To be honest, it was a bit alarming—at least at first—to learn that the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science had begun selling butterfly pupae. This seemed to us an act of desperation akin to the MFAH pawning a Picasso. Happily, the museum is not liquidating its assets. On the contrary, it’s hoping to expand a revenue stream that might better fund its chronically imperiled butterfly-rearing program.
“We made a deal with them,” explained the center’s director, Nancy Greig, “them” being the HMNS board in a 2012 meeting. “We could keep breeding butterflies, but then sell some of our pupae.” Pupae, she promised us, travel quite well in boxes, as long as delicate packaging is used.
We wondered who might be interested in buying infant butterflies and the like. Mainly other butterfly centers, said Greig. She declined to say how much caterpillar capital had been raised so far, but has told us that the recent expansion of the rearing program saved the museum upward of $43,000 in 2014.
“Their wings are very delicate,” Greig told us, directing our attention to a pair of unfortunate Julia Longwings whose earthen-orange wings had not dried properly upon emerging from their chrysalises. Permanently damaged by these rebirth defects, neither would ever learn to fly. “You can’t just fix them with glue or scotch tape.”
A good portion of the 1,500 to 2,000 butterflies who call the Cockrell home at any one time are bred there, we learned, including the Julia Longwings so adored by visitors. These start life on the roof of the HMNS parking garage, eating their way through infancy in special greenhouse boxes customized for each species. Each specimen is then either sold off or left to spin its cocoon in-house, at which point it’s carefully transferred to the Cockrell’s special gestation racks. There the creatures will hang in peace until they emerge from their chrysalises, hopefully undamaged. “This year our goal is to raise about 26,000 butterflies,” said Celeste Poorte, coordinator of butterfly rearing, who said the center sold more than 9,000 of them last year. Long-term, Poorte wants to expand the number of Lepidoptera raised in-house, eventually also rearing some tropical species, like the Clearwings (ithomiinae). Many of these would stay at the Cockrell, but others, of course, would be exported. “It’s still research, but we have to keep the doors open,” Greig said. “And this program does that.”