Butterfly Conservation

Here at Pili Palas we are passionate about conservation – and that is why we support ethical butterfly farming.

We live in a rapidly changing world and our ever increasing demand for food, shelter and the raw materials needed so that we can maintain our way of life means that we are putting our planet’s future at risk.

Butterfly farming – when done properly – does not deplete our planter’s natural resources. Whilst traditional farming methods in tropical countries require the cutting of natural habitats – butterfly farming does exactly the opposite since it is dependent on native vegetation. Indeed, farmers must continually plant native plants around the farm in order to provide a continuous food source for the larvae. This means that butterfly farming has a harmonious relationship with native plants and the habitats which they create.

As well as supporting its local habitat – butterfly farming also creates rural employment and helps to slow down the numbers of people leaving rural areas.

How a Butterfly Farm works

This is how a typical butterfly farm in Costa Rica works.

The farm is managed so that it works side by side with the country’s native butterfly populations. An ideal habitat is created by planting large amounts of flowers and food plants on the farm and its surrounding area. With the development of these plants the farm becomes a butterfly sanctuary, more or less, since it provides plenty of food and nectar.

Female butterflies – either caught from the wild or farm-bred stock – are released to fly freely inside large enclosed structures that contain the necessary plants. As each butterfly species requires a particular plant for its survival, the farmer must carefully plan which species he or she intend to breed in order to ensure that the necessary plants have been planted well ahead.

A fresh female can lay up to a hundred eggs. Some species will lay their eggs one by one over several days. Others lay large numbers in a few sittings. The eggs (ova) must be removed daily from the flight areas and placed in a secure place where predators like ants, spiders, wasps, lizards etc. can’t get to them.

Searching for hundreds of tiny butterfly eggs in a large enclosure, which is full of plants, is actually not as difficult and time-consuming as it may sound. The females of all species will only lay on one particular plant – since that is the only plant that their caterpillar (larvae) will feed on. Also, each species will have a preference as to where the females lay their eggs. Whilst one species will only lay on the underside of old and dried leaves, another will only lay on the tendrils of the freshest new growth. A farm’s workers will quickly discover the best places to look – which means the eggs will be quickly collected.

The collected eggs must be checked daily. When the caterpillars emerge for the first time they need to be removed with care and placed on potted food plants – which are then placed in cages. During the larvae’s first two weeks the caterpillars eat very little. After their third change of skin they start to eat vast amounts. Because of the increasing amount of food plant that each caterpillar eats it becomes impractical to feed them on potted plants. They now need to be fed on cuttings. Usually, a fistful or two of the food plant will be cut for each cage and the stems will be placed in water to keep the foliage fresh for twenty-four hours.

The cages must be cleaned daily – removing the stems of the devoured food plants from the previous day; removing the excrement from the floor of the cages; providing new, freshly cut host plant and then returning the larvae on to their plants. Failing to do this, even for one day could result in the larvae dying from an assortment of diseases, viruses or starvation. Once the caterpillars have shed their skin for a final time they pupate. They may attach themselves as pupae on the ceiling of the cages or on the food plants. The pupae also need to be removed from the cages on a daily basis. The pupae stage can be quite short and only by collecting the pupae daily can the farmer be sure of the age of the pupae. In Costa Rica, a pupa should not be more than three days old before it is shipped.

In the wild butterflies may expect a 2% survival rate between ova and adult. The 98% that die may be caught and eaten by other animals and insects; might suffer diseases or viruses or may not be able to survive if the weather conditions are not right. A successful farmer, by protecting the butterflies from all these threats, may well raise the survival rate from 2% to as high as 90%.

Further reading: www.butterflyconservation.org