'll sit there and feed for 20 minutes, sometimes."

Breeding, selling and shipping

Shortly after they reach maturity, Robinson places groups of butterflies in large mesh containers with a large milkweed plant.

Hopefully, the butterflies mate. The butterflies then lay their eggs on the bottoms of the plant's leaves, which Robinson then collects to restart the whole process.

Eventually, Robinson has enough butterflies to where he can sell some and still be able to maintain his farm.

When Robinson makes a sale, he either packs the butterflies individually into wax envelopes or into mesh release boxes that can hold many butterflies.

The envelopes or release boxes are then placed into cardboard boxes with a thick wall of styrofoam and an ice pack to preserve and sedate the butterflies. Once the package reaches a customer, the rest is up to him or her.

"Typically, if it's a same-day release, customers just remove the release boxes or envelopes from the shipping box and sit them out until they're to be released," Robinson said. "Otherwise, the butterflies are moved to a refrigerator. All someone has to do after that is remove the butterflies from the fridge. After 30 minutes at room temperature or warmer, you can release the butterflies at any time."

As far as cost goes, the heavily sought-after insects are fairly priced at $5.50 per butterfly.

"A lot of work goes into them, but we want people to be able to afford them," Robinson said. "Once they see the butterflies flutter in the air, the moment becomes priceless. It can be so uplifting and healing."

Reach Rob Cottingham at (803) 774-1225.