Story of a… Butterfly Farmer
Dan Dunwoody’s love of insects took flight in elementary school, and he’s never looked back.
Show and tell. “I got my start in first grade in Miami when the teacher brought a milkweed plant into the classroom. She also brought a monarch butterfly that laid eggs, and we watched the whole life cycle. I asked to take the plant home and just kept raising butterflies, all the way through college.” In 1991, Dunwoody opened Butterfly Dan’s, a farm in Kissimmee dedicated to raising chrysalises, which he ships nationwide.
One-track mind. “When I am driving, walking or relaxing, I always notice butterflies. I’m just drawn to them.” The Ulysses swallowtail is his ultimate favorite for its intense, electric blue and black coloring. “It’s a rare find. They’re incredibly hard to breed, but I did see them once at the butterfly conservatory in Key West.”
Net income. “Most people think I run around with a net all day” catching butterflies. Truth is, “I’m raising 3,000 to 4,000 butterflies every week. That means they have to lay eggs every day.” On average, each butterfly is laying 100 to 300 eggs per day. “Plus, caterpillars need to eat. I typically start my day at 8 a.m., checking that the egg laying was good, and then overseeing everything growing in 13 greenhouses spread across three acres.” In the afternoons, he fills orders for destinations such as the Bronx Zoo and the Cleveland Botanical Garden.
Rainy day blues. “Egg laying is going to be terrible today because it’s cloudy and raining.” If he were to leave the butterflies outside in the fly area, a screened-in building much like a greenhouse, the insects would be too cold to lay. They need warmth—at least 80 degrees. “We have to round them up and bring them inside. They’re really dormant in the morning, so I just pick them up by their bodies. You can do it real quick. If the temperature is under 70 degrees, chances are they aren’t flying anyway.”
Air Show. “The polydamas swallowtail—I call them jet fighters. They’re a fast flyer. They’ll put on a great show in your backyard. Every butterfly has a unique way that they fly. For example, the sulphurs are really fast. They’re bright yellow, so they’re easy to see from far away. They are not gliders at all. Then there are the skippers, and they’re called that because they skip from flower to flower.”
Personal preference. “Every single butterfly has just one single plant that it lays eggs on.” Milkweed attracts monarch and queen butterflies. Cassia will draw in three species: the orange-barred sulphur, the cloudless giant sulphur and—a little guy—the sleepy orange butterfly. Pipevine is for the polydamas swallowtail and the pipevine swallowtail. Plant a passion vine, and you’ll attract the Gulf fritillary and the zebra longwing, which is the Florida state butterfly. Lastly, false nettles will attract the red admiral butterfly.
Plant Life. “When was the last time you saw a butterfly in the city? Really, 99 percent of the time, you won’t. If you live on the third story of an apartment building with one of these plants on your balcony, you will get butterflies. Without plants, butterflies cease to exist. It’s all about the plants.”