Belizean Butterflies and the Allure of Metamorphosis

I’ve got something going on with butterflies lately. They seem to be following me everywhere – or vice versa.

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I recently came back from a trip to Belize, where I was hearing rumors about the existence of a butterfly farm. Having started a regular ritual at home in Santa Cruz that I have come to call “Butterfly Church,” a pilgrimage to this place was clearly in order.

Who farms butterflies? And why? I wondered.

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The Green Hills Butterfly Farm in the Cayo District of Belize is owned by a Dutch couple. Like many butterfly farmers, they raise the insects for sale. Customers buy butterflies to put in butterfly houses, to stock zoos and educational displays, and to release at special events. At Green Hills, the owners are also studying interactions between the various species they raise in their 2700 square foot “flight area,” which typically contains up to thirty different types of butterflies at a time.

I can’t say I had ever given any thought to the process of raising domestic butterflies, but I now know that it is an incredibly labor intensive engagement. Every step requires human intervention. Eggs are harvested the day they are laid and isolated in small plastic containers. When they hatch into caterpillars, they need to be moved into different containers and supplied with ample food – leaves of the plant they were laid on. As anyone with a garden knows, caterpillars are eating machines, so stocking their pantries is a daily commitment.  Each caterpillar needs to be watched for signs of its impending pupation; when it stops eating, its leaves must be replaced with a stick from which it can hang while transforming into a chrysalis.   Once the creature has entered the pupal phase, the stick is put into a closet with other pupae from which it emerges as a fully formed butterfly about a week later. During each of these steps of the insects’ life cycles, accurate labeling is crucial. Every container and chrysalis stick at the farm has a date on it, marking the last metamorphic event of each and every organism.

Once the butterflies have hatched, maintenance continues. They feed constantly, sipping nectar with their proboscis-like tongues. They also need a steady supply of water, a flower-laden ecosystem that stays above 60 degrees, and daily attention.

And that’s just the cultivation of the creatures; packing and shipping them have their own associated complications, of both the environmental and bureaucratic varieties. Another butterfly farmer in Belize recently stopped exporting the insects because of her frustration with the international butterfly trade’s reams of required paperwork.

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This begs the question – why bother?  Sure, you can make some money off of them, but after seeing butterfly cultivation in action, it seems like the undertaking had better be a labor of love.

We are fascinated by butterflies. By we, I mean the whole human race, myself included. It may be their beauty that draws us in, or the apparent fragility of their existence. It might also have something to do with this event we have come to call “metamorphosis.” It captivates our imagination with its mystery. Many of us grew up learning the life cycle of the butterfly and assuming that when a caterpillar went into its chrysalis it “sprouted” wings and legs that were just hiding inside them up until that point. This is not at all the case. Many a child has satisfied his cruel curiosity by squishing or cutting into a pupa.  As he can tell you, there aren’t little wings and feet in there – there’s just goo. Scientists have come to learn that much of the caterpillar reorganizes itself in this goo phase, as enzymes that formerly broke down its food now digest its very own body to prepare for its rebirth as a radically different creature.

The most fascinating of recent metamorphosis studies concern the presence of “imaginal cells,” parts of the caterpillar that contain the genetic blueprint of what the creature is to become – one with wings and feet and the gift of flight. We reflective human beings like to wonder if we have something similar in us. Do I have cells that know what I will become, that are lying dormant in me until the release of a certain hormone triggers my transformation? Furthermore, in a study made famous by a recent episode of the fabulous Radiolab podcast series, scientists created a group of caterpillars averse to a certain smell by administering an electric shock to them in conjunction with the release of an odor. These caterpillars pupated and emerged from the gooey dissolution phase as butterflies several weeks later, and yes, they became butterflies that detested that very same odor. They retained a memory from their “previous incarnation” even after having partially digested and radically reorganized themselves. There’s something else for us to latch onto – this idea that there IS some part of us that is continuous, no matter how many cells turn over, no matter how we age.

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We aren’t insects, of course, and extrapolating details from their metamorphic processes to understand our own puzzling personal and planetary evolution is a perilous path. Still…it’s hard not to wonder about my own “goo phases” and try to read the tea leaves of my own imaginary imaginal cells.

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If nothing else, metamorphosis an incredibly powerful narrative structure, as countless authors have shown us over the centuries.  We’ve latched onto it as an allegory for our earthly journey, and I don’t see us giving it up anytime soon.

Meanwhile, it sure is awe-inspiring to watch the process in action.  Even if we never witness an emergence, simply stopping to watch these creatures move through the world reminds us that a graceful and majestic future is always possible.

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