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The Range

From caterpillar to chrysalis: Why a Wichita farmer loves raising butterflies

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Andrew Lopez
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KMUW
Ryan Malone with a painted lady butterfly.

A Wichita farmer is raising a kaleidoscope of butterflies in his Riverside home.

At the Old Town Farm and Art Market in downtown Wichita, people are in line for coffee. The chirps of starlings can be heard from trees above.

There are a few produce farmers along the edges of the market, each selling fruits and vegetables.

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Melanie Rivera-Cortez
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KMUW
Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

At the center, one farmer is wearing a bright yellow cap and a white T-shirt spotted with dozens of butterflies, which he designed himself.

Ryan Malone is a 28-year-old Wichita native and the owner of the Hatchery Butterfly Farm.

"I'm basically a farmer that grows a whole bunch of plants, but I have butterflies as livestock," he said.

Malone doesn't have any formal training or education in biology; he's just crazy about butterflies.

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Melanie Rivera-Cortez
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KMUW
A black swallowtail drinking nectar from a raspberry kismet in Malone's flight house

"They're just so fascinating and beautiful and killer. And I am in love with them," Malone said.

His butterfly journey began in 2019 when Malone was working as a gardener at Botanica. At the time, he was raising a few butterflies in his old apartment when the head gardener urged him to supply Botanica's butterfly house.

"So then I provided them with a bunch of pipeline swallowtail, my favorite butterfly," Malone said, "and I thought, … 'Maybe I could do this at some point?' "

So Malone began his business at the start of 2020 only to face a global pandemic. He had to pivot from supplying butterflies to buyers to raising them to be released at special events.

"The first year I did mainly releases for like funerals and kits, but then the next year I was able to go to markets," he said. "So I had different products then.

"And then this year I'm supplying more exhibits, too. It's just been continually changing."

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Melanie Rivera-Cortez
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KMUW
Malone's butterfly flight house.

At his Riverside home, Malone points out the native plantlife he grows to support local roaming butterflies. Plants like Mexican sunflowers, hops and milkweed, all for hosting different species of butterflies.

"So those are the plants that butterflies lay eggs on and the caterpillars eat," he said.

At the back of his property sits his butterfly flight house. It's an enclosed space where adult butterflies can fly around and reproduce without the threat of natural predators. He even installed an irrigation system in it.

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Andrew Lopez
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KMUW
A cup filled with donated monarch chrysalises.

He currently has seven species of butterflies in his flight house, all of which are native to Kansas.

Malone collects the eggs he finds in his flight house and takes them to his garage, which he turned into a caterpillar room. The climate-controlled space has boxes stacked ceiling high. The plastic containers hold caterpillars clinging to plant clippings like milkweed and rue.

There, the caterpillars hatch, eat and form their chrysalis. Once they're in their chrysalis stage, Malone ships them off to buyers like Botanica, which buys about 100 every week.

Malone said butterfly farming isn't exactly the cleanest job.

"Swallowtails, they purge their gut before they form their chrysalis," Malone said.

"And there's just caterpillar poop everywhere. You just have to clean your caterpillar enclosures constantly to make sure there's not a mess in there."

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Melanie Rivera-Cortez
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KMUW
Wandering monarchs frequent Malone's garden.

At the Farm and Art Market, Michele Williams and her family leave Malone's tent with a paper bag in hand. They just bought a few milkweed plants and a painted lady butterfly starter kit.

Williams said she's into conservation and plans to start her own milkweed garden back home in Parkland, Missouri.

"We wanted to do beehives, but we still have a fear of being stung," Williams said. "So we are all about the pollinators and trying to get this to help the ecosystem."

Malone said the transformation butterflies experience can be symbolic for a lot of his customers.

"When a butterfly emerges, it's completely transformed," Malone said. "It kind of can be cathartic, a symbol of letting go of something beautiful and loved and appreciating the change."