Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Breeding Butterflies

Recently, Life Sciences manager Sarah Moore attended the International Conference of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers. This conference is held in a different location each year. In the past it has been held in Costa Rica, Switzerland, Malaysia and Ecuador. The locations may sound exotic, but to the people hosting them, they are home. The 2011 conference was held at Niagara Falls. Here is Sarah’s report.

Most of the time, when I tell people I work with butterflies, they are curious or a bit perplexed; but not the attendees of the International Conference of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers. So it was a treat to spend a week with people who shared the job, duties, concerns, and joys of working with these delicate organisms.

During my visit, I was able to view a facility that raises many of their own butterflies through their entire life cycle. Since I am frequently asked why Pacific Science Center does not breed butterflies on site, I was especially curious to see the process and learn how much additional resources were involved. As it turned out, becoming a butterfly farmer is a serious endeavor.

The Butterfly Conservatory at Niagara Park has a state of the art butterfly breeding area adjacent to it. I spent so much time looking at this facility that I had to hurry through the wonderful butterfly house itself.

Butterflies never meet their offspring, but they put great care into securing appropriate food and habitat for them. A female butterfly will only lay her eggs on the correct plant material, at the correct stage of growth. There were several large, open rooms where host plant material is raised.

These plants are kept in semi-tropical temperatures – a big deal in chilly Niagara. Although to protect the butterflies, pesticides are never used, the plants were nevertheless in great shape and appeared free from any kind of unwanted insect.

Once the plant is large and strong, it is placed in a smaller flight cage where female butterflies are introduced. The butterflies mob the plants, laying eggs for 24 to 48 hours. The plants are then removed to another netted room, where once the eggs hatch out, additional plants are offered to the caterpillars as they grow.

These giant birdwing swallowtail caterpillars are especially hard to raise. They eat plants rich in toxic substances, which they use to make their own bodies distasteful. However, they can become sick from eating too much of the toxin.

In the wild, the caterpillars would chew around the base of the plant, girdling it, to prevent the flow of toxins up the branch. Then they would eat the leaves, and that section of the plant would die. In captivity, the plants are cut, aged in water and then supplied to the larvae. The stems are wrapped with netting to protect them from being chewed through.

But in the end, the birdwing butterflies are worth it. I hope to be able to order some of these spectacular butterflies in time for the holidays!

A good conference always leaves the participant’s head buzzing with possibilities. Could Pacific Science Center breed its own butterflies? Not with our current permits, and probably not with the resources available to us. Could we breed a few specimens to demonstrate the life cycle? This is a more realistic possibility, and one I will be exploring further.

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