Mom, where do butterflies come from?

May 1, 2008

One of the most common questions we get asked is “Where do all these butterflies come from?”  So, I thought I would let you guys know!

It all starts off with a butterfly farm.  We order from 8 different farms outside of the U.S.:  El Bosque Nuevo and Spirogyra in Costa Rica, Heliconius Butterfly Works in Ecuador, Bioproductores in El Salvador, Neotropical Insects NV in Suriname, Flora Farm and Ma Corona Butterfly Culture in the Philippines, and Tropical Entomological House in Malaysia.  We also order from two farms in Florida, Butterfly Dan’s and Greathouse Butterfly Farm.  We have been using most of these farms since our opening in June, 1994. 


The largest, toughest chrysalids are packed on the bottom.

 On Saturdays and Sundays, the farms pack up the chrysalids (pupae) and prepare to send them to us and other butterfly houses throughout the world.  

Most suppliers pack up their pupae with lots of cotton and tissue.  They start with a layer of cotton on the bottom of a box.  This layer usually holds the largest of pupae, Morpho peleides or Caligo spp.  Since these pupae are packed very close together they are wrapped in cotton or tissue.  A new layer of cotton is added next, usually with swallowtail pupae because their chrysalids are tough.  Once the layering gets to more fragile pupae, Heliconius spp., Tithorea spp.,  Myscelia cyaniristhey are more spread out. 

Once all the pupae are in the box, that box goes into another box and everything is all sealed up.  Believe it or not, butterflies are considered to be agricultural pests – so there is a lot of paper work on the suppliers’ end that they have to fill out before they are allowed to ship it out of their country.  In addition, they have to have copies of paperwork from us.  Each supplier must attach at copy of our USDA permit to the package plus a special red and white label that acts as a flag for the USDA once the box gets in the U.S.  


Here, the chrysalids are organized by type.

All of the suppliers ship off pupae to us on Mondays.  When the box arrives in Miami, FL (Central/South American suppliers) or Hawthorne, CA (Asian suppliers) the red and white label lets workers know that the box needs to be inspected after customs clears it.  On a good week this takes no time at all, and I receive the package on Wednesday or Thursday.  I am still happy if I get it on Friday, but I get a little testy if it comes on Saturday or even the next Monday.  It is very important that I get the pupae the week they are sent because if I do not, the butterflies will start to emerge and that’s just a mess.

So, once the pupae are delivered to our loading dock I get the much awaited phone call of their arrival.  I get about 3-5 shipments a week with anywhere from 200 – 450 pupae in each. 

I keep inventory of all the pupae we receive with an awesome computer program that a colleague gave me.  While unpacking the pupae, I check off all the species we get and make note of any missing or extra butterflies. 

Then, I glue all the pupae from smallest to largest onto a large foam board, which will hang up in our hatcheries, that are on display in the entomology exhibits outside our main butterfly conservatory – so you can see the beginning of the butterfly life cycle any time you visit us. 


Ready to hang in our exhibition.

Every species of butterfly on a board is labeled with a number.  That number can be typed into a computer screen in front of the hatcheries and information about that species will pop up.  Once all the work is done, it is a game of sit-and-wait.  It takes about 2 weeks for all the butterflies to emerge from one board.  Once this happens, I take the board down, take note of any butterflies that did not emerge, clean it off and prepare it for the next shipment. 

Next time you’re here, make sure to stop by the hatchery area and check out all the chrysalids hanging; you may even get to see a butterfly hatch! 


These butterflies are emerging today; when their wings dry, they
will be ready to be released into the butterfly conservatory.

Speaking of butterflies hatching, have you ever wanted to release a butterfly yourself?  Your chance is coming up very soon!  On May 10th, come on down to the Cockrell Butterfly Center and Adopt A Butterfly.   Receive an adoption certificate, a commemorative gift, and your name listed on our website as one of our butterfly parents!

Authored By Laurie Pierrel

As an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Laurie’s main duties are receiving and processing exotic butterfly pupae, releasing adult butterflies into the conservatory, and sharing her love and knowledge of insects with school children through a program called “Bugs on Wheels.”

3 responses to “Mom, where do butterflies come from?”

  1. laanba says:

    Thanks for sharing the behind the scenes story of the Butterfly Center. It is funny to think of shipment of butterflies winging their way around the world.

  2. Dem says:

    Thanks alot for sharing! It was very interesting to know how and where these butterflies get shipped 🙂 It sure is a long process.

  3. Franny says:

    I was very excited to read about the behind-the-scenes for the CBC. Thank you! There’s one thing I’d love to know–about how many butterflies are in the conservatory from week to week?

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