Encinitas nonprofit is saving butterflies

Monarch butterflies land on a plant in the vivarium at Butterfly Farms, an Encinitas nonprofit organization that focuses on education and conservation.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Vivarium helps local species survive and promotes growing plants they thrive on


Our native butterflies need help. That’s the message Pat Flanagan and Tom Merriman, co-founders of Butterfly Farms, are trying to get out.

The Encinitas-based nonprofit organization centers on conservation, education and research of butterflies, much of it in a 3,000-square-foot vivarium, which is filled with dozens of different local species, including the monarch, mourning cloak, swallowtail and cabbage white. On a sunny day, when the butterflies are most active, the enclosure turns into a magical place as these delicate creatures take flight in bursts of color or feed on nectar-producing plants.

The free-flight house is open to the public and is a popular spot for field trips, not only for children but also seniors. Preschool children get an introduction to butterflies, and older students learn about metamorphosis.

“We look at it as a really fundamental part of our community,” Flanagan said.

The organization, which was established in 2013, also works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish butterfly-friendly landscapes and helps tag butterflies to track migration. The region is home to about 150 species of butterflies, Flanagan said. Much of the research and conservation efforts are focused on the monarch, whose numbers have been declining drastically in the past years and who are representative of all pollinators.

“They are iconic,” Merriman said. “They tell us what’s happening in the world.”

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation does an annual count of the migratory monarchs around Thanksgiving. Monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to coastal locations from central California to Baja. Last year’s California count was less than 30,000, a more than 99 percent drop from the estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned to place the monarch on the endangered species list. The decision was expected to be reached in June but has been postponed to December 2020.

San Diego’s monarch population doesn’t tend to migrate, Merriman said. “We call them residents,” he said.

While the local population seems to be more stable than the migratory one, monarchs are affected by declining habitat, the proliferation of a single-celled parasite called ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), which uses the butterfly as a host, and pesticides. “We’re using more pesticides than ever before,” Flanagan said. “I grew up in San Diego, and I see less butterflies and less insects in general.” Even organic pesticides, such as neem oil, can be harmful if caterpillars eat sprayed leaves, he said.

A black swallowtail butterfly lands on a plant in the vivarium at Butterfly Farms.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Climate change is also an increasing factor, he said. Intense droughts affect plant life, and, he said, “insects and plants have a symbiotic relationship. When plants change, insects change.”

Part of the organization’s conservation effort is to help people establish their own butterfly-friendly garden, which is as easy as growing host and nectar plants. Butterfly Farms sells a variety of pesticide-free plants that will attract pollinators, including tropical and native milkweed. Milkweed, which is toxic to many species, is the only thing a monarch caterpillar will eat.

“They find the plants, just like magic,” Merriman said.

“I believe that people growing milkweed is the key to the survival of the (monarch) butterfly,” Flanagan said. Many people help raise monarchs in their backyards by protecting the eggs and keeping caterpillars from harm. Milkweed is a hardy plant that just needs full sun and regular watering.

There is much debate about tropical vs. native milkweed. Tropical milkweed contains more toxins, making the caterpillar less desirable for predators. But native milkweed dies back and goes dormant over the winter, which helps with migration and disease control.

Jace Grunow (left) and his brother Micah check out the butterflies in the vivarium at Butterfly Farms.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“In areas where there is no freeze, the tropical, nonnative milkweeds aren’t ‘flushed’ from the system, whereas native milkweeds overwinter underground with no living above ground tissue,” said Angie Babbit, a spokeswoman for Monarch Watch, a conservation group based at the University of Kansas. “So, these nonnative plant resources become something like a daycare facility that is never cleaned, and the monarchs exchange contagious diseases.”

Flanagan, 56, and Merriman, 63, never thought they’d be spokesmen for butterflies. “We accidentally backed into it,” Flanagan said.

The two horticulturalists had a nursery in Vista growing palms. They thought it might be nice to add a butterfly display and contacted the local Monarch Program. Soon they started growing milkweed for the organization through their Luca and Micaela Nursery. The nursery, which is currently growing five varieties of native milkweed, now supplies the western United States with the plants through Monarch Watch. This year, they provided about 2,700 plants to Monarch Watch customers. They also provide milkweed to schools and nonprofits free of charge through a Monarch Watch grant program.

“We grow more milkweed that anyone west of Kansas,” Merriman said.

The local Monarch Program eventually went into hiatus and closed its vivarium, which was also in Encinitas. Flanagan and Merriman decided to step into the void, opening their vivarium in 2012.

“The whole idea when we started was that whatever we learned we would teach,” Flanagan said. “We have a lot of knowledge because we do this seven days a week.”

Their Luca and Micaela Nursery funds Butterfly Farms, along with donations and grants. Three years ago, they lost their lease on the land in Vista and relocated to the Leichtag Commons in Encinitas.

Their next move will be to land of their own to build a vivarium that’s twice the size of the current one and make it a day-trip destination. “We’re looking for a win-win scenario here,” Flanagan said.

In the meantime, they are trying to reach as many people as possible, encouraging everyone to grow butterfly-attracting plants. Every year, they set up a booth at the San Diego County Fair. This year, Flanagan said, they had 40,000 people stop by.

“We think of ourselves as a home for butterflies and butterfly people,” he said.

— Martina Schimitschek is a San Diego freelance writer

Butterfly Farms

 When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily April through November

 Where: 441 Saxony Road, Encinitas

 Tickets: $6, discounts for active military and family

 Phone: (760) 613-5867

 Online: