This Ontario woman sells thousands of caterpillars as breed-and-release butterflies

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

It’s not an infestation, or as gross as it may seem at first glance, as the writhing 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 all over the world and are an indispensable pollinator.

The story of how Southern Ontario’s mother butterfly business took off 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 decided to watch a caterpillar transform, but when she looked online, the only place that still had it in stock only sold in bulk.

Undeterred, she posted messages on Facebook, asking other parents if they wanted to get involved.

Watson sold 250 tracks that first year.

This year? “A lot more. A lot,” she laughed.

The number will be in the thousands before the end of the season, Watson estimated, noting that she sold 720 last weekend.

Something new every day

Her clients include people from her Haldimand-Norfolk area, as well as Brant County, Hamilton and even schools within an hour’s drive of Mississauga.

Watson said many buyers are teachers looking to share the same lesson she originally hoped to show her daughter – how a leaf-munching caterpillar spins a chrysalis and emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

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

“It’s always amazing to me whenever it started out as an insect…which looks like a worm and then turns into a flying insect.”

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

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

A little nervous and excited

This is the case of Lori Stewart, who lives in Lynedoch, Ontario, 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 excited at the same time,” she said.

Stewart said she checks on her little proteges every morning and they’re “going pretty well.”

Watson sold caterpillar kits and butterfly enclosures at stops in southern Ontario. (Provided by Jessica Watson)

She described herself as someone who takes care of all kinds of creatures, from bees to turtles stuck in the road.

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

“I feel like I’m learning something new,” she said.

“I know our ecosystem is in big trouble. Bees and butterflies are in decline and we need a lot of people to help them thrive.”

Take action to help the planet

A Facebook page called Painted Lady Butterfly Rise and Release created by Watson has attracted more than 1,000 enthusiasts and beginners, who exchange tips and butterflies in celebration of photos of insects that have left their chrysalises and spread their wings.

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

A caterpillar can be seen heading towards a flower in this photo shared by Watson showing different parts of the kits she sells. (Provided by Jessica Watson)

John Boakye-Danquah, a part-time lecturer 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 the unintended consequences it might have, he said. But Boakye-Danquah said he sees the raising and releasing butterflies as an example of an individual taking action to help the planet.

“As long as it creates some kind of awareness of what butterflies can do and how important they are in our own ecosystem, I think that’s positive,” he said.

“We need more action to start. We need people to start in their own little spaces…to save the species that are being lost.”

Watson said she didn’t expect her small business to take off the way it did, 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 back into the area.”