Hamilton

This Ontario woman is selling thousands of caterpillars as raise-and-release butterflies

For a few days this month, Jessica Watson's kitchen table in Hagersville, Ont., was covered with thousands of spiny, black caterpillars, part of a raise-and-release butterfly business she says will add pollinators to the area.

'Who doesn't want to see … thousands of butterflies flying around?' says customer

Jessica Watson took this photo of a painted lady butterfly landing on the nose of her son Leith, who was two months old at the time. The Hagersville, Ont.-woman runs a raise-and-release butterfly business. (Supplied by Jessica Watson)

For a few days this month, Jessica Watson's kitchen table in Hagersville, Ont., was covered with thousands of spiny, black caterpillars.

It's not an infestation, or as icky as it might sound at first, because the wriggling, worm-like creatures are destined to become painted ladies.

With orange-and-brown patterned wings and a scattering of white spots, painted lady butterflies can be found around the world and are a much-needed pollinator.

The story of how the southern Ontario mother's butterfly business took flight started with a simple idea.

Bored at home during the pandemic last year, Watson was looking for something to capture her four-year-old daughter's interest.

She settled on watching a caterpillar transform, but when she looked online, the only place that still had some in stock would only sell in bulk.

Undeterred, she sent out some Facebook messages, asking other parents if they wanted to get involved.

Watson sold 250 caterpillars that first year.

This year? "A lot more. Lots," she said with a laugh.

The number will be in the thousands before the season ends, Watson estimated, noting she sold 720 just this past weekend.

Something new every day

Her customers include people in her area of Haldimand-Norfolk, as well as Brant County, Hamilton and even schools an hour's drive away in Mississauga.

Watson said many of the buyers are teachers looking to share the same lesson she initially hoped to show her daughter — how a caterpillar munching on leaves creates a chrysalis and emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

"Every day you can wake up and something new has happened," she said.

"It's still unbelievable to me every time that it started out as a bug … that just looks like a worm and then it turns into a flying insect."

She has sold kits to schools and parents, but also nursing homes and a hospital.

While kids get really excited, sometimes it's the adults who are even more enthusiastic, Watson said with a laugh.

A little nervous, and excited

That's true for Lori Stewart, who lives in Lynedoch, Ont., a village in Norfolk County.

The 55-year-old bought half a dozen caterpillars for the first time this year.

"I'm a little nervous, but I'm excited at the same time," she said.

Stewart said she checks on her tiny charges every morning and they're "moving along quite well."

Watson has sold caterpillar kits and butterfly enclosures at stops across southern Ontario. (Supplied by Jessica Watson)

She described herself as a person who cares for all sorts of critters, from bees to turtles stuck on the road.

While Stewart has planted butterfly-friendly plants in her garden, this is the first time she's seen the process that leads to the delicate, winged creatures close up.

"I feel like I'm learning something brand new," she said.

"I know that our ecosystem is in a lot of trouble. Bees and butterflies are in decline and we need lots of people to help them thrive."

Taking action to help the planet

Watson created a Facebook page, Painted Lady Butterfly Raise & Release, that has attracted more than 1,000 enthusiasts and beginners, who provide each other with tips and flutter to celebrate photos of insects that have left their chrysalis and spread their wings.

"What she's done is amazing," said Stewart. "I feel like it's really going to explode and I hope it does, because who doesn't want to see … thousands of butterflies flying around?"

A caterpillar can be seen in this photo Watson shared showing different parts of the kits she sells. (Supplied by Jessica Watson)

John Boakye-Danquah, a sessional instructor at McMaster University whose work focuses on sustainability, after hearing about the project, described it as a "very positive thing."

When it comes to any project, it's important to consider what unintended consequences it could have, he said. But Boakye-Danquah said he sees the raise-and-release butterflies as an example of an individual taking action to help the planet.

"As long as that creates some sort of awareness of what butterflies can do and how they are important in our own ecosystem I think that's positive," he said.

"We need more actions to start. We need people to start in their own small spaces … to save the species were are losing."

Watson said she never expected her small business to take off the way it has, but she's glad it can help the rural community she calls home.

"The pollinator population is declining so, the more people that participate … we're introducing thousands of pollinators into the area again."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Taekema

Reporter

Dan Taekema is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. He has worked with CBC News in Hamilton, Windsor and Toronto and for newspapers around southern Ontario. You can reach him by emailing daniel.taekema@cbc.ca.

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