PacSci Perspectives

Butterflies From Costa Rica

by | Apr 4, 2016

Almost every week this blog publishes a “Fresh Sheet,” a list of pupae we receive from distant countries to display in our Tropical Butterfly House. We know what happens after the pupae arrive but what happens before the pupae are shipped to Seattle?

Recently, Life Sciences Volunteer Terry Pagos went to Costa Rica for a birding expedition. Before her trip, she met up with Costa Rica Entomological Supply (CRES) Export Manager, Paola Vargas Salas, who graciously gave her a tour of CRES and introduced her to two butterfly farms in Costa Rica’s humid Caribbean lowlands. This is the first of three stories about what she learned. Be sure to read part 2 and part 3

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To my surprise, butterflies for export are neither free-ranged nor factory farmed. Butterfly farming is an ecologically sustainable industry that not only benefits the economy but also educates the public about a beautiful biological system. Just as Pacific Science Center is required to have federal permits controlling the species we can fly in our Tropical Butterfly House, Costa Rica regulates butterfly farmers and issues permits that control the propagation and sale of butterfly pupae in Costa Rica.

Butterfly farms may only cultivate native endemic species. Frequent inspection by the agricultural authorities assures the exporter, CRES, that the butterfly trade is legal, healthy, and sustainable and that the butterfly farmers are adhering to the rules. Weather controls the availability and viability of butterfly populations. If it’s too dry, there won’t be enough food for the larvae and butterflies won’t lay eggs; too much rain, and the eggs won’t survive. Often, the rainy and dry seasons are inconsistent with pupae export demand.

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Located near the international airport just outside of San Jose, Costa Rica, CRES is the central pupae collection hub for 80 unique butterfly farms that produce up to 8,000 pupae a week for distribution to 120 clients worldwide. Costa Rica is approximately the size of West Virginia, but more mountainous, and species distribution varies among the country’s twelve microclimates.

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CRES keeps drivers busy picking up pupae from distant butterfly farms two- to three-times a week. Because most pupae will mature within 7 to 12 days, time is an important factor.

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When the farmers’ boxes of pupae arrive at CRES, the packers carefully inspect and select pupae to send to their clients. The packers review a master order form and try their best to fulfill each client’s requests.

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Every individual pupa is carefully examined for damage, parasitoids, disease, and viability. Then the pupae are packed for shipment to butterfly gardens in museums and science centers all over the world.

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In addition to the packing and shipping facilities, CRES maintains an outdoor, enclosed butterfly garden that can be visited by appointment. The plants and flowers are the lush host plants that native butterfly species require.

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Groundskeeper, Eduardo, displays pupating boxes that he maintains for caterpillars. These boxes serve a similar purpose to the Emerging Window and allow butterflies to complete metamorphosis in safety from predators and adverse weather. Butterflies from his collection are raised only for the CRES display garden.

After visiting the CRES distribution center, the next step was to visit two of the suppliers — the butterfly farmers themselves. Stay tuned for next blog post; a visit to Jardin Ecologico Pierella, a butterfly farm in the Caribbean lowlands where the owner is expanding his business into an educational garden for ecotourism.

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