From bugs to butterflies

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AKRON, Ohio – As half a dozen butterflies flit around Fran LeMasters’ back yard on a sunny summer afternoon, she casually names the different species darting among the plants.
Monarchs, eastern black swallowtails, a red-spotted purple.
With a quick glance, she knows how old they are. The young butterflies have perfect, intact wings; the old ones are usually missing a chunk or two where a bird tried to find dinner.
She knows the butterfly chasing his friend in a dizzying game of tag is actually a male pursuing a female.
She knows when they prefer to eat. She knows where they prefer to live.
And she knows a good thing when she sees it.
LeMasters is a butterfly breeder. From her Akron facility, All A Flutter, she breeds and raises hundreds of butterflies for release at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. Plus, she does educational presentations and demonstrations.
How it started. LeMasters got involved with butterfly breeding in 2000 when her sister, Cara, was looking for ways to work from home. During her search, Cara borrowed a book from the library called Home Based Businesses. The book had four or five sentences about butterfly farming, which prompted Cara to call her sister and ask, “Do people really do this?”
LeMasters spent an entire day researching the idea and by the time she called Cara back, she was hooked.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’ve got to try this,” LeMasters told her sister.
LeMasters had raised two sons, but she never gave much thought to their creepy-crawly critters. Suddenly, those critters went from boring to business.
“I waited till they were grown and then I started playing with bugs,” LeMasters said with a laugh.
Activity at LeMasters’ butterfly breeding facility starts in March or April each year. LeMasters buys eggs and caterpillars from other breeders to jump-start the season.
The season begins. Her season starts with painted lady butterflies because they can survive on an artificial diet and don’t mind the cool spring temperatures. Monarchs prefer warmer weather and must have a natural diet, so they don’t migrate into northeastern Ohio until June.
LeMasters raises only butterflies that are native to Ohio. At her Summit County breeding facility, there are wild, naturally appearing species like red-spotted purples, eastern tiger swallowtails, monarchs, eastern black swallowtails, cabbage whites, question marks, red admirals, sulfurs and morning cloaks.
While LeMasters enjoys raising her own butterflies, she also appreciates the ones raised by nature. Her backyard butterfly garden attracts several species and it’s a refuge for birds, squirrels and other small animals, too.
“We’ve created quite a wildlife area in such a small place,” said LeMasters, who is a board member of the International Butterfly Breeders Association.
All A Flutter sits on a lot that measures just 54-by-220 feet, but if LeMasters has her way, she’d be happy to have 50 acres of butterflies someday.
Hard work. Raising butterflies sounds like a fun job, but LeMasters said commercial butterfly farming isn’t easy. The caterpillars are usually cup raised, which means they are fed cut plant matter in cups with lids. The cups must be sterilized daily.
As the caterpillars grow, they are separated into more containers to prevent overcrowding. When the time comes, they crawl to the top of the cup and make their chrysalis.
Once the chrysalis hardens, it can be relocated to another place to hatch.
The purpose of raising butterflies in a sterile environment is to protect them from diseases, LeMasters said. Like all plants and animals, butterflies can get sick and spread illnesses, so breeders go out of their way to provide clean, healthy butterflies.
Rules and regulations are also important in butterfly farming.
LeMasters can only sell butterflies raised at her breeding facility. Adult butterflies captured from the wild cannot be offered for sale, but eggs collected from host plants and raised in captivity are considered farm-raised butterflies.
A flight house, or aviary, at All A Flutter provides a home to adult butterflies until it’s time to ship them.
LeMasters said butterflies can’t be shipped to any area of the country where they are not found naturally because harmful weeds, larvae or bacteria could accidentally be shipped with them.
The breeder is also required to have current permits from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Watching. Like most farmers, LeMasters said the best part of her work is reaping what she sows. One of her favorite pastimes is sitting near the butterfly garden, watching wings of orange and yellow and black fly from flower to flower.
As she watches, she enjoys getting to know their habits and quirks and mannerisms.
“It’s kind of like people watching because the different species of butterflies have different personalities,” she said.
While LeMasters may not have the biggest facility or the most butterflies, she knows there’s more to it than numbers. For this butterfly farmer, it’s passion that counts.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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