Homeowners Rear Caterpillars
For Pollination, Education
By EILEEN WHITE READ
SPECIAL TO THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
From the Wall Street Journal, Friday, July 18, 2003
Birds do it. Bees do it. We're raising butterflies, hoping they'll do it, too.
We're talking pollination, of course. Seems the population of honeybees and butterflies -- nature's flying pollen-spreaders -- is dwindling in many places because of urban sprawl, pesticides, predators and weather patterns. Meanwhile, plenty of Web sites and catalogs are offering kits that let you raise butterflies at home -- either for kids' science projects or as gardeners' helpers. Though it's a tiny niche, vendors say that when big chain stores like Target started offering these kits last year, sales across the business grew about 10%.
So with our own garden in need of pollination, we ordered a range of raise-your-own-butterfly kits that include food and rearing cages, plus live caterpillar larvae. The idea seemed simple enough: We'd stick our five caterpillar cages on our dressing-room table, shoo out the dog and cats, and hope our bedroom Lepidoptera lab would keep our kids spellbound. Finally, we'd turn our beautiful butterflies loose on our pumpkin plants.
Sound ridiculous? Maybe, but plenty of others are trying the same thing. Elizabeth Morgan raises butterflies in her Queensburg, N.Y., living room, and says they've helped give her a full garden and more productive fruit trees. "We've really come to rely on them," says Ms. Morgan, who says she now raises hundreds a year.
Our own experiment didn't start off with flying colors. For $27, the Butterfly Larvae Garden Kit from a company called Berkshire Biological came with only a cardboard cage, food and two plastic cups with six caterpillars each. All 12 died within days of arrival. And though the vendor quickly sent 25 free replacements, some of those managed to escape from openings in the fold-together cardboard cage.
The Shaking Chrysalids
But then came the magical part. We filled this and the rest of our containers with fresh flowers and a very special caterpillar drink recommended by most kits (Gatorade, actually) and watched our larvae feed on their little mounds of butterfly food. After about two weeks, a plump caterpillar would climb to the top of its container and hang upside down, perfectly still. Then came our children's favorite part, waiting for the caterpillar to burst out of its hairy skin, revealing a partial shell covering, or chrysalid. Still hanging, the shell would shake vigorously several times a day. We were at hand when one of the shells cracked, and out poked a beadlike butterfly head. For once, even our teenagers were speechless.
The kids got another lesson -- in the pitfalls of Internet shopping -- from some of our other kits. Bill's Painted Lady Nursery and caterpillars from the Nature Store arrived three weeks late -- and we got only three of its five caterpillars to survive. (Maybe that's just as well, as the nursery turned out to be a plastic jar held together with rubber bands, which looked far too small for five butterflies to share.)
In fact, while rebirth may be the big theme in the butterfly world, we learned that liberation runs a close second. Butterflies were busting out all over from the kit we ordered from Biogentex Laboratories. Its $22 Butterfly Farm was more like one of those net tents you use to keep flies off a plate at a barbecue, and we had to fashion our own floor out of cardboard. Of the six caterpillars that came with this kit, three turned into butterflies -- and because of gaps in our makeshift cage, we were soon retrieving them from our chair, windowsill and carpet.
Same story with the $23 Butterfly Net Castle from Milkweed Cafe, a 30-inch-tall contraption fashioned from mesh netting, plastic-foam picnic plates and the sort of lightweight wood frame our grandmother used to hold her needlepoint. To replace food and water, we practically had to tear this apart, and our butterflies escaped each time. (We always got them back in.) Four of the seven caterpillars, ordered separately for $16, survived until release.
Hold the Monarchs
Which brings up one last sticking point -- whether to let them go. Ecology advocates frown on releasing Monarch butterflies en masse, believing they could spread diseases that might further harm a dwindling species. Though most don't object to releasing small numbers of Monarchs raised at home or school, we instead picked Painted Lady butterflies, a variety often used in kits because they're native to most of the U.S. and aren't in danger of extinction. (All of the butterflies we ordered had U.S. Department of Agriculture approval.)
If we had to do it all over again, we'd put all of our caterpillars in one "nursery" -- the $30 Butterfly Pavilion from Insect Lore. Though its multicolored vinyl and plastic rearing cage looked a bit silly, it turned out to be an elegant concept. It sprang into a roomy, 2-foot-high cylinder with an easy-to-clean vinyl floor. Its vinyl top closed with a zipper, so we could get our hand inside for feeding -- but critters couldn't get out. Even better, its nine caterpillars were the biggest and healthiest we received, and in no time we had seven butterflies. Now we just hope they remember that, in the garden, it's pollination that makes the world go round.
Butterfly Pavilion with live caterpillars, $29.95
QUALITY: Best Overall, Best Value. Roomy vinyl-and-mesh "pop-up" habitat has clear sides, washable floor, hanger. Seven of nine caterpillars survived.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: We paid $25.95 for next-day shipping. Kit arrived in one day.
RETURN POLICY: Returns on case-by-case basis; talk first to a company representative.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: We kept the kids from away this site, lest we were overrun with kits to raise worms, shrimp, even cockroaches. Got e-mail confirmation.
COMMENT: Caterpillars were largest we received and turned into butterflies fastest. Reusable pavilion can be repopulated with caterpillars sold separately here.
12 Butterfly larvae garden kit, $27
QUALITY: Flimsy cardboard and plastic-film box seemed like a toy. Bottom of box got wet and dirty (butterflies poo, too); gaps let three caterpillars escape. Comes with 12 caterpillars.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: We paid $20 for on-time, next-day shipping.
RETURN POLICY: Refund on "like-new" products. Shipping free if company erred or item is defective; return live creatures within 48 hours.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Educational supplier's site offers creatures from amoebas to reptiles. (For butterflies, click on "The Store," then "butterflies.") Sent us an e-mail confirmation.
COMMENT: Company blamed demise of our first caterpillars on a virus in its population that it had detected after ours had been mailed. It sent 25 replacements in two days; 14 survived.
Butterfly Farm, $22
QUALITY: "Farm" looked more like a net tent; we had to make our own floor out of cardboard. Sent six larvae, but one was dead; three turned into butterflies.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: We paid $32 for next-day shipping. It arrived on time.
RETURN POLICY: Return within 20 days for refund; you pay shipping. If larvae don't arrive alive, report within 24 hours.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Site has informative sequence on butterfly life cycle. Sells "host" plants for Monarch butterflies. Sent e-mail order confirmation.
COMMENT: Specializes in higher-level educational kits: $429 molecular biology "Lab in a Box" shows high-school students how to find and view a cell's DNA.
The Nature Store
Bill's Painted Lady Nursery with live caterpillars, $21.95
QUALITY: Two-part plastic jar seemed too small for the five included caterpillars. But three turned into butterflies, in line with the company's guarantee. Included food.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: We asked for next-day shipping; it came more than three weeks late. (We were charged regular shipping $6.)
RETURN POLICY: If not satisfied, return for full refund. If reason is product defect or company's error, it pays shipping.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Site was easy to navigate. We received an e-mail confirmation.
COMMENT: We spent 17 days trying to reach company by phone and e-mail. Company says it had been in the midst of a move and "things were a mess."
Bill's Butterfly Net Castle, $23;
Five to eight caterpillars, $16
QUALITY : Net "castle" came with food and instructions, but every time we opened it butterflies got out. Four of seven survived.
We paid $18.20 for USPS Postal Express. Kit arrived in two days.
RETURN POLICY: Full refund within 30 days. You pay shipping unless the company made an error.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: A site to feed your inner lepidopterist, with e-cards, a butterfly-garden diagram and newsletter.
COMMENT: Three-foot-high cage made from foam picnic plates, net and wood ring had the sophistication of a Cub Scout project.