A few months ago, a man walked up my driveway and asked if he could catch one of the Monarch butterflies flitting around the crown flower tree in the front yard. He explained that he and his granddaughter loved butterflies, and that they had just spent several months in Arizona collecting them. It took me a moment to understand what he meant—he and his granddaughter loved butterflies so much that they chased them with nets, caught them, asphyxiated them in jars and stabbed pins through their bodies. Really, there has to be a better way to be loved.
Siobhan Wilson loves butterflies too, and three years ago she turned that love into a business. In a previous life, she and her husband bought and sold real estate on Maui. Then they purchased and revamped a plot of land in the hills of Makawao and, Wilson says, decided to make a significant change. And so the Maui Butterfly Farm was born.
From tiny white eggs to the dried wings of butterflies that have reached their natural end, Wilson celebrates the majestic insects without the use of pins. “A man came to me and told me I could make a lot of money catching, freezing and sending rare albino Monarch butterflies around the country,” she says. “But no—I couldn’t do it, I could never kill a butterfly.” Instead, she sells chrysalises (commonly referred to as cocoons) as gifts, provides adult butterflies for weddings and keiki education and offers consultations on how to grow a butterfly garden.
Wilson lives with her husband, four dogs, numerous cats, ducks—and butterflies. “All of the animals have their roles,” she tells me as we walk through the chilly morning air to visit the butterflies. Chickens cluck and peck outside the door of a white mesh tent. “They want to come in and eat bugs,” Wilson says. “The chickens are great for pest control; they eat a lot of insects, but never butterflies.” A white duck sits calmly on the roof of the tent. “He’s hiding from the mallards, they pick on him,” Wilson explains.
“I was hoping that it would be warm, then they’d be flying around,” Wilson says as she opens the door to the tent. Instead, the butterflies cling to the walls, slowly beating their wings to warm their tiny bodies. A variety of plants in mismatched pots line the sides of the enclosure: milkweed, ragweed, bouganvilla. Siobhan turns over a leaf to show me the white eggs, smaller than a poppy seed, hidden underneath. Caterpillars crawl around, munching on crown flowers. All flora in the tent serve a purpose, either as host plants for the eggs and caterpillars or a source of nectar for the mature butterflies. “We try to mimic their natural environment, so some plants are raised up like the forest canopy,” says Wilson. “And we have lots of purple, that’s their favorite color.”
The orange-winged creatures clinging to the tent walls all look the same to me at first, but Wilson points out two distinct varieties: the famous Monarch with its white, orange and black markings, and the more delicate Gulf Fritillary, which is orange and brown and sparkles when Wilson holds it out to me in her open palm. “These are all females,” she says. “The males hatch a week earlier, so they’re already gone. These ones are going for a wedding tomorrow.”
This is the very definition of a sustainable business, with a naturally occurring product, renewable resources and virtually no waste. The butterflies are nurtured by Wilson and her husband from egg to caterpillar, chrysalis to butterfly, and are released to the wild during weddings and parties. “People ask me if they are homing butterflies—wouldn’t that be nice?” Wilson says with a smile. “But no, we just start all over again.”
The butterfly life cycle repeats endlessly and so does the business cycle of the butterfly farm. It begins with Siobhan collecting wild specimens and bringing them into her carefully planned habitat. (Her permit allows her to collect only from private land.) With the right combination of host and nectar plants, the butterflies will breed. “In the wild, they lay two or three eggs. In captivity, we can get up to one hundred,” she says. “And the survival rate of these eggs goes from 2 percent to 95 percent.
“I try to collect them when they’re eggs,” Wilson continues, “and check for caterpillars every day when they’re hatching.” We watch as a Monarch caterpillar chews slowly on a leaf. “I’ll come back when you leave and get these,” she says.
The caterpillars are moved inside of Wilson’s house and placed in small plastic containers in groups of two or three. In most houses, plastic storage containers stacked on shelves would contain snacks, but here they’re filled with leaves, eggs, bulbous caterpillars and delicate chrysalises. By keeping them inside, Wilson explains, she can prevent disease outbreaks and make sure they’re well fed.
The Monarch butterfly is decorated with a web of orange and black and the caterpillars are striped yellow and black, but in this colorful life cycle the grass-green chrysalis with its sparkling golden bands stands out. Dangling from a small branch, the fragile, jellybean-sized cocoons are either nurtured to fruition at the butterfly farm or packaged into pyramid-shaped cardboard containers and sold as wedding or party favors. After my visit to the farm I brought one home, hoping that the over-enthusiastic love of my toddler won’t keep the butterfly from completing its metamorphosis.
There are many factors aside from toddlers that prevent chrysalises from developing. The strangest and most violent is an invasive wasp that lays its eggs inside the butterfly eggs. As the invaders grow, they devour the butterfly and burst out like bizarre aliens from the chrysalis.
In the wild, butterflies that survive long enough to emerge hang limply below their leafy home and slowly warm to the world. Most butterflies migrate, with groups moving thousands of miles from north to south and back as the weather changes, but Hawaiian butterflies don’t do this. Both our uniquely isolated geography and temperate weather make migration unnecessary.
Wilson’s butterflies have another job. Some monarchs occupy “the butterfly tent,” a mobile habitat she uses to educate children. “The preschool kids enjoy it the most,” she says. “The older ones are less impressed.” The Monarchs and Gulf Fritillaries Wilson sells for weddings and other events can be placed on tables as a living alternative to traditional flower displays or released by newlyweds and guests in lieu of rice. “On Maui, we’re a bit behind the trend,” says Wilson. “On the Mainland, butterflies at weddings are quite popular, but here, people are still surprised by the idea.”
Though no butterflies are killed at the butterfly farm, they do die. After laying their eggs on the underside of host plants’ leaves, they float slowly to the floor of the tent. Wilson collects the wings and sends them to a jeweler on Oahu who ensconces them in glass and metal and sells them as earrings and necklaces, adding another link to the cycle.
Despite its unusual nature—or perhaps because of it—the Maui Butterfly Farm is growing, even in this economy. Future plans include a booth at the Saturday swap meet in Kahului. Wilson also wants to start breeding native butterflies. “I’m licensed to do it, but so far, no one seems interested,” she says. Those flashy Monarchs and Gulf Fritillaries are stealing the show from their native counterparts.
At home recently, I walked past the cardboard pyramid housing our Monarch chrysalis and noticed a change. Wilson told me it would hatch quickly, and as the days passed I became convinced that my son had been a little too rough with it. But there it was: the butterfly, hanging next to the clear shell of its chrysalis, its wings stuck together. After a heated debate about letting the butterfly loose in our house, we took Wilson’s advice and released it outside to the warm Wailuku afternoon.
The young butterfly crawled onto my finger. I admired its deep black, fuzzy body as I nervously helped my son hold it on his arm, keeping an eye out for any sudden movements. We watched together as the creature’s wings began to move. It fluttered several times, then zig-zagged through the air, coming to rest in a mango tree right next to the crown flower—a perfect place for a butterfly to be.
My son cried a little, hoping his new pet would come home. I tried my best to explain the importance of letting things you love go free. I’m not sure he understood. I’m not sure I do either. But it’s a good lesson. Alyssa Haber-de Leon, MauiTime
For more information about the Maui Butterfly Farm, visit themauibutterflyfarm.com