Palmira, Colombia (NTN24) – A Colombian mother-daughter butterfly export business is flying high, sending thousands of the adored and curious insects to the United States and Europe every month.
In the hills the of Cauca Valley where leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries battled during country’s decades old civil war, Patricia and Vanessa Restrepo are now raising prized Colombian butterflies, as a symbol of peace and prosperity in the region.
The improvement in Colombia’s security situation is critical to its economic prospects. The country suffered through a civil war for decades, and major cities were dominated by drug gangs. Now, although the murder rate is still five times the U.S. rate, the main guerrilla group is reduced to cattle-rustling and the nexus of the drug business has moved elsewhere.
With peace largely restored in the picturesque valley Alas De Colombia has been able to flutter, bringing with it much-needed jobs for those willing to learn the new trade.
“We develop the entire reproductive process of the butterflies until the pulpal stage, when we make a profit exporting it to butterfly exhibits in the United States and other countries with seasons, the north of Europe. We have also developed a market in Colombia to sell adult butterflies,” Vanessa, the daughter of the team said.
A team of workers start their day with the delicate task of collecting the tiny eggs adult butterflies lay in the company’s nurseries.
They then separate them and wait for them to hatch. Once the tiny caterpillars emerge, they are given a diet of flowers and fruit specific to their species.
“We come in the mornings and feed the butterflies and pick up the eggs. If there are caterpillars we take them to the laboratory. We separate the eggs by species. We see that the babies are born and after that we place them on the plants so that they feed in all their stages,” said Alas De Colombia employee, Olga Alicia Salazar.
Alas De Colombia is the only such company in Colombia and one of just 19 in the world exporting butterflies.
The idea for the business came from Vanessa’s senior thesis at a nearby Cali University where she was assigned to create a unique business.
After recognizing a growing market for butterflies at nature reserves and exhibits and even at weddings Vanessa’s mom, Patricia, decided to join forces with her daughter and actually go ahead with the project. It was then that Alas De Colombia was born.
They studied the process, life stages, diet and the world butterfly market for three years before launching in 2001.
“We determined what species had more commercial demand. We established the contacts with the possible international clients and according to that we started to breed the species what they want depending on the quantities they need. The orders are the same throughout the year. For the local market we have been creating little by little, we are breeding some species more than others,” Patricia said.
After a slow start, they say their project is flourishing and they now ship between 8,000 and 10,000 specimens a month.
The workers here, as well as 25 outside suppliers, hatch the eggs and care for the tiny caterpillars.
Once the caterpillars are ready for the next stage of their life, they shed their skin and enter the chrysalis stage, their last metamorphosis before they emerge as adult butterflies.
Depending on the species, this pulpal stage lasts between 10 and 20 days.
It is during this phase that Alas De Colombia ships the insects to waiting exhibiters and collectors who will receive the carefully packaged shipment on time to watch the magic of the butterflies emerging with all their splendor and color.
The family business has made Colombia one of the few butterfly exporting countries along with Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Kenya, Madagascar, and Costa Rica.
The local market has also swelled as consumers look for a unique gift that symbolizes health and happiness.
The business has also breathed new life to this once war scarred valley.
“We have been able to create a new area of non-traditional exportations and we have positioned our country as one of the 19 countries which exports butterflies to the United States, Europe and countries where the seasons don’t allow them the biological diversity that we have in the tropics,” Patricia added.
Some of their clients include the San Diego Zoo, the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas and the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
Butterflies have a short lifespan and their colorful wings have come into demand for jewelry makers and craftsmen.
From the Mayans to the Aztecs, the butterfly has long been a good omen in the Americas and with Alas De Colombia soaring high, it appears it will remain so for some time.
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