Butterfly Farming Articles
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Outdoor Exhibits

Melanie McCarthy


Anyone can have an exhibit, even if it is a very small one. You can even exhibit one species as long as you create interesting programs to go with it. There really is no exhibit that is too small. Our very first exhibit was of Monarchs in an 8 x 10 enclosure. We began with this because that is all we had and because there was enough interest. It was a way to ‘test the waters.’ We had contacts in the community through our presentations in the local schools, but people kept asking to come out and visit us. What we found to be true is that what people really value the most is the one-on-one attention they receive when they come out. And if they bring their children (their most precious commodities) they’ll appreciate this one-on-one attention for them as well. AND, parents just love to let their children spill out their knowledge of lepidoptera for all to hear! If you enjoy what you are doing, your visitors will enjoy you. Although our exhibit is larger now, we still consider it to be an exhibit with a focus—our presentations.

Setting up

Zoning requirements and integrity of neighborhood need to be considered. We are classified as a farm under the regulations of our town. In Wilbraham, one needs to have at least 5 acres to be classified this way. You must check with your local Planning Board—through your Town Hall or City Hall-- and work with them. Even if you are classified properly, you want to consider the neighborhood and whether there should be special considerations for your exhibit. For example, we carefully chose our signs and landscaping to keep in character with the rustic area we live in. Since our exhibit is on our residential property, we have limited the size of our parking lot to 14 cars. When planning a parking area, please consult with experts. There are standards with respect to spacing needed between each car and behind each car. To keep traffic to a minimum and to keep our neighbors happy, we also limit our hours of entry to 3 days per week and at specific scheduled intervals—about 3 times per day.

The beauty of this set up is that is allows us to:

  • Use our existing property with no additional mortgage or rental fee;
  • Use excess butterflies produced over the course of the summer;
  • Experiment with raising other breeds;
  • Have accessibility to our exhibit 24 hours per day;
  • Save in travel costs/time to and from ‘work.’


Our exhibit size is 30’ x 96’ – gothic style greenhouse covered in shadecloth. However, I would suggest a clear covering or white covering if possible with small trees or bushes inside to provide shade or partial shade. Or consider partial shadecloth along with white or clear screening. Our exhibit is located under direct sun. Whether you use dappled sunshine or partial shade will depend upon your unique needs: temperature, choice of area to situate your exhibit and species of butterflies. For the most part, lots of sunshine is ideal—along with areas that will provide shade. If possible, provide a mister or some way to wet the area so that the butterflies have enough humidity and water.

Our entryway is our vestibule area where we give our presentations. This presentation area is approximately 30’ x 20’. It is covered in black poly and we have installed black curtains on rods that enable us to darken the room sufficiently to show our slides.

Our ceiling height is 14 feet, however if I had to do it again, I would have made it a little lower. It’s best to have it just high enough for your bushes and small trees but low enough so that the butterflies can be enjoyed.

Our set up is quite simple. We took what we could from our property and re-cycled it into the exhibit. Our exhibit area is composed of three sections of plants, left, middle and right. Between the sections is a pea-stone walkway bordered by rocks found on our property. The ground is covered by earth-mat, then covered with either the pea stone or mulch. Our entire middle area is filled with a variety of nectar plants. This encourages more flight from the butterflies and they tend to stay away from the side walls.

The ‘sides’ are composed of some host plants, some nectar plants, dishes of rotting fruit and hanging feeders with non-fermenting nectar. We find that rotting apples do not seem to attract the ants and our morning cloaks feast on these apples regularly. All of our fruit is obtained from local growers who would throw it out anyway.

It is important to note that the host plants are located in here to allow us to grow a small number of other species for educational purposes. Almost all of these plants are sleeved. Those larvae that are not sleeved are ones that have not been bothered, to date, by predators inside the exhibit. Some of these same plants are grown throughout our property and sleeved to produce species in larger quantities.

To save time, we have installed an overhead sprinkler system. We feel this is a ‘must’ and should absolutely be an investment you make. Talk to an expert to determine what system is best for you, a lot will depend upon your water pressure. We needed to consider this and our own personal ‘house’ needs; therefore we installed a system that allowed us to water different ‘zones’ so that we kept the demand for water pressure to a minimum. I was surprised at how little the cost was for something that saved us hours in labor each day. We have six ‘zones’ and each one covers about 12 – 15 feet. The cost was approximately $350—a wise investment. The summer prior, with no watering system except ‘hand watering’, we lost over half our plants! I strongly recommend this.

Restrooms – This is an interesting topic or an interesting dilemma depending upon how you look at it. There are many ways of looking at this. I do know it is perfectly acceptable not to have these facilities available. However, one must realize that if you do not have restrooms, you must be prepared to accommodate emergencies. Most visitors do not ask to use the restrooms, with one exception: those with small children. We do not have public restrooms but since we have three bathrooms in our ‘farmhouse’ it is not too difficult for us to accommodate those requests. There is always the option of renting ‘sani-cans’ and again you would have to investigate proper permitting procedures if necessary.


We have not found the need to do ANY paid advertising. Keep in mind, we are relatively small and can only seat up to 30 people for our presentations. The important fact to remember is your target market is young families, the elderly and women.

Here is a TRADE SECRET for marketing that really works. Many communities in many states have summer reading programs for children. The programs, in principle, all work the same way. Children read, then they are rewarded with something tangible. It’s an incentive program. You can participate in this program and as a result you will have a constant stream of visitors to your exhibit. This is how it works for us. We enter into an agreement with the Regional Library Program. We give them all the necessary information. A coupon is printed up. The coupon, in our case, rewards a participating child with free admission to our exhibit, as long as one paying adult accompanies them. Usually you will get entire families. The coupon will state the terms of the program, will give all identifying information about your exhibit, including hours of presentations and directions to get to the exhibit and anything else that is necessary. The Regional Library System has its own marketing programs too. So that’s an added bonus. In our case, our name was printed on bookmarks and distributed to children in every single library in Massachusetts. They also had a Web Page that gave credit to our Farm for participation. It is simply a good will gesture as well. I took it a step further by contacting our local libraries to be sure they had flyers about us on hand and to make people aware of where we were located. Additionally, I set up a live butterfly display in our own local library. This helped to further promote the program but also generated marketing for all of our products and services. A spin-off was that many teachers began to contact us just to arrange field trips to our exhibit and to arrange classroom presentations as well.

Another freebie is the Community Events Calendar in your local newspapers. We love this one. They will promptly print all information about your exhibit and will keep it current as long as you contact them on a regular basis. We are listed under the category “nature.”

Call and invite groups from senior centers, retirement centers, assisted living communities, Girl Scout/Boy Scout Troops, summer camps, home schooling groups (we get LOTS of these), garden clubs,

local schools. If they can’t come to you, offer to go to them. When you have your first ‘group’ out for a visit, invite the local press. Start with your major newspaper, but don’t forget to invite press from the smaller journals and newspapers. They will come.

Make posters about your exhibit and include newspaper articles that have been laminated and stick them on the poster. Distribute to local libraries. Unless you are creating a major tourist attraction, you really do not need to do any paid advertising.

Legal Matters

Items not to overlook: public liability insurance, USDA permits and any other state or local agency requirements. Check with your insurance carrier for more information about liability insurance. Check with your city or town planning board for zoning issues. Establish a good relationship with your state agricultural official and ask him/her for advice on whether any other non-agricultural or agricultural agencies need to be contacted. This is your responsibility.

Anytime you want to purchase butterflies at any life cycle and for containment, proper USDA permits must be obtained. The PPQ Form 526 would be filled out and you would be asking for “import” permits. With an import permit, you need only fill out one. Here you would be asking to “import” species for your exhibit (containment area). You would need to list all the species (including scientific names) you might be exhibiting. You will need to attach a list of sources of stock, i.e., from whom you will purchase. Even though the sources are requested, we found that the final approved permit allowed us to purchase the approved species from any source in the United States

As part of this whole process, you need to know that your exhibit/containment area must meet certain guidelines of the USDA and that it may be inspected prior to your receiving the permits. Our facility was inspected and the time frame from the application filing through the inspection process and the receipt of our permit was about 6 months. It is IMPORTANT to note that at the time of our inspection, the guidelines used to conduct the inspection were DRAFT guidelines for educational displays of adults, non-indigenous butterflies and moths. I questioned the use of these guidelines for our exhibit since they were formulated for non-indigenous species. The answer I got was that these were the only guidelines they had and that they had to measure against these but that the measuring would be very subjective. For example, there are all kinds of construction standards to be found in these guidelines. Since all of our species can be found in the U.S., the standards were adjusted for us. Yet there were many questions and a very thorough inspection of our ‘facility.’ In addition, we were required to write a Standard Operating Procedures Manual. In this we had to elaborate on the ‘Purpose’ of the exhibit; we had to list all state and federal authorities to be contacted in the case of an emergency (escapees); we had to list all of our current permits; we had to extensively describe our floor plan, describe the floors, the continuous shell overhead structure, what it was made of and describe the structural integrity of the framework (to withstand winds, etc.). An inventory of equipment needed to be listed, in our case, benches, chairs, tables, slide projector, etc and anything else that could be found there. Sterilization and decontamination techniques had to be described. Annually, we are required to submit a record of specimens purchased during the year and a list of specimens which arrived dead or diseased and this must be submitted to our APHIS Officer. After a full day of inspections, only to find out that I still had to write a Standard Operating Procedures Manual, I was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. It was! I think this was the most difficult part in setting up our exhibit! I’d be happy to share our Standard Operating Procedures Manual with anyone who would like a copy.


There is no need to give a detailed listing of plants. What works in your area may not be workable in another area. We use what we can grow from seed and what we can barter for. The exception to this is the passion vine for our zebra longwings. We purchase a # of these each season. And we have a few dozen butterfly bushes inside and outside the exhibit area.

Rest assured, you could supplement with a non-fermenting nectar, rotting fruit and molasses. Don’t forget a rock for basking and a wet sandy area for minerals and water.

Butterflies and Moths

Obviously, you want to have a good number of butterflies in the exhibit at all times; we try to have over 150 butterflies flying. It is also important to have variety. At any one time we have about 10 different varieties. The selection of the varieties of butterflies is important to the success of the exhibit. The most well known butterfly is the monarch and as such is popular. The negative aspect of the monarch is that it has to be really sunny and warm in order to induce them to fly and nectar. They also have a fairly limited life span. The second most known butterfly is the tiger swallowtail. This is not necessarily a good butterfly for exhibits because they tend to fly near the ceiling away from people and away from the nectar sources. They therefore don’t always get enough food and can die prematurely. We try to have a few in the exhibit because they are so beautiful. Our all time favorite butterfly for our exhibit is the zebra longwing. This butterfly is the first to begin flying in the morning and the very last to roost at night. They are slow fliers making them easy to observe and tend to fly right at eye level. They are not afraid of people. As long as there is plenty of nectar and pollen, they will last a long time. It is important to have different colored butterflies. For example, while putting in cabbage butterflies in our exhibit (given to us) did not initially appeal to us, their appearance made a dramatic impact. The white movement in the exhibit was so cheerful and reminded me of snow. Some of the other butterflies we had success with were black swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails, giant swallowtails, queens, red admirals, question marks, mourning cloaks, julias, gulf fritillaries, sulfers, great spangled fritillaries and polydamus. Try other varieties to see which ones work well. Don’t forget to put a few moths in the exhibit. Even though they didn’t fly during the day, the luna and cecropia moths were a huge hit because of their size and color.

We found there was more value to the butterflies than just their beauty. For educational purposes, we pointed out the mating pairs, females laying eggs and also displayed some of the caterpillars and chrysalides. We harvested these eggs and sleeved them around our property so we could have more ‘free’ butterflies to fill the exhibit. We tried to get as much out of each butterfly as possible.


Many exhibits don’t offer presentations so don’t feel like you have to. I’ve noticed that often times there is an informational video available or guides on hand to answer questions. The focus of our exhibit is an educational one. Therefore we offer very structured presentations and offer two themes per season. One topic is the basic one: The Life Cycle of the Monarch and Migration Facts. This is tailored to the age of the audience. The second topic is one that changes every season so that returning families will learn new information. Our presentations are geared to the age group of those present and are very interactive and lively. As Thea Ryan said at the Kansas City Convention, put “WOW” into your presentations. This is exactly what we do and when you do this, word travels fast. For example with pre-schoolers, we take them through a role-playing of the life cycle including allowing them to crawl on the floor, pretend to hang upside-down, fly about; we love asking them to compare their mommies to mommies of caterpillars. There are many interactions, getting up and moving about and allowing children to ‘touch’ when appropriate. They won’t want to leave! The content of the presentation is up to you. The topics are endless. Try to have everyone leave with at least one new piece of information that they learned.

As previously mentioned, we had many young families go through our exhibit because of the Summer Reading Program. Most parents wanted their children to learn more about butterflies and would come because of the educational program. Some of these parents also turned out to be teachers who later brought their classes to our exhibit or took advantage of our in-class programs.

Pest Control

Our pest control squad is made up of four white Chinese Button Quail. White quail are easier to find when closing up for the evening; we like to find them each night to be sure they are accounted for. We have found that any rearing that takes place in our exhibit area, for the most part, must include sleeving. It has been impossible to totally control spiders and ants. Our rearing in this facility is for educational purposes only. We rear other species outside the exhibit area under sleeves and only those that are local to our area, i.e., morning cloaks, spicebush swallowtail, red admirals, eastern tiger swallowtails, monarchs, etc.


Yes, there must be rules and they should be posted and briefly explained before allowing visitors into your exhibit. We’ve learned a few lessons here and it’s best to interject what ‘not’ to do with the things that you will allow children ‘to do.’ People really dislike hearing what they are not allowed to do and it really doesn’t set the stage for a fun visit. Everything we say is said in a way that puts the focus on protecting young children. We have found that the best way to keep children on our pea-stone walkway and away from the plants is to give them a story about what stinging nettle does and to let them know it is planted along the walls. We’ve not yet had one child wander into our plant area! Their need to touch and handle ‘stuff’ is taken care of when they enter the exhibit as we usually have a large, jeweled cecropia larvae for them to hold as well as morning cloaks available to play dead in their palms and then to fly away when least expected. We handle all of the butterflies and larvae and carefully allow only appropriate touch.

Gift Shop and Refreshments

Two fairly large exhibits we have visited (Niagara Falls/Canada and Magic Wings/Massachusetts) rely much more heavily on gift shop sales than they do on admissions. This is something to keep in mind. Our exhibit is fairly new so we sell a minimum of items including hatching kits, metamorphosis kits, (for species permitted for release only), t-shirts, stained glass butterflies, Barbara Bosco jewelry, etc. Children always want the pupae or larvae!

We offer soft drinks and snacks at a refreshment stand operated by my 13-year-old son. He keeps the profits!

There is a small picnic area next to our pond. This little touch has made all the difference in the world for pre-school groups. They always seem to need a snack or lunch after visiting our exhibit.


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