From the Birdwing to the Common Rose, Cambodia’s native butterflies are providing farmers with additional income. Words and illustrations by Natalie Phillips.

“Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.” So wrote Vladimir Nabokov, the infamous author of Lolita who made stories of passion his life’s work.

Those who share the Russian writer’s fervor for lepidoptery will find no shortage of inspiration in the Kingdom. Butterfly-themed attractions have been popping up all over Cambodia in recent years, from the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre and Butterflies Garden Restaurant in Siem Reap province, to the Kep Butterfly Farm on the south coast. Even the capital’s Dreamland Amusement Park hosts a small insect house amidst its roller coasters.

“Cambodia’s got a very large diversity of good local butterflies,” says Scotsman Ben Hayes, co-founder of the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, located about 25 kilometres north of Siem Reap town.

“It’s not just about colouration. There are ones that are fascinating in terms of life cycle, or because they only have one particular food plant. The Birdwing is impressive just because of its size. You’ve also got mimics that copy other butterflies.”

Hayes — who was previously involved with East Africa’s Zanzibar Butterfly Centre, after working as a field biologist in the forests of Tanzania — started the Banteay Srey attraction in 2009, along with Cambodian Thoung Chantha and Englishman Mike Baltzer. “We thought the idea might be replicable in Cambodia, both for tourism and poverty alleviation in alternative livelihoods,” he says.

The centre trains farmers living around Phnom Kulen National Park and Siem Reap in butterfly-raising techniques. This mutually beneficial relationship supplies the centre with a steady supply of butterflies and showier moths, while providing farmers with supplemental income.

“Initially they get the butterflies from us or they catch them from the wild, just as first-time breeding stock,” Hayes says. “Then once the butterflies mate, they lay their eggs on the food plants within a breeding cage. When the eggs hatch out, the farmers keep feeding the caterpillars leaves once or twice a day.”

Caterpillars are finicky creatures that will only eat the leaves of specific host plants. Given a choice between the wrong leaf and starvation, a caterpillar will always take the latter. Preferences vary: the black and pink Common Rose caterpillar worships the Dutchman’s Pipe vine, while the speckled Leopard Lacewing has eyes only for Passionflowers.

Eventually, they form into a pupa or chrysalis, which can be soft and tender one day and hard the next. Once hardened it can be handled, and even shipped in the mail. At this stage of development, the farmers sell the pupa to the Banteay Srey centre to be hatched in-house.

The winged beauties are almost tragically short-lived, with many species only surviving for 15 to 40 days. The Indian Moon Moth, along with other moths in the Saturnid family, lacks a digestive system and lives for a week or less. This short life span works to the advantage of butterfly farmers, as it guarantees regular demand.

“Butterfly farming is not a sole income for people, but they can do it part-time with other things. Women can do it and mix it with childcare,” says Hayes. “You get people who work quite hard at it, who target the high value species. We’ve had people earn more than $200 on a monthly basis, so considerably more than the local income. Some people just do it bit by bit, for an extra $30 or $40 dollars a month.”

As with tourists, there are more butterflies in Siem Reap during peak season, explains centre manager Lux Phem, who prefers working at the “quiet” farm compared to his previous job as a bartender.

“During the rainy season, we only have about 12 or 15 species,” he says. “In November and December, we have a lot of species, about 30. It’s not very hot and not very cold, it’s good weather for the butterflies.”

As well as supplying local demand — around 100 pupa are sold every 10 days to the Butterflies Garden Restaurant in Siem Reap, where diners eat in a net-enclosed restaurant as butterflies flutter about  — there are also potential opportunities abroad. The Banteay Srey centre is in the process of gaining an export licence in order to sell pupa to international customers, such as zoos or other exhibitors.

While some see butterflies primarily as a sustainable business opportunity, others simply want to share their love of the insects with the general public.

Last year, former veterinarian George Maurice, who hails from Rhode Island in the United States, opened the Kep Butterfly Farm. The retiree pays former tuk-tuk driver and construction worker Seng Eight a monthly stipend to breed and maintain the butterfly garden, located on a stream near the Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort. Entry is currently free.

“My boss is nearly 87 years old, he doesn’t want to charge people. It’s just fun for him,” Seng Eight says.

“The first time that I met George, I was not so interested in raising butterflies because my skills are just construction. But now I want to make sure people know how there are many different kinds of butterflies, an important thing to have in the ecosystem.”