Honolulu Star-Bulletin Business

Associated Press File Photo
Monarch butterflies like these will be the main crop
for a new Kauai farm.

At $150 a dozen, these
butterflies aren’t free

A Kauai farm is raising the winged insects
for release at weddings, parties
and other functions

By Joan Conrow
Kauai correspondent

LIHUE - There's something about being around a bunch of butterflies that makes people smile. And as every successful entrepreneur knows, smiling customers are generally satisfied customers.

Which is exactly what the three founders of Wings Over Hawaii, the state's first butterfly farm, are banking on.

The practice of raising and selling butterflies to be released at weddings, funerals, parties and other important events, although new to Hawaii, is already a booming business. In just four years, it's grown from a $100 million trade to an international industry valued at $1 billion, according to Rick Mikula, who pioneered the mainland industry from his Hole-in-Hand Butterfly Farm in Pennsylvania and is a consultant for Wings Over Hawaii.

"This business is just unbelievable," said Mikula. "Butterflies appeal to everyone and they cross all kinds of lines."

He said demand for his butterflies is so strong that he's sold out a year in advance.

Wings Over Hawaii has leased 10 acres of old sugar land on Kauai's south side, where they will raise crown flowers and other plants in the milkweed family that the monarch butterflies need for food and laying eggs. The flowers also will be sold for leis.

Mikula, who has helped start farms around the country, said Hawaii, with its millions of visitors and busy wedding industry, offers excellent opportunities for the butterfly business to expand.

Kim Van Arsdel, who handles sales and marketing for the fledgling Wings Over Hawaii, agrees.

"We have the weather, we have the land and we need the jobs." The firm expects to be producing 60,000 butterflies per month by the end of 1997 and up to 500,000 monthly within five years. The insects retail for $150 per dozen.

Van Arsdel estimated the start-up costs at under $20,000, and said gross revenues could be as high as about $20 million annually after five years. The company hopes to hire about 30 workers the first year.

Kauai County officials anxious to rebuild the post-hurricane economy with what Mayor Maryanne Kusaka termed "creative and ingenious" new businesses have welcomed Wings Over Hawaii with open arms.

County Councilman Jimmy Tokioka, who chairs the economic development committee, is behind the project and Kusaka also pledged to seek support from her extensive contacts in Japan.

"We want this to become a craze," Kusaka said, "and the Japanese are very good at picking up an idea."

Local wedding consultants are also enthused to have something new to offer the hordes of happy couples who tie the knot on Kauai.

Adam Asquith, the firm's entomologist, said the butterflies can be shipped around the state via Federal Express and plans are in the works to open farms on the other major islands.

Van Arsdel, Asquith and horticulturist David Boucher started on Kauai, though, because that's where they live and the land is cheap. The company is leasing its 10 acres for just $400 a year.

The firm is focusing on monarchs right now because the rearing process is well-documented and they are very hardy insects, with a nearly 100 percent survival rate in captive breeding, Asquith said. Eventually he hopes to expand into raising Hawaii's two native butterflies, which are rarely seen and quite beautiful.

Asquith, who also works in the endangered species listing branch of the Honolulu office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the mass release of monarchs will have no adverse environmental impacts because the insects are already established here and have numerous predators.

Although Asquith and his partners are optimistic about the economic potential of Wings Over Hawaii, as a conservation biologist he is particularly excited about its educational aspects. He will be developing hatching kits that he can take to schools, prisons and hospital wards.

"I've been preaching for years that insects rule the world," he said. "This promotes the importance and beauty of insects, especially butterflies, to the public."

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