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The following article appeared in The Des Moines Register on June 13, 1999. Copyright © 1999, The Des Moines Register.

Fascination with butterflies turns profitable
By MELISSA MYERS
Register Staff Writer

Folklore says if you whisper a secret to a butterfly and then release it, the secret is carried to a great spirit who will make the wish come true. The legend is one reason humans have a fascination for the tiny delicate insects.

Kathleen Ziemer formed such an attachment four years ago.

Ziemer and her husband, Doug, were volunteers at butterfly gardens near the Saylorville Lake Visitor Center when unexpected cold weather threatened a crop of tiny caterpillars that clung to parsley plants. After rounding up as many caterpillars as could be found, volunteers took them to their homes to keep them alive.

Before long, the hobby of watching caterpillars mature into butterflies became an unusual occupation. "I was absolutely captivated," Kathleen Ziemer said.

"I fell in love. We spent as much time in front of aquariums and cages watching these little critters as most people sit in front of the TV."

Ziemer's ButterfliZ of Iowa, which has sold 15 dozen live butterflies in central Iowa for release at weddings, memorial services, baptisms and birthday parties, will financially break even this month. By year's end she expects to have the necessary federal permits to ship to other states.

When Joan Newel of Dallas Center purchased two dozen butterflies for a surprise release at her daughter's wedding last month, they were a big hit. "We kept them in a cage by the guest book, they were kind of part of the decorations when people came in. People were surprised to see something alive."

The butterflies were set free by the ushers as the bride and groom left the ceremony. Ziemer had offered tips on releasing the butterflies, such as keeping them warm so they would fly better, and Newel said it made the wedding more memorable. "We were looking for something different and this was real unique."

Ziemer, on the other hand, said her first release was difficult because she became fond of the butterflies.

"I wasn't prepared for the separation anxiety and didn't want to let them go," she said with a laugh. "Doug won't let me name them, because I get too attached."

Two broods of orange and brown spotted Painted Lady butterflies are in production at the couple's home in north Des Moines. A brood of black swallowtails - more difficult to raise - is also being incubated. Throughout a spare bedroom and an all-weather porch, containers and aquariums house what will eventually become adult butterflies.

With 2,000 eggs developing, the prospect for a healthy crop of butterflies is good. The Painted Lady crop sells for $60 a dozen, and a brood is typically reserved by buyers long before reaching maturity. "I will hatch about 800 eggs and of those, say 500 to 600 will reach full larva stage," Ziemer said. "Hatch rates for farms average somewhere between 20 and 50 percent; mine's about 40 percent.

"I've taken some flak from others who think our prices are too low," she added. "I've also had people tell me they will catch their own because it's too expensive. Two or three days later they call back and say it was harder than they realized or once they caught them they couldn't keep them alive."

It is a lot of work. While soybean plants are just right for eggs, larvae need an artificial soy-based diet, chrysalises require humidity in their climate and adults feed on the nectar of ripe fruit. "It takes a good two to three hours of care every night," Kathleen Ziemer said.

And, it can be costly. The dietary supplement to feed 200 to 500 caterpillars costs as much as $50 a week.

It is a hobby-turned-business that she someday hopes to spend all her time cultivating.

"There are a lot of people who know more about butterflies and have done more research," she said, "but I've had such great success already that, yes, I would do it full time in a minute."

Butterfly life cycle

  • Eggs are laid on a host plant within three days of mating, and hatch in another three to five days as larvae.
  • Larvae grow to caterpillars and progress through four skin-shedding stages for 12 to 15 days before going to the "J" stage, where the caterpillar hangs in the shape of a J for 12 to 36 hours, forming a chrysalis (similar to a moth's cocoon).
  • Depending on temperature, the chrysalis stays dormant 10 to 15 days before the adult butterfly emerges.
  • Adults mate within 24 hours of hatching and will live 15 to 20 days at most.
 
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