Pollinator Week Wrap-up: Advanced Butterfly Gardening

By Laurie Sheldon

Edith Smith
In the spirit of Pollinator week, the Ixia chapter invited butterfly breeder Edith Smith to speak at their meeting in Jacksonville last week. Two days later, Edith gave the chapter a tour of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, FL, which she and her husband Stephen own and operate.

At the Meeting
Because the majority of our chapter members are well versed in the basics of butterfly gardening, Edith's presentation focused on some of the more advanced concepts involved in butterfly and moth rearing, including nutritional requirements, parasitoids, and diseases of viral and fungal origin. She also made sure we knew that, contrary to popular belief, butterflies do not sleep in "butterfly houses" (bird houses with narrow vertical entrances).

Butterflies "puddling" on manure.
Photo credit: Kris and Kevin Brady
"Puddling," a phenomenon wherein butterflies gather to sip from wet sand or soil, is an important activity to males of the species. They do so to get the nutrients they need to bolster their fertility. In the wild, males frequently feed on cow pies and carrion. Rather than incorporating damp sand into your butterfly habitat, Edith recommended providing manure or damp cat food to maintain the health of male lepidopterans. She also has nectar feeders filled with Gatorade at her farm.

We also learned that not having the space for host plants does not preclude you from raising Painted Lady caterpillars and butterflies. Stonefly Painted Lady Artificial Diet can be used as a substitute, which is good news for educators and apartment dwellers alike.

These tachinid fly larvae just emerged from the
adjacent chrysalis. Photo credit: S. Altizer.
Unlike parasites, which feed on other organisms but don't necessarily kill them, parasitoids mean certain death. All stages of the lepidopteran lifecycle are threatened by parasitoids - from eggs and caterpillars to chrysalises, and adults. Tiny wasps can inject their eggs into the soft shells of butterfly eggs; these hatch and eat the matter inside of the caterpillar egg, then use their mandibles to cut open the egg and escape. Newly formed chrysalises can also be attacked in a similar manner. Adult wasp and fly eggs will infest the bodies of caterpillars as well, either by injecting their eggs in with a stinger-like structure, or laying eggs on foliage that the caterpillars will eat. Aleiodes, brachnoid, chalcid/yellow chalcid, copidosoma, eulophid, ichneuman and trichogramma wasps, euplectrus ectoparasitoids, and tachinid flies are common parasitoids in Florida.

Fungal and Viral Diseases
Nuclear polyhedrosis (NPV) is one of the more contagious viruses lepidopterans are susceptible to. It basically causes caterpillars to melt. Beauveria is a fungal disease that attacks caterpillars (and many other insects). Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) and Nosema are single-celled spores that grow and multiply with their host organism. OE is exclusive to Danaidae, the Monarch family of butterflies. For more information about OE, see the resource list at the bottom of the page.

Left: Gypsy moth infected with NPV. Photo credit: Whitney Cranshaw.
Right: Monarch larva infected with Beauveria. Photo credit: S. Altizer.
Several years ago, I gave a milkweed plant with monarch eggs to a 9-year old boy as a birthday gift, hoping to interest him in something other than video games. A week later I called to see how the caterpillars were doing, and he told me they started producing a bright green liquid, then died. You can imagine how awful I felt, especially because I just didn't understand what happened. I'd reared hundreds of butterflies in my lifetime, and never came across anything of the sort. Edith told us that the bright green "puke" was caused by insecticide! Apparently, the plant was sprayed with a systemic product before reaching the nursery where I purchased it. Lesson learned. Be careful where you buy your plants from.

The Ixia chapter gathered around as butterflies took flight.
When we say White Peacocks like
Florida natives, believe it!
Butterfly Release
Junonia coenia, Common Buckeye
After her presentation, Edith took out a large mesh box containing about 20 butterflies native to the Jax area. We followed her outside to the grassy open space adjacent to Regency Square Library and released them one at a time. There were Buckeyes, White Peacocks, Monarchs, and a Phaeon Crescent - some took off immediately, while others seemed content to perch on our hands and necks. The evening was perfect for generating interest and enthusiasm about visiting Edith's farm that weekend.

At the Farm
The Shady Oak Butterfly Farm Complex
We drove in a caravan Saturday morning to the tiny city of Brooker, about 65 miles southwest of downtown Jacksonville. Edith greeted us and we promptly entered the complex, which contains multiple greenhouses, breeding "apartments", an egg washing/early stage containment room, an outdoor bleaching station, a late stage containment/feeding area, a screened vivarium, a chrysalis storage room and a shipping station. The amount of work they do at this facility is incredible. If you think it's hard to keep a small family fed, imagine the effort it takes to feed thousands of butterflies every day - especially when they are in hundreds of separate containers!

Inside one of the greenhouses
The greenhouses are full of host plants, predominantly milkweed, since the highest demand is for Monarchs. Vines, grown espalier-style, include two species of Aristolochia and plenty of Passiflora sp.

From Mating to Shipping
All of the mating and egg-laying is done in the "apartments," which have two layers of screening to prevent predators like mice and snakes from entering. Edith told us that mice have a penchant for butterfly abdomens, but will leave the rest of the body in tact (yuck!).

Once the apartment females lay eggs, they are removed and taken to a washing facility. Because the first meal a freshly hatched caterpillar eats is its own egg, it is important that the eggs are free of diseases like OE. Eggs are washed in a solution of 19 parts water to 1 part bleach - this must be done very quickly, because the eggs will begin to dissolve after just over a minute. After they have been disinfected and dried they are put into small plastic containers with mesh lids where they will hatch and grow for a short while.

Outside of the "apartments"
They are subsequently transferred into larger boxes - the number of caterpillars in each box is written with a wet-erase marker on the lid. If and when a caterpillar dies, a note is made on the lid. When two die, the whole box will be frozen and destroyed. Yes, it is heartbreaking, but it is a necessity. They go to great lengths to prevent the spread of disease and make sure that customers receive healthy caterpillars. They also send caterpillars for laboratory testing each month, and bleach all containers after each use for the same reasons.

Shipment is done in nesting boxes with a faux-ice cool-pack, which slows the metabolic process. Caterpillars and eggs travel in small plastic containers, chrysalises go into special foam inserts, and adult butterflies are put in glassine envelopes, with wings positioned in the same manner they hold them while asleep. By the time the package heads out the door it is able to withstand the Samsonite gorilla test.

Edith gave us several awesome demonstrations. The first one was to illustrate the one of the functions of wing scales - waterproofing! She told us at the meeting that butterflies can fly from under water, but seeing is definitely believing. Rather than describing it, just check out this video:

Another thing she showed us was how moths are situated in the large cocoons they form. These are basically just fluffy sleeping bags, and can be cut open to reveal a pupating moth without injury.

Summing Up
With all of the forces working against butterflies it's easy to get a bit choked up. The important thing to remember is that, even though the vast majority of these beautiful creatures will fall victim to one of numerous diseases, parasitoids, or predators, if they all lived we simply would not have enough food to sustain them. It is nature's way of dealing with carrying capacity, keeping them in check, or maintaining ecological balance - whatever you call it, it's nothing short of wonderful.

Image Sources*
Manure puddling
Chrysalis and fly larvae
*unlisted photos were taken by Ixia chapter members Ginny Stibolt and Laurie Sheldon

Additional Resources
Shady Oak Butterfly Farm: www.Butterfliesetc.com, and www.Butterflyfunfacts.com
OE: http://monarchparasites.uga.edu/whatisOE/index.html


Conry Lavis said…
I'm going to make tissue paper ball decorations to hang from the ceiling, along with little white butterflies - but we live in a tiny apartment, so our living room is like our living/dining/office space, and I really want to make it magical. What do you think about setting up an area to take pictures - like use construction paper and things to make like a 'garden' back drop? I don't know what else I could do. Thank you for your help in advance!!!

Landscape Designer VA
Hi Conry. Is it to be a permanent installation or just something for a party? The reason I ask is that painting a garden scene on your wall (depending on how artistic you are) would probably look nicer than construction paper. You can also just paint on a horizon line and then use fabric, batting, cardboard and a glue gun to make hills that pop out. Richer colors should be used to create "foreground" and lighter, more muted tones to give the illusion of things that are farther away. It might be good to look through some children's picture books (Alice in Wonderland, etc) for ideas. Hope that helps. Good luck!
Just found your blog through a blog, and I am going to subscribe and bookmark. My husband and I currently working on planting more native Florida flowers as well as some other buzzingly fun pursuits.

I can't wait to go back and read, read, read!!!

Thank you!!!
Awesome. I'm so glad you are both trying to learn about and plant natives. If you haven't already (since I'm guessing you're a bookworm), you should check out Doug Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home." He makes an incredibly clear, scientifically-founded case for embracing natives. Happy reading (our blog and otherwise)!
Anonymous said…
thanks for posting..

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