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These farms raise thousands of butterflies and find ways to promote pollinator preservation

Anna Pope
Harvest Public Media

Jane Breckinridge is a fifth-generation farmer but is the first in her family to raise butterflies.

“Some people have hogs as livestock or they have goats,” she said. “I'm just very, very lucky because my livestock happens to be beautiful butterflies.”

The zebra longwings, pearl crescents and monarchs raised on the farm will be sold for museum exhibitions and state fairs.

She and her husband, David Bohlken, started the Euchee Butterfly Farm near Leonard, Oklahoma, about 15 years ago on land that’s been in her family for generations. Her great-grandmother, the daughter of a Euchee man and a Muscogee woman, received the 160-acre allotment in 1899.

Breckinridge is helping train tribal citizens through her Natives Raising Natives Project. It gives tribal members training, supplies and support to become butterfly farmers themselves — creating a sanctuary for an at-risk species on land that’s been a safe haven for Indigenous people, as well.

“I love butterflies. But it's more about how they can be ambassadors to engage people in this conversation that I think needs to happen so badly,” she said, “about how do we preserve ecosystems? How do we preserve wild spaces? How do we save the planet before it's too late?”

Anna Pope
Harvest Public Media

The loss of pollinators

Pollinators have seen massive decline over the last 25 years.

More than half of all native bee species in the U.S. are declining, and 1 in 4 is at risk for extinction, according to a 2017 study by the Center for Biological Diversity. Meanwhile, managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. are nearly half of what they were in the 1940s. This year’s annual survey on monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico found the flying insects took up just 2.2 acres during the 2023-2024 winter season, a 59% drop from the year before.

“You know pollinator species in general, butterflies included, are declining and the challenges across both these butterflies and a lot of other pollinator species are very similar,” said Nicole Alt, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Center of Pollinator Conservation, “habitat loss over decades, as well as pesticide exposure, climate change and disease.”

Converting native grasslands to agriculture was one of the biggest causes of habitat reduction more than a century ago, Alt said. Today, pesticides have pushed out native vegetation along roadways, as well as through manicured lawns, leaving fewer places for pollinators.

“I think it’s more of the fact that at some point, populations get small enough that they get into a cycle where they have challenges to rebound, and they’re less resilient because there’s fewer and fewer habitat patches available to them,” Alt said.

A pearl crescent butterfly rests on grass on the Euchee Butterfly Farm in Lenard, Oklahoma. The insect  is found in most of the U.S., throughout Mexico and sections of southern Canada.
Anna Pope
Harvest Public Media
A pearl crescent butterfly rests on grass on the Euchee Butterfly Farm in Lenard, Oklahoma. The insect is found in most of the U.S., throughout Mexico and sections of southern Canada.

About 85% of the world’s flowering plants depend on animal pollination, making pollinators critical for the food supply.

“The statistic that's usually mentioned is that a third of our food is made possible through insects or pollination from some other animal,” said Reed Johnson, an entomology professor at Ohio State University.

Foods like apples, strawberries, almonds, melons and pumpkins rely on bees. Johnson teaches a beekeeping class and interacts with growers who need bees for pollination.

“A lot of the crop plants that we depend on for food, really need some animal to move pollen from one flower to another, in order for that plant to set fruit to produce the nuts or the fruit or the seeds that we want to eat,” Johnson said.

He encourages people to plant native flowering plants, like goldenrods, to support pollinator populations, because he said, even small patches help.

Enter the butterfly farms

Back on the Euchee Butterfly Farm, producers gather for the Tribal Alliance for Pollinator’s Spring Workshop and eventually try their hand at planting native plants on the farm’s field.

The alliance, which received some of its funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, provides training and support for tribes wanting to revive and conserve grassland ecosystems. Its 690 members work to help pollinators and maintain native plants important for Indigenous traditions.

Producers, rural residents and landowners are all key in helping pollinators, and in turn, helping people, according to Breckenridge. She said there are small steps that will have big impacts, such as having pollinator strips in fence rows and using more targeted pesticide only at certain times of the day.

“I love it that urban people are getting on board with this and they've got their own role to play,” Breckenridge said. “But those people out there who are actually working the land, they have got a very, very, very large job ahead of them. And to see them coming on board accessing this information — that's what it's all about.”

Anna Pope
Harvest Public Media

The Hatchery Butterfly Farm in Kansas also raises butterflies and uses them to teach about pollinators and their habitats.

Ryan Malone is the owner of the Kansas farm and president of the International Butterfly Breeders Association, a butterfly trade organization. While he makes his living selling butterflies to exhibitions and events, he’s also eager to teach others about butterfly habitat.

For instance, he makes plant seed packets for people to raise butterfly-friendly plants.

“This is filled with dill seeds and so if you plant it, it'll attract black swallowtail butterflies, and they'll lay eggs on it,” Malone said of butterfly-shaped seed paper. “So this is just my fun novel way of trying to get people to plant more host plants for butterflies.”

Recently, Malone said there has been increased interest in pollinators, and he hopes this translates into more people working to protect the species.

For him, butterflies are fascinating. Not only because of their relationship to plants, but also because of their unique life cycle.

“But you know, there’s something about a butterfly, right?” Malone said.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3

Anna Pope