In a corner of Constance Hodsdon's backyard, a Giant Black Swallowtail caterpillar feasts on the leaves of a fennel plant. Nearby, an Eastern Black Swallowtail cocoon is nestled in a low-growing patch of vegetation.
"Most people would have pulled this out of their gardens," said Hodsdon, picking through the plant's leaves to reveal the caterpillar. "But we're working with Mother nature here."
Knowing how to work with nature to produce butterflies is Hodsdon's business. And since establishing Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton in 2001, Hodsdon has produced butterflies used in everything from weddings, anniversaries and children's landmark birthday celebrations to an advertising campaign for national retailer Target.
"We sent them to Chicago to be photographed," Hodsdon said.
There are 120 so-called butterfly farmers worldwide, according to Dale McClung, spokesman for the International Butterfly Breeders Association. Of those, 95 are located in the United States.
While the financial value of the butterfly farming industry is difficult to gauge, McClung said that the majority of breeders are small-business entrepreneurs who raise butterflies for sale directly to clients for special events or who sell to the wholesale market. Larger breeders serve an even more specialized market, he said.
"The majority of butterfly breeding businesses are very small, "mom and pop" operations that average between $30,000 and $40,000 a year," McClung said. "Larger operations that sell butterflies to exhibits can make between $100,000 and $200,000 a year."
Hodsdon declined to disclose the annual volume of her business, but she said her butterflies are largely sold to individual clients for release during special
occasions. She also provides butterflies to other farmers for resale.
Hodsdon, who is also the vice president of the butterfly breeders association, produces her butterflies in an extensive operation that includes a laboratory that serves as a kind of nursery for butterflies in their caterpillar and chrysalis stages. A trio of screened-in spaces or "houses" allow mature butterflies to mate, lay eggs, feed and stretch their wings before shipment.
In all, Hodsdon breeds six butterfly varieties including Gulf Fritillary, Monarch, Giant Swallowtail, Eastern Black Swallowtail, Painted Lady and the Zebra Longwing, Florida's state butterfly. Butterflies sell for $84 a dozen. Hodson said that during her busiest time of year, she ships approximately 500 butterflies a week to clients locally and nationwide.
Hodsdon also cultivates the plants on which the butterflies mate, lay their eggs and feed.
"It's a matter of knowing what kind of plants the butterflies like," Hodsdon said. "For example, the Monarchs like Milkweed."
Hodsdon ensures there is enough of the plant. She propagates her own, and experiments with growing techniques such as hydroponics. Beyond that, all the plants growing at Flutterby Gardens are cultivated and maintained organically without the use of pesticides or other chemicals.
"You can buy plants including Milkweed, but they're full of pesticides." Hodsdon said. "I do everything by hand because I want to produce vital, quality butterflies."
While some of Hodsdon's butterflies are sold to clients locally and throughout Florida, others are shipped to customers across the country. The Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulates the industry by granting transfer permits and regulating which butterflies can be released where and during what time of year, said Tanya Espinosa of the agency's department of Legislative and Public Affairs.
"Permits to transfer butterflies are good for three years and there is no cost for the permit," Espinosa said. "However, permits are needed for eachstate (that requires one) that a breeder is sending butterflies to."
The regulation is intended to ensure that the incoming butterflies do not negatively affect the environment into which they are released. Meanwhile, controlled cultivation is good for the species, Hodsdon said.
"Only one in 200 survives in the wild," Hodsdon said. "Here 99 of 100 survive."
Ultimately, it's the butterflies' beauty and transformation symbolism that attracts clients to Flutterby Gardens, Hodsdon said. Client Cathy Tatum of Riverview was seeking exactly those qualities when she contracted Hodsdon to provide butterflies for a memorial service that took place last summer in honor of Tatum's mother.
"Each guest at the memorial received an envelope containing a butterfly to release," Tatum said. "Most of them went up into the sky over the river," Tatum said. "But some stayed on people's hands for a while and two just stayed around before flying away: it was beautiful."
So beautiful, that Tatum has hired Hodsdon to provide butterflies for release at her daughter's wedding in June.
"She's just so knowledgeable," Tatum said. "It's awesome when someone can do what they're passionate about."
Hodsdon agrees. She has no regrets about leaving a lucrative career in the insurance industry to pursue butterfly breeding.
"It gets crazy around here, but I don't even feel like I'm working," Hodsdon said. "This is what I'd do if I didn't have to do anything."