She Had Eyes for Butterflies
Ximena McGlashan was a butterfly pioneer. She had a passion for the fluttering, colorful, and delicate little creatures. Her fascination for them lead her to started the world’s first butterfly farm in 1912, and to teach others how to raise butterflies.
Ximena’s (pronounced hee-may-nah) remarkable farm was located in Truckee, California, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there she supplied butterfly collectors, museums, jewelry designers and others with butterfly specimens.
Butterfly farms abound today and are profitable businesses in such diverse places as Costa Rica and Papua, New Guinea. While today’s butterfly farms are more sophisticated than Ximena’s efforts, they nonetheless use some techniques akin to those she discovered for attracting and proliferating butterflies.
She was 18-years old when she got into the butterfly business. She had graduated from high school, but was unsure what career path to try. At that time high school graduates could teach school, and she considered being a teacher. But she also had thoughts of going to college. Her father, Charles McGlashan, was willing to pay her college tuition—but there were strings attached. She had to decide, before starting college, what she wanted to study.
Mr. McGlashan was a butterfly collector, and he had written newspaper and magazine articles about the various species of butterflies in that region of northern California. On one occasion, Ximena was looking over his extensive collection of butterflies (ultimately she and he father collected more than 1200 different types of butterflies) and thought aloud that knowing more about butterflies might be helpful if she were to become a teacher. Her father emphatically stated she could make a better living catching and selling butterflies than teaching about them.
Through his writings, McGlashan had become recognized as an expert on butterflies and catching them. A collector in the Midwest contacted him and offered to buy all the butterflies specimens McGlashan could supply. McGlashan, however, was a lawyer and too busy with his law practice to capture butterflies for the man. Ximena, on the other hand, had time to spare. He taught her how to catch butterflies and not damage them. She quickly became a skilled collector.
Specimens collected for commercial purposes had to be virtually flawless. Their wings and antennae couldn’t be damaged. A few weeks after her father’s suggestion, she collected butterflies for his Midwest colleague and she made a shipment of 1500 butterflies to her first “customer”. Ximena received $75 for them.
Before the summer of 1912 ended, Ximena not only became proficient at catching butterflies, she was learning how to “grow” them. “I had…learned that by propagating lepidoptera (sic) I could increase my income,” she said. She raised her caterpillars in fruit jars, boxes and even barrels covered with gauzy material. That summer she shipped more than 10,000 specimens and averaged about $50 a week in sales. That was a huge sum in 1912 (about $1200 in today’s dollars) and as her father had suggested, she was earning more by chasing butterflies and moths than she would have by teaching school.
As Ximena’s reputation grew, so did her business. A reporter from the Sacramento Bee heard about her and visited Truckee. He wrote a feature story about her and reported that a woman could make a living by collecting and propagating butterflies.
Other newspaper articles about her unusual occupation were published, and she became known as the “Butterfly Queen”. In one story she summed up her daily routine saying “I hunt butterflies by day, sugar for moths at night, and gather food plants for my larvae.” She was deluged with requests from people in all parts of the world eager to learn the secrets of butterfly farming.
While butterflies were her main “product,” moths hadn’t been much studied but were becoming of interest to some scientists. Thus, she expanded her market—and increased her income. In an interview that appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine, she revealed, “The study of moths is comparatively new, and for this reason the demand for moth specimens is greater than for butterflies.” She pointed out that some moth specimens were selling for as much as a dollar each—about twenty times the price of a typical butterfly specimen.
To satisfy requests for information on raising butterflies and moths, Ximena and her father began publishing The Butterfly Farmer in September 1913. It was both a magazine and a series of correspondence lessons on butterfly farming. It was full of information for want-to-be butterfly farmers and amateur butterfly collectors. In all, there were 12 issues published, totaling about 200 pages, and every $5 subscription started with the first issue. One enthusiastic subscriber commended The Butterfly Farmer as containing “talks on bugology in plain English.” When they produced the last issue, in 1914, Ximena wrote, “My greatest aim has been to inspire a love for the beautiful in entomology.”
The magazine/correspondence course explained such things as how to determine what plants would attract certain butterflies. Ximena’s techniques have helped modern butterfly farmers determine which plants attract butterflies and afford them places to lay eggs.
In her periodical, she described the technique of “sugaring” a tree to attract moths. She developed a thick concoction of stale beer, rum, and brown sugar, which when brushed onto a tree trunk proved irresistible to some moths. “In a few minutes after this has been done, thousands of moths assemble on the tree…in a few minutes they are entirely helpless and partially insensible, and it is an easy matter to capture them,” she wrote.
In September 1914, Ximena entered the University of California at Berkeley to study entomology. The butterflies she raised and sold helped pay her tuition. A year later, she transferred to Stanford University and ultimately graduated from the Palo Alto school with degrees in botany and entomology.
Ironically, after graduating from college, she never worked as an entomologist. Just before America entered World War I, she married John Howard, an army officer who taught survival tactics to soldiers at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He later became a professor of military science at the University of California at Berkeley.
Ximena also never “farmed” butterflies again. Instead, she reared two children and later in life volunteered her services to the Xerces Society, an organization that focuses on preserving the habitat of rare insects.
Ximena’s quandary of what to do after graduating from high school was the catalyst for her to become the world’s first butterfly farmer. Though her methods were primitive as compared to those used by butterfly farmers today, they nonetheless were a stepping-stone, if not the foundation for flourishing butterfly farms today.
Richard Bauman has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. He enjoys
writing about unusual places and events and the people involved in them. His
latest book is 'Pranks in Print—A Collection of Fake Stories, Phony Ads, and other
Media Mischief'. He and his wife, Donna, have been married 55 years, and call
West Covina, Calif., home. His website is www.richardjbauman.com.