Here's the section on butterfly farms in Belize that's in my new Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize. (A similar article of mine appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, Caribbean Travel & Life Magazine, and Canada's Globe & Mail.)
Belize First Magazine http://www.turq.com/belizefirst/
Belize’s Six Butterfly Ranches
By Lan Sluder
Copyright 2000, 2001 All Rights Reserved
May Not Be Reproduced with Permission
It’s 90 degrees in the shade of a cohune palm, and all the creatures of the bush, quite sensibly, seem to be off on siesta. Today, I’m not expecting to see the unmistakable scarlet macaw or the rare, endangered jaguar. Notebook in hand, sweat running down my neck, I’m after gentler game. Suddenly I spot a flash of electric blue, like a neon sign against deep green foliage. It’s the blue morpho, Morpho peleides, one of the most beautiful butterflies in the world, a fluttering iridescent icon of the rainforest. Then I see dozens more, blue when they fly, at rest brown with small “eyes” on their wings.
I’m at a butterfly farm. Not one but six butterfly ranches operate in Belize now, all open to the public and all, in varying degrees, offering a fascinating look at the world of tropical butterflies.
Belize has become a mecca for active ecotravelers, wildlife enthusiasts and birders, but even the most sedentary visitor can now see the blue morpho and other species of colorful butterflies at close range, without doing a jungle trek. As you tour the screened or netted butterfly rooms at Belize’s Lepidoptera ranches, often the butterflies will land on your hands or head, as if posing for the camera.
At any of the butterfly farms, you’ll learn about the life cycle of the butterfly. It’s a metamorphosis which begins when the female butterfly lays eggs. From the egg hatches a caterpillar, or larva. The caterpillar is a small eating machine. As it eats, it grows, and because its skin cannot stretch, the caterpillar sheds its skin several times. The final molt produces the chrysalis, or pupa. Chrysalises, in some species green, and in others brown or variegated, usually hang from twigs or leaves. The butterfly slowly forms within the chrysalis, until the fully formed adult butterfly emerges, to begin the cycle anew.
Almost 800 species of butterflies have been recorded in Belize. That’s as many types of butterflies as in all of the United States and Canada combined. Each butterfly ranch specializes in only a few types of butterfly, since different species require different host plants. A host plant is the food plant of the butterfly in its caterpillar stage.
Usually the best time to view butterflies is mid-day, between about 11 and 4, as butterflies require the sun's heat to maintain their metabolism at an active level. On extremely hot and sunny days, the butterflies are more active in mornings and late afternoons. On cloudy or rainy days, they may be inactive.
Don’t worry about crowds. Even the most popular of the six farms, Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm at Chaa Creek, averages only 150 visitors a week, and that’s in high season (Christmas through Easter.)
Three of the six butterfly ranches, Green Hills, Blue Morpho and Tropical Wings, are in Cayo District, in western Belize; two -- Xochil Ku (pronounced Show-chill-coo, roughly, Maya for “Sacred Flower”) and Shipstern -- are in northern Belize; and one, Fallen Stones, is in the far south near Punta Gorda. Three farms -- Fallen Stones, Blue Morpho and Green Hills -- are involved in the export of pupas to exhibitors, zoos, natural history museums and butterfly collectors around the world. The others are primarily educational facilities. A new butterfly farm reportedly is planned for Gales Point south of Belize City.
Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm is a part of the Natural History Centre and Chaa Creek Preserve, all associated with Chaa Creek Cottages. The Natural History Centre has informative and expertly done displays on the Macal River valley where Chaa Creek is located. The Centre staff has been instrumental in reintroducing black howler monkeys to this area. The butterfly farm, managed by Martin Velasquez, concentrates on the blue morpho but also has about a dozen other species in residence. Nearby are the Belize Botanic Gardens, on 50 acres at duPlooy’s Lodge, and the Rainforest Trail, a display of healing plants, adjoining Chaa Creek. Tel. 501-9-22037; fax 2-2501; e-mail [email protected]
Hours 7 a.m. -5 p.m. daily; admission (including Natural History Centre) US$5 adults, US$3 students. Directions: To get to Chaa Creek from San Ignacio, go about 5 miles west on the paved road to Benque Viejo and turn left on an unpaved Chial Road. Follow the road 3 1/2 miles to Chaa Creek Preserve.
Green Hills Butterfly Farm, operated by two Dutch lapidoptorists, Jan Meerman and Tineke Boomsma, is considered one of the most professional butterfly research facilities in Central America. It’s the largest butterfly farm in Belize. A staff of six raises 30,000 pupae a year, flying about 30 butterfly species in a 2,600 sq-ft screened flight area. Meerman, formerly head of the Shipstern butterfly operation, is writing a guidebook to the butterflies and Belize. In a lovely setting on the road to the Mountain Pine Ridge, Green Hills also has a collection of orchids. A guided tour of the recently expanded facility takes about an hour. Stop at the new restaurant (as yet unnamed) nearby for refreshing avocado ice cream. Tel. 501-9-12017. Hours 9 a.m. -4 p.m. daily; admission US$4. Directions: To get to Green Hills, turn off the Western Highway at Mile 62.7 at the village of Georgeville and go 8 miles on the unpaved Mountain Pine Ridge Road. Green Hills is on the right, across from Mountain Equestrian Trails lodge.
Tropical Wings is a nature center involved in “demonstrating the inter-relationships of animals -- especially insects -- and plants in a tropical ecosystem in a manner non-technical enough for the lay person to understand,” says one of the owners, Judy Yaeger, part of an American team in partnership with local Belizeans. Besides well-done displays on Cayo ecology, Tropical Wings “flies 25 butterfly species and rears 20,” says Yaeger, including the blue morpho and the owl (Caligo memnon), giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphonetes) and monarch (Danaus plexippus). There’s a small restaurant and gift shop at Tropical Wings, along with a cluster of tiny but tidy budget-priced cabins (US$10 per person). Tel. 501-9-32265; e-mail [email protected]
Hours 9 a.m. -5 p.m. daily, admission US$2.50 adults, US$1.25 children 4-12, under 4 free. Directions: To get to Tropical Wings from San Ignacio, drive west on the Benque road about 6 miles to Succotz village. Tropical Wings is on the left.
Shipstern Butterfly Breeding Centre is a part of the 22,000-acre Shipstern Nature Preserve, on the remote Sarteneja peninsula. It’s owned by the Switzerland-based International Tropical Conservation Foundation and managed by the Belize Audubon Society. There was an attempt to make the butterfly operation here a commercial success, but in recent years it has become only an educational facility managed informally by reserve staff. Stop first at the visitor center and then see the butterfly farm and walk the self-guided Chiclero Trail. For information, contact Belize Audubon Society, tel. 501-2-35004, fax 2-34985, e-mail [email protected]
Hours 8 a.m -5 p.m. daily, admission US$5 (includes entrance to the reserve.) Directions: To get to Shipstern from Orange Walk Town, turn east on the road to San Estevan village. At San Estevan, at about Mile 6 counting from Orange Walk Town, bear right on George Price Street. Go another 6 1/2 miles and turn right, then go 1 1/2 miles and turn left at the crossroads. At Mile 23, near Chunox Village, turn right toward Sarteneja village. Shipstern is another 11 miles, at Mile 34, and the butterfly farm is a little farther, at Mile 36 1/2, on your right. The drive, mostly on unpaved roads, takes about an hour and a half. Venus buses go from Orange Walk to Sarteneja village several times a day.
Xochil Ku at Indian Church village is a small butterfly farm started by Nazario Ku, head curator of the Lamanai Archeological Reserve, as a community educational project. What’s missing in size is made up by the enthusiasm of the volunteers, especially the kids. The butterfly farm has no telephone -- for information, contact Lamanai Outpost Lodge, tel. 501-2-33578, fax 2-12061; e-mail [email protected]
Usually open daily dawn to dusk; admission by donation. Directions: To get here from Orange Walk Town, turn west at the town crossroads toward Cuello Distillery and Yo Creek village. At San Felipe village (23 miles from Orange Walk), continue straight through the village and go 12 1/2 miles. Xochil Ku is on the right just before you come to Lamanai Outpost Lodge. You can also get here by boat up the New River and New River Lagoon, from the Shipyard community, and there is a small airstrip near the lodge for charter flights. Buses run from Orange Walk to Indian Church twice a week.
Fallen Stones Butterfly Ranch is perhaps the most ambitious butterfly operation in Belize. Ray Harberd, an entomologist who formerly lived in the Philippines, and his staff of seven Ketchí Maya Indians from nearby villages export about 20,000 pupae annually and plan eventually to have a continual display of 35 butterfly species at the ranch. One room has thousands of blue morphos. Fallen Stones enjoys a scenic setting on a hill with grand views into Guatemala. Tel./fax 501-7-22167; www.fallenstones.co.uk;
hours 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; admission US$5. Directions: To get here from Punta Gorda, drive north on the Southern Highway (which is paved here) about 17 miles. At the junction to San Antonio, bear left on the road toward San Antonio village (unpaved after the first few hundred feet) instead of right on the Southern Highway. Go about 1 1/2 miles and turn right on the road to San Pedro Columbia village, then go about 2 1/2 miles to Fallen Stones. Watch for signs to Fallen Stones and Lubaantun on your left.