When talking with customers at various market and events, there are three main questions that come up: 1) Are these real butterflies?, 2) Where do you get the butterflies?, and 3) How do the butterflies die?
Yes, the butterflies are absolutely real. The source of the butterflies (and moths) in our products is a bit of a longer explanation. Jewelry tags state, "Ethically raised in the Pacific Northwest, and sustainably sourced from around the world." What exactly does that mean?
Pacific Northwest Species:
Butterflies are insects, and thus reproduce very well with females carrying hundreds of eggs. In all phases of their life cycle, butterflies are also food for a variety of predators, so very few of those initial eggs become actual butterflies. It's estimated that only 3% of the eggs laid survive to adulthood.
We operate a breeding and rearing program for many of the local species that we use. This is the easiest way to get many eggs, which we then rear into adult butterflies in protective sleeves on living host plants. It's also much more sustainable to these species over the long term. In this process, we collect several wild male butterflies each season and mate them with our reared females to maintain strong genetics within our broods. The result is hundreds of adult butterflies, while just a few are taken from the wild for our breeding program.
We also wild release approximately 10% of the butterflies we rear back into nature. This year we released many more than that of our local Two-tailed Swallowtails, with approximately 30 butterflies released out of 180 overwintered pupae. This ratio is much better than leaving things to nature and predators.
One species that we're working to bring back to Pendleton is the Oregon Swallowtail. Its host plant, wild tarragon, is seen as a weed and is absent within the city. However, this butterfly also finds the culinary herb French tarragon acceptable. The herb is becoming popular to plant in gardens throughout the area, and we continue to release this species with the hope of seeing them in our front yard in the coming years.
Taking all of that into account, we do harvest many of the butterflies that we raise for various uses. Some become framed specimens and jewelry to be enjoyed for their beauty years into the future. Others become part of private or museum collections to inform researchers and enthusiasts. Even in death, these specimens continue to give back through beauty and science.
Exotic and Non-Local Species:
We source dried butterfly specimens from suppliers around the world. Many are family-run businesses like ours, with a connection to the species they rear and an interest in preserving butterfly habitat into the future.
There are permit and documentation requirements that vary by species and country. These fees are meant to fund habitat preservation and to make sure wild populations are healthy. For example, Morpho butterflies from Peru require permits from the Peruvian government before shipping. Ordering birdwing butterflies from Indonesia is a bit of a longer process as they require CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) documentation. The species of birdwings we use are not endangered, but enough birdwing species are endangered that any shipment must be checked.
On the US receiving side, there are additional steps required. We maintain a US Fish and Wildlife import/export license. Any shipment we receive from overseas goes through an inspection process at the port of entry before heading our way.
How are the Butterflies harvested?
Most of the life cycle is spent as a caterpillar, starting with a tiny creature that hatches from an egg the size of a pinhead. As immortalized in Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar, a caterpillar eats and eats (shedding its skin three to six times in the process) until it's big enough to spin up into a chrysalis or cocoon. After metamorphosis, most species of butterflies live for only a few weeks, with their sole purpose being to mate and produce the next generation.
This season we invested in a custom 10- x 10- x 7-foot high flight house for butterfly oviposition (egg-laying). The flight house is already working much better than previous egg collection methods. Female butterflies are laying more naturally, displaying fewer signs of stress, living longer, and providing many more eggs for rearing.
With all that said, we still need specimens for use in our business. A butterfly or moth that mates and otherwise lives out its natural lifespan will show obvious wear: tattered wings, missing scales, broken antennae, etc. Some are barely recognizable as their given species. The best, high-quality specimens are taken before this wear occurs. Pupae that eclose (hatch) out into adult butterflies are selected. Once the butterflies eclose, we wait for their wings to harden and inspect them to make sure they are acceptable specimen material. The butterfly is gently removed from the enclosure with wings folded back and put into a smooth glassine envelope to prevent wing damage or scale loss. We then put the envelope with the butterfly into the freezer. The butterfly becomes cold, falls asleep, and then freezes.
There is a fair amount of animal husbandry in our operations. We care very much about the species we work with, and are continually adjusting to decrease stress on our butterflies while rearing in ways that are efficient and ensure health through the entire life cycle.
Photo notes: Oregon swallowtails are featured in all photos except the flight tent. From the top: (1) Oregon swallowtail adult feeding on a diluted honey solution. (2) Oregon swallowtail adults mating. (3) Oregon swallowtail eggs laid on tarragon. (4) Oregon swallowtail caterpillar on tarragon. (5) Oregon swallowtail early stage pupae. (6) A view from inside our backyard flight tent.