By Michael Korb
Home, home on the range. Where the monarchs and swallowtails play. Where seldom is heard, more than chirping of birds—and the caterpillars pupate all day.
You may have never heard that lovely song before, but we figure it’s in Ken Werner’s head most days. You see, Werner is a butterfly farmer. His Gulf Coast Butterflies is one of a handful of Florida butterfly farms that raise and sell a wide variety of butterflies, caterpillars and pupa to museums, zoos and other various organizations across the nation. Everything from the aforementioned monarchs and swallowtails to the zebra longwing (Florida’s state butterfly) can be found floating and flitting about awaiting their opportunity to be shipped to butterfly aficionados everywhere. In fact, we stumbled upon Gulf Coast Butterflies because it’s supplying Avow Hospice with between 500 and 700 butterflies for their annual butterfly release event (avowhospice.org/upcoming-events/avow-hospice-butterfly-release-march-25/), which takes place on Sunday in Naples’ Cambier Park. (The event begins at 9 a.m. with the release at 11 a.m.)
Because butterfly farming has such a rich history in our nation (as always, you can thank the Dutch), we decided to drive out to Werner’s Golden Gate Estates farm and check out just what goes into farming the world’s lightest livestock. Farmer Werner gave me a tour and explained his chores and, I must admit, it really is a fascinating process. Like any farm, this is a 365-day a year job. It’s just that the manure is easier to handle. Filled with various potted plants that serve very specific purposes, much of the area looks like a nursery gone wrong. Netted stalls house scraggly plants that could really use a hug. Some are merely feeder plants which produce nectar for the adults to dine on (little known fact: butterflies also love Gatorade). Other plants are hosts that the butterflies lay eggs on. (Each type of butterfly has a favorite type of plant on which to lay eggs.) Every day at the crack of dawn (or anytime thereafter), Werner and his staff go through the screened in area looking at the plants for new eggs. Those plants are then removed and placed into individual screened boxes. In about a week the eggs hatch into charming little caterpillars who are then moved into different screened boxes where they lounge around and eat leaves and such before they hit the pupa stage and build their own studio apartments. Once that happens, the folks at Gulf Coast Butterfly remove the cocoons and place them in yet another screen boxed which resembles an orderly and miniature scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Depending on the type of butterfly and the weather conditions, hatching can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month. At that point, the new butterfly is placed back into the big butterfly “barn.” From there they have about another month of life left in them to either breed or be shipped to some butterfly-needing establishment.