So You Say You're A Butterfly Farmer

Photo by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

This is the most frequent question Diane and Kevin Wright receive when people find out they are butterfly farmers in Marquette County, located in central Wisconsin. Out of the four suppliers for Olbrich Botanical Garden’s annual Blooming Butterflies exhibit, they’re the only ones located in Wisconsin. This is an inside look at how Wisconsin Butterfly Farm operates and came to be.

After receiving degrees in ecology and physiology, Diane and Kevin began their careers in ecological fieldwork, studying birds in the United States and the tropics. Their interest in birds eventually led to growing food plants for insects, a primary food source for birds. Now, with nearly 20 years raising and studying butterflies under their belts, they’re proud scientists, teachers, and farmers. They raise a dozen different species of butterflies on their caterpillar farm. Rearing caterpillars requires them to spend a majority of their time growing “weeds” (as they put it) for the caterpillars to feed on because caterpillars eat so much.

Photograph by Butterfly Farm of WI

Diane and Kevin’s farm looks very different from most of the other farms around the state. Diane jokes that area farmers laugh at their fields planted with crops that are traditionally considered weeds, saying that in their first year they “were more successful than we had anticipated and did not have enough mature plants in our fields. Our land had an abundant supply of weeds, but we started to run low on food. We gathered food from neighbors’ properties, but had so many caterpillars to feed that we were collecting food by the pickup truck load!”

Like most farmers, Diane and Kevin’s work is extremely dependent on the weather. They have four frequently checked weather apps installed on their phones since the weather determines how hard the day’s work. “Butterflies are insects, and all insects are cold blooded, meaning when it’s cool, the caterpillars chew slowly,” says Diane. “And when it’s hot, they eat so much, so fast that it looks like a cartoon in fast-forward. So on the hottest days of the summer, we have to work the hardest, running around making sure the caterpillars have enough food. Our families know to check the weather before calling us. If it’s above 80, they call only if it’s important and requires a quick answer. Above 88, they don’t call at all.”

During caterpillar rearing season, cool and rainy days are the only times they get a few minutes for a break—even on the weekends. Caterpillars definitely do not understand what a weekend is!

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

At the beginning of each season, Diane and Kevin collect eggs from wild-caught females. All of the species they raise are native to Marquette County. Only a small number of wild-caught females are needed because each female can lay over 500 eggs. Diane says eggs, pupae, and caterpillars are a natural food source for small mammals, birds, and even other insects. So, like other species that lay large numbers of eggs, almost none of the progeny make it to adulthood. By protecting the eggs and caterpillars from predators and parasites, most of the eggs can become adult butterflies. “It’s very sustainable,” says Diane. “We try to raise the caterpillars in an environment as close to their natural state as possible while manipulating things just enough to exclude predators and parasites and create conditions that are inhospitable to common insect diseases. We, of course, always give back by releasing some of our butterflies into the wild so we have a net positive effect on the local populations.”

Each year, the timeframe of the rearing season is dependent on the natural cycles of the plants, butterflies, and weather, and Diane and Kevin do a lot of adjusting due to weather. A cool spring means late plants and late butterflies, while a drought in the midst of summer means both the plants and butterflies are stressed. They’re constantly assessing and reassessing as the weather forecast changes. We all know how often that can be in Wisconsin! Two times they’ve had tornados pass within a mile of their farm, and on both occasions, they ran out to collect food for their caterpillars after the warning was issued because they knew they’d run out of food before the storm passed. They made it into a safe place before the tornado arrived, but as Diane puts it, “Even though the tornados were 10 years apart, our priorities had not changed. When animals are enclosed and dependent on you, you have a responsibility to them.”

Photograph provided by Olbrich Botanical Gardens

On top of raising caterpillars and fulfilling their insatiable appetites, Diane and Kevin continuously ship pupae and butterflies out for the butterfly release industry, which includes other butterfly exhibits like Blooming Butterflies, along with flight houses, weddings, and funerals. Diane and Kevin like to say they send butterflies to “places where they will increase happiness.”

When shipping butterflies, they must be packed over ice and shipped to the recipient via overnight delivery. Since butterflies are cold blooded, the ice lowers their internal temperature and puts them into an inactive state. Live butterflies are placed in protective envelopes so that their wings are not damaged in transit.

At Olbrich, after chrysalises arrive for Blooming Butterflies, a team of dedicated staff and volunteers check the chrysalises for signs of damage, parasites, and disease and then get them ready to be placed into the chrysalis cases. Visitors marvel at the wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes of the chrysalises and may even get to witness the awe-inspiring moment a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. Butterfly farmers like Diane and Kevin are the reason visitors get to experience the wonder of metamorphosis and the thrill of seeing butterflies up close.

Colten Blackburn is the Bolz Conservatory curator at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.