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These Farms Raise Thousands of Butterflies and Find Ways to Promote Pollinator Preservation

By Anna Pope

It’s National Pollinator Week, an annual event created to bring attention to the sharp decline in pollinator numbers due to habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Butterflies often capture people’s attention and help spark interest in pollinator conservation, something butterfly farms are helping promote.

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?”

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.

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.”

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