Butterfly Farm


(This 1068th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 11, 2011.)



Monarch Butterfly Larva


Now in the midst of the fall bird migration, we often forget that other wildlife is migrating as well. For example, some bat species are heading south.


So too are some butterflies: common buckeye, painted lady, American lady, red admiral, cloudless sulphur, question mark and mourning cloak are among the species that migrate.


Those species generally retreat only a few hundred miles to reach areas with more moderate winters. That is still quite an accomplishment for these delicate insects, but their migration is very little when compared to the almost two thousand mile trip of the monarch butterfly.


Any visit to the countryside at this time of year will disclose a few of these lovely orange and black monarchs slowly flapping and drifting ever southward. Whenever I see them, I think about our human snowbirds who flee the area as winter approaches. Those winter-hating neighbors head out at 65 miles per hour, whereas these butterflies surely are not making more than a few hundred yards per hour. Thank goodness these butterflies are not accompanied by children. Can you just imagine weeks of whining, "Are we almost there?"


Along with those delicate fliers will be many hundreds of butterflies raised and released by David O'Donnell and his fiancˇ Alexis Machelor of Clarence. (O'Donnell is a painter who also heads Kolorback, a deck-preserving business; Machelor is a psychologist.)


I visited their butterfly farm to see their quite remarkable operation. Although they sell a few of their caterpillars and chrysalises to individuals at the Clarence Farmer's Market to defray some of their costs, more often they provide them to friends and schools and simply release still more. This is clearly a labor of love for them and about an acre of O'Donnell's property is given over to attracting butterflies and raising them all the way from egg to adult.


They showed me all of those stages. First, butterflies mating, a half-hour of intimacy. Then female butterflies visiting swamp milkweed, alighting briefly to arch their bodies and lay an egg on the bottom of one leaf before moving on to another. Dozens of these tiny white eggs were everywhere in large patches of milkweed. Under normal conditions O'Donnell told me, only about 5 of 200 eggs would lead to adult butterflies because of predation (birds in particular love to eat them) and disease. His operation significantly raises this ratio.


Tiny caterpillars (aka larvae) emerge from these eggs after from three to twelve days. They are attractive little insects, handsomely tiger-striped in white, yellow and black. Many of these larvae are moved to another milkweed patch -- common milkweed this time -- a much preferred food plant. Over about two weeks the caterpillars then pass through four life stages or instars, emerging from and shedding their former skin at each stage. When fully grown, the now two-inch caterpillar hangs from a branch and builds a chrysalis about its body. Inside that jade green exoskeleton, the caterpillar performs one of nature's most amazing magic tricks. It metamorphoses into a lovely adult butterfly that emerges after about two weeks.


Monarchs go through several of those life cycles each year, but the first two or three and last are entirely different. The middle cycles are quite normal: the butterflies feed, mate, produce a new brood and die. But the final stage, the one you are seeing now, is the southward migratory stage. No one knows what triggers this abrupt change in behavior, but it is striking. No more flitting purposelessly, these butterflies are driven toward forest glades in Mexico where they congregate with millions of their kind for the winter.


Next spring they will start north again. Now old and ragged, however, they won't make it all the way. They will already have lived many times longer than the normal two to six week lifespan of those summer butterflies. But they do live long enough to move part way back and breed. Only their offspring or their grandchildren will make it back to our fields next May or June.


Monarch butterflies are very well served by O'Donnell and Machelor and so too are we. These good people are making a useful contribution to the beauty of our countryside and to our understanding of these interesting insects as well.