Monday, April 11, 2016

The Butterfly Farm of Familia Otárola

This is the last article in the series by Life Sciences Volunteer Terry Pagos about her visits to butterfly farms in Costa Rica with her host, Paola Vargas Salas, Export Manager of Costa Rica Entomological Supply (CRES).

The farm of the Otárola family is located in Guácimo, one of the finest agricultural regions in Costa Rica. This area is known for its cattle, corn, pineapple, and banana plantations. The Otárola family first met CRES founder Joris Binckerhoff in the early 1990s and began raising the native Caligo (Owl) butterflies for CRES. From that beginning, the family studied other species and was soon permitted by the Costa Rican government to farm other butterfly pupae for export. Today, they raise approximately 20 different butterfly species in more than 40 nurseries on their farm. On the 700-hectare farm they allocate 3 hectares to raising butterflies and 3 hectares to raising flowers, a new industry. The rest of their farm is devoted to cattle.

When we arrived at the Otárola family butterfly farm, Odir and his sister Elsa took us out to the gardens to show us the process. All the butterfly larvae are raised in host plant filled nurseries, large and small structures of netting that protect the caterpillars from predators. Inside a large nursery, we walked among host plants and trees watching several species of larvae busily chomping away on the leaves.

When a caterpillar is ready to pupate, it becomes zombie-like - a walker. It closes its mouth and no longer eats. Then during the nighttime, it climbs up the tree trunk to escape danger looking for a safe place to pupate.

We watched Odir climb up a ladder to collect the “zombie” Morphos and take them back to pupating cabinets in their workshop. Because the Morpho caterpillar has hairs that cause allergic reactions on some people's skin, collecting these critters is an unpopular job.

Some species of caterpillars may be placed in cabinets with foliage to await pupation. For the Morphos, the Otárolas place large screens in the bottom of the cabinets for the caterpillars to eventually settle on and pupate. The screens prevent the pupae from getting deformed or clumping together. They also allow the pupae to make an ample amount of silk – something pupae pinners appreciate. We watched Elsa make quick work, harvesting the Morpho pupae off the screens.

Over the years, the Otárola family learned that smaller nurseries are less expensive to maintain and generate better product. Butterfly farming is an industry that is still developing processes and seeking efficiencies. Furthermore, farmers are very aware of changes in the climate and how those changes can affect their animals and insects. Two years ago, they experienced a cold snap between 12ºC and 14ºC, causing serious losses. While we were visiting, the region was experiencing rising temperatures and very little rain. Too warm weather impacts the growth of the necessary foliage for larvae. And yet, too much rain can prevent butterflies from successfully laying eggs.

We left our tour with an appreciation of all the effort and passion that goes into producing butterfly pupae for the enjoyment of our guests at Pacific Science Center. We sincerely thank the kind and generous people we met at the butterfly farms and we’re especially grateful to our friend and host Paola Vargas Salas. Her warm hospitality and tireless enthusiasm for this industry was invaluable to our understanding the intricacies of butterfly farming. And we would have been helpless without her excellent translation. Thanks, Pao!

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