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Hearts Aflutter

butterfly guys
George Sakkestad

Los Gatos farmers give whole new meaning to 'butterflies' on a wedding day

By Shari Kaplan

It all began when Chris Hundley and Michael Talesfore--college graduates with jobs in the high-technology industry--realized their professions still left something to be desired. Both wanted jobs that offered more flexible schedules and more unusual work, and both say they are more attracted to the natural world than the high-tech one.

And then the pair came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about Rick Mikula of Pennsylvania, who's been raising butterflies to release at special occasions for about 20 years. And an idea began to incubate.

After corresponding and meeting with Mikula, Hundley and Talesfore learned what it takes to raise, feed and breed monarchs and hatched their business venture, Magical Beginnings Butterfly Farms of Los Gatos.

"[Butterfly releasing] is a really hot item; we see it the same as the flower industry was about a hundred years ago. Now it's a new thing and seems like it's only going up," Talesfore says.

Illinois native Hundley and Santa Clara Valley native Talesfore both say they grew up seeing lots of butterflies flutter by flowers and meadows and feel bad about the insects' decline in numbers.

According to Talesfore, this is a result of droughts, cold temperatures and loss of habitat for milkweed, which is the only plant on which female monarchs lay their eggs and the only plant the caterpillars eat. Adult monarchs sip nectar from dozens of different flowers but do not actually eat anything.

"We're really trying to educate the community to grow nectaring plants in their back yards to attract butterflies and to grow the host plant [that] monarch caterpillars eat," Talesfore says, adding that 17 varieties of milkweed grow in California, and some are very attractive. In total, 130 species of the weed grow in the United States.

"All of the open areas in this valley are either tilled or fire-burned, so there are no flowers and no host plants. So the last frontier is really your own back yard," Talesfore says.

So while some people are growing milkweed for future monarch generations, Hundley and Talesfore are busy raising the progenitors. Currently, most customers order butterflies--at $125 per dozen--to release at weddings and funerals. Small gift baskets containing flowering plants plus one butterfly ($30) or two butterflies and a chrysalis ($60) are also available.

The butterfly farmers are also working on getting more corporate business for their butterflies, including company picnics, new-product releases and movie premieres.

"Any occasion where you can use flowers, you can use butterflies," says Hundley, who explains that monarchs are among the best kinds of butterfly for this type of venture because they are large. Butterflies have also turned out to be especially spiritual at funerals, Hundley says, because many people find inspiring symbolism in the monarchs' metamorphosis from a plain, ground-dwelling caterpillar to a carefree, beautiful animal that flies through the skies.

Hundley says he likes to share with customers a Native American belief about butterflies. Legend says that because butterflies cannot speak, if people make a wish upon releasing a butterfly, their wish will be carried upon its wings up to the heavens, where it will be granted.

But the butterfly business is not all flutter and fluff. Hundley and Talesfore have studied the monarchs' life cycle to learn what makes them tick--including reproductively. Pulling open the mesh around the mating cage, they point to a motionless-looking butterfly pair oblivious to the human interruption. But no, this was action in the making. When monarchs pair up, they mate for up to 20 hours.

It then takes 31 days for a monarch to go through the stages of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and newly emerged adult butterfly. Within three or four days, the young adults are ready to mate.

Monarchs are the only North American butterfly that can "overwinter." California monarchs that are born in the late summer or autumn migrate to spots along the Pacific Coast, such as Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz. There, huddled under the shelter of trees, rocks or caves, they go into a type of hibernation through the winter. Come spring, they "wake up" and can mate several more times. Butterflies born in the spring, however, generally do not live long enough to overwinter.

"In nature, 90 percent of the butterflies that go through the cycle never make it to adulthood. They get eaten by predators or something else happens to them. With us, more than 90 percent successfully make it," Hundley adds.

For more information about Magical Beginnings Butterfly Farms of Los Gatos, call 408/395-2358.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro.

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