United instructor and students showcase butterflies at state farm show
A United High School teacher and eight of her students used an exhibit at this month's Pennsylvania Farm Show to demonstrate that farming can be as much about butterflies as it is about cows or corn.
Kristie Good, who teaches agricultural science at the school, has been raising butterflies since she herself was a sophomore in high school. Now she has her students doing it.
Good attended school in Nescopeck, in northeastern Pennsylvania. As a member of the school's FFA chapter, she had to complete a project that she was entirely responsible for, including the work and the funding. Though she had a horse, her parents, David and Joan Folk, covered most of the animal's costs, so her father suggested she raise butterflies for her FFA venture.
Good initially bought a dozen caterpillars that all died. But she started again and successfully raised 600 butterflies that she sold for $1,400. Then she was hooked.
Today, Good and her husband, Eugene, live in Nanty Glo, but her parents are still raising butterflies in Nescopeck.
The Folks set up the butterfly exhibit at the farm show in Harrisburg. Good got permission from the school district for her and eight students to attend the mid-winter FFA convention at the farm show and to help man the exhibit while they were there. Each of the students worked at least two hours in a booth where visitors could mingle with and admire the colorful, winged creatures.
One of the students, Amber Boring of New Florence, spent five and a half hours working in the butterfly exhibit. “The butterflies were fun. The exhibit was fun,” she said. “What I liked best was the little kids when they came in.”
Boring is a sophomore at United and a member of FFA. While Boring enjoyed the butterflies, she said she prefers larger animals and raises some livestock every year to take to show at local fairs.
Since the students had already been raising butterflies at school, Good said they were adept at educating the public about them and helping to take care of the 1,200 butterflies that were housed in the 12- by 30-foot booth. They took 100 butterflies with them that they had hatched at school and added them to others in the exhibit.
The exhibit featured eight different species of butterflies. The ones native to Pennsylvania included monarchs, painted ladies, buckeyes and eastern black swallowtails. Since Good has a permit from the United States Department of Agriculture, she was also able to bring in giant swallowtails, Julias, great southern whites and zebra long wings.
At the end of the farm show, the non-native butterflies were returned to the farms they originally came from. The native ones will be kept and used to breed for the coming spring.
According to Good, she and her parents have butterflies on the farm from April through October. Her parents frequently have their farm open to the public during that time so individuals and groups can come see the butterflies.
Good said it would be difficult, though not impossible, to raise butterflies year-round in Pennsylvania. “They like warm temperatures, 75 or 80 degrees,” she explained. “To have something that warm for them all winter would be too expensive. It would work, though, if you had another business, like a nursery, where you were already keeping a greenhouse warm.”
Good purchases one or two dozen adult butterflies from two different southern farms in the spring and uses them for breeding. She explained that she cross-breeds the butterflies from the two farms because it makes them more resistant to disease.
That's one of the things she's learned through trial and error in her years of raising the delicate insects.
“There is no formal training available for raising butterflies,” she said. “Everything I know I learned from my own mistakes or talking to someone else who raises them.”
Depending on the species and conditions, a female butterfly may lay nearly 100 eggs over its relatively brief time as an adult.
Representing the beginning of a butterfly's life cycle, a tiny egg typically develops over about four days before hatching into a caterpillar. After feeding for about two weeks on greenery, the caterpillar will spin itself into a cocoon-like chrysalis, where it spends another two weeks before emerging as a butterfly. The adult butterfly may live for four to six weeks.
People buy butterflies to release at weddings, memorials and funerals.
“They are also very popular at Relay for Life events and as an educational project for children,” Good said.
She said most people buy about 100 butterflies to release, but at her wedding this past September, Good and her husband released 500 butterflies.
During peak season, Good will spend as much as five hours per night feeding her butterflies. She noted that she feeds them grape Gatorade because they like it better than the sugar water some breeders use and it doesn't have to be refrigerated.
To feed a butterfly, Good soaks a cotton swab in the Gatorade and places it just behind the butterfly's front legs. The butterfly tastes the Gatorade with its feet, then extends its tube-shaped proboscis down to the swab to sip the sweet liquid.
“I enjoy feeding time,” Good said. “It isn't hard work, but it is time-consuming.”
Feeding the butterflies was one of the things the public was invited to do when they visited the booth at the farm show. “It was definitely a hands-on exhibit,” Good said. Our goal was to educate people about butterflies and shoot down some of the myths.”
She noted that many people thought they shouldn't touch a butterfly's wings. “That isn't true,” she explained. “You shouldn't touch a moth's wings, but a butterfly's wings are made of scales similar to a fish's and touching them won't hurt them a bit.”
Both Good and Boring commented on the variety of reactions people had when they entered the butterfly booth.
“Some loved it and would stay for 20 or 25 minutes. Others were scared,” Boring said.
“You would think Godzilla lived in our exhibit from some people's reactions,” Good added. “They would scream when the butterflies flew towards them and ask if they bite.”
Among the students' duties was collecting butterflies that had lighted upon visitors before they departed so the insects wouldn't hitch an unintended ride outside of their warm booth.
One of the things that motivates Good and her parents to keep raising butterflies is the fact that the wild butterfly population is declining.
“All a butterfly needs is water, shelter and a host plant, but what a butterfly thinks is a good host plant is what most people consider a weed,” Good explained. “In this day and age, people do everything they can to eliminate weeds and the butterflies are being eliminated, too.”
Good completed her student teaching at United High School while she was pursuing her degree at Pennsylvania State University. She graduated last May and was hired at United in June.
When school is out, she and her husband will spend as much time as possible at her parents' farm helping with the butterflies.
“I graduated from high school five years ago and I never thought I would still be raising butterflies,” she said. “But I truly enjoy it. Looking back at it as a project and seeing where it has gone, I never would have imagined.”
Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.