Butterfly Farming Articles
The Butterfly Boutique  

Cold Weather Regions: Breeding and Raising

by Melanie McCarthy


Gee, the season is so short, is it worth going to all the trouble to raise butterflies, just to have to close up so soon?

Answer: It all depends.

There are, indeed, many advantages to breeding and rearing in northern areas. One good reason brings to mind the sight of a notepad I once read in the faculty room at the school where I worked for 10 years. It read: “Three good reasons to be a teacher: June, July and August.”

Well, the same kind of reasoning can be used for why one might chose to breed in northern regions: November, December, January, February, March and maybe April.

These are the months you can relax, vacation or just spend more time with your family. Or, of course, you can return to a ‘normal’ job during those months!

Other Advantages:

  • A definite beginning and end to your season;

  • The ‘breeding’ season coincides well with the ‘wedding season.’

  • Generate ancillary income, stretch your ‘talent’ into the winter months by doing presentations in schools and other places. See Rick Mikula’s Mentor Topic: “Winterizing Your Income” and Cindy Hepp’s Mentor Topic: “Educational Presentations.”

  • You can rear some specialty butterflies, not available elsewhere. Some are: White Admiral (Basilarchia arthemis), host plants: birches (Betula), willows (Salix), poplars (Populus), sometimes hawthorns (Cratagus) and some other hardwood trees and shrubs. The Baltimore (Euphydryas phaeton), host plants: turtlehead (Chelone glabra), false foxglove (Gerardia grandiflora and G. pedicularia), plantain (Plantago lanceolata), and white ash (Fraxinus americana). The Baltimore overwinters as a half-grown caterpillar! Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis vau-album), host plants: birches (Betula), willows (Salix), and perhaps poplars (Populus). The Compton Tortoiseshell overwinters as an adult, so here’s another one you can store in your fridge and use in the spring!

  • Being in a northern region, the freezing temperatures will kill many bacteria, viruses and other organisms, which can be problemmatic to breeders on an ongoing basis. Plants that overwinter outside will be fresh and 'recovered’ in the spring. Although the Ophryocistis Elektroscirrha spore can survive winters, most everything else will be killed off. Southern breeders do not have this advantage.

  • The Ophryocistis Elektroscirrha prevalence in northern regions is much, much less than in other areas of the country. Personally, I did not find one ‘wild’ this year infected with the O.E. spore. It is known from research that almost 100% of monarch wilds in Florida are infected, 33% are infected, west of the 100th meridian and only about 7% infected east of the 100th meridian (with the stated exception of Florida). This means that your outside growing milkweed will be cleaner.

  • My favorite task as a northern breeder is raising species that I can overwinter—and in great numbers! Species I reared last summer were: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Question Marks (Polygonia interrogationis), Monarchs (Danaus plexipus), Cabbage (Pieris rapae). Moths raised: Cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia) and Luna (Actias luna). You know, you don’t hear too much about butterfly farmers raising moths. This lepidoptera is really fun to raise because the larvae are remarkably interesting and make very good subjects for educational presentations. My favorite moth larvae is the Cecropia (Samia cecropia). This moth is quite common but when people see either the moth or the larvae, they think it must be ‘rare’ because they’ve “never seen” one before! It really is like holding a treasure. It is not unique to northern areas as it is found over the whole Atlantic seaboard, and ranges westward to the eastern margin of the Great Plains. The larva wears ‘jewels’ on its head and along the back and suction cups along its bottom and it’s length can be in excess of six inches! It’s always a show stopper during presentations. And it’s one of my favorites because I can overwinter the cocoon in the refrigerator!

  • Overwintering is simple. Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults. I store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container lined with netting. Once a month, I take them out, warm them up and feed them some maple syrup, on batting with netting on top so their wings do not get sticky. In two hours, I return them to the refrigerator. Swallowtail pupae mentioned above are stored in the same refrigerator, in airtight containers. The temperature is generally about 43 degrees F. After about 6 – 8 weeks, I begin to sell the pupae, saving some for my own use in the spring. When selling to exhibitors and museums, I always include directions for breaking diapause, i.e., gradually exposing pupae to light and warmth over a 10 day period.

Challenges of Northern Breeding and Rearing

  • Handpairing. Here is something you must really master if you want to become a successful northern breeder. I have found that in the early spring, my monarchs are not too interested in mating. Now, I realize other people have had success with indoor ‘natural’ pairing and it could be that I am too impatient to wait the amount of time it may take. My recommendation is to view Nigel’s handpairing tape. This is exactly how I learned to handpair!

  • Growing enough host plants and early enough. This is probably the biggest challenge of all. If you can begin to harvest plant matter early in the spring, you will have stock to sell. Your production is directly related to the host plants available. The exception to this is when you use artificial diet. There are artificial diets on the market for Monarchs and Painted Ladies. By now you all should know where to obtain artificial diet but if you do not, please e-mail me and I will be glad to point you in the right direction. I have had mixed results with utilizing artificial diet for the monarchs. It is indeed a challenge and I have found more success when I switch later instar larvae from artificial diet to fresh leaves. When using artificial diet for monarchs, the humidity level is critical as you want it humid enough so that the diet does not dry out, yet dry enough so that bacteria from the frass does not multiply, contaminate the surroundings and infect the larvae. Other artificial diets for other species? I can only guess that this must be possible. There is a ‘base’ diet available from Southland Products, to which one can add host food for a complete artificial diet. It might be fun to experiment with this for other species. Southland’s address is: Southland Products, Inc., 201 Stuart Island Road, Lake Village, AR 71653, Telephone: 870 265 3747.

  • Utilization of your greenhouse. The challenge here is how to get it warm enough, early enough! I have a greenhouse which is 12 x 12. This year I am planning to insulate it and heat it. Terry Fluke from Butterfly Haven had an interesting way to insulate her greenhouse and has given me permission to share her success. Here is what she told me. I bought a solar pool cover (blue with air bubbles in it), and covered the entire top with it and anchored it to the ground so the wind wouldn’t catch it. I then found some double sided silver material with bubble wrap inside it and taped it to the inside of the greenhouse on both ends. This is material used in attics to reflect the heat. To compensate for some loss of light, I hung fluorescent lights. The silver on both ends did help reflect the light. This made a big difference on my heating bills. Terry uses a gas heater but feels it is too expensive. Linda Rogers was kind enough to share information about a heater she purchased, inexpensively, for her greenhouse. It is an electric heater but uses an internal tube filled with fluid and radiates the heat for hours without the electricity running. There are no fumes or gases emitted. Her unit is 8-foot, 220V, and with 3 day shipping and a thermostat, the cost was $330 total. The company that sells this heater has a website: http://www.hydrosil.com and advertises in Mother Earth News. Linda purchased a permanent 8 foot model, but made it portable by putting a pig-tail cord and plug on it, the plugs used for electric dryers. She said her milkweed responds very well to the consistent warmth. Thanks to both Terry Fluke and Linda Rogers for allowing me to share this information with you.


  • This I learned from someone who learned the hard way. If you have any structure covered in shade-cloth, please be sure and cover it with some type of polyethylene material during the winter months. This will prevent the structure from collapsing due to heavy and wet snowfall, as the snow will glide right off! And secondly, with this covering, you can use your structure as a ‘greenhouse’ in the spring until you are ready to add your winged creatures!

  • Don’t forget to cold stratify your milkweed seeds, with the exception of tropicals of course. And when planting seeds, I always use a heating pad to ‘jump start’ the germination process. I won’t cover too much here as I know you will hear much more from Rose Franklin, (an expert in growing both nectar and host plants), in her upcoming mentor program!

  • I do not know if this is a well kept secret or not, but it’s been pretty valuable to me. My all time favorite milkweed plant in these ‘northern’ parts is Asclepias incarnata – swamp milkweed. This is a perennial, native to the eastern half of the U.S., growing to 2-4 feet. Red, pink, and white flowers appear during the summer after the first year. It prefers wet areas and full sun, but will do okay in dry soils. All of my incarnata are planted in plastic pots. At the end of the season, the pots—with the plants trimmed back-- are put in the ground for overwintering. In February and March, I remove the pots from the ground and ‘warm’ the plants in the pots on heating pads in my basement. Within 4-5 weeks I have nice bushy plants. In this way, I have taken advantage of an established root system, which will produce very hearty plants to begin egg-laying activities. It works!


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