Butterflies capture the imagination with their beauty and significance, but typically only for about as long as their short life cycle. Neighborhood resident Dale Clark, owner of Butterflies Unlimited, has been a loyal fan since childhood.
“Literally one of my earliest memories is sitting in my parent’s back yard with a butterfly net,” he says, quick to acknowledge that such an interest did not go down easily with other youngsters. “I was a gawky, skinny kid with a butterfly net…you know, paint a target on me,” he says, laughing.
But the butterflies worked their magic and eventually enchanted his detractors much like they did him.
“It was one of my great accomplishments: I brought a bunch of Monarch butterflies to class one day, and it got everybody hooked, and they were running around with nets. It was bizarre.”
No small feat, but his best accomplishment yet has to be the leap from hobby to profession: being able to “keep the lights on” as a butterfly farmer, he says.
To be clear, a butterfly farmer never sees his crops. Every week, Clark “cranks out” about 1,000 to 1,500 butterfly chrysalis – the last stage in the famed butterfly transformation process. He supplies many different species to exhibits nationwide. Upon receipt, his customers only need wait for a butterfly to emerge.
“You overnight them, and ship them in toilet paper, oddly enough,” he says.
Texas, Clark says, is one of the best states in the country for butterfly diversity because of the diversity of its geography.
“There are 450 different species of butterfly in the state of Texas alone, comprising over half of all North America’s butterfly species.”
Which is why this urban farmer is in the process of writing a book he plans to self-publish, titled, easily enough, Butterflies of Dallas/Fort Worth and North Central Texas. “It will be a field guide for the 150 or so species that we see around here.”
And observation is about all these creatures are good for.
“These are not Labrador Retrievers; they’re not gonna sit and stay by your side,” he laughs. “They are going to fly away.” But, “If you plant the proper plant in your yard, you’ll have a supply of butterflies.”
Surprisingly, a visit to Clark’s home will not place you in the middle of a winged whirl of color: “I don’t have butterflies; I have caterpillars.”
His backyard is a makeshift nursery amidst rows of hand-built, meshed-in cages filled with dangling cocoons that he packages up and ships off directly from his home.
“To breed butterflies, I do have to keep adult butterflies around and put them in cages because of any number of predators.”
Considering how filled with predators the business world can be, Clark is himself a survivor.
“When I tell people what I do for a living now, they say something like: “There’s money in that?” he laughs.
“If I can make a living selling bugs, anybody can find a way to make what they’re passionate about work.”
“Butterflies are what I’m passionate about,” he says. “I’m not passionate about typing. I can type like the wind, but it’s not what I want to do,” Clark says of his former incarnation as an administrative assistant.
“I just thought: There will always be secretarial jobs out there – take the plunge. That was six years ago, and it has worked just fine.
“I’m not getting rich,” he says, smiling. “But I wasn’t getting rich by doing what I was doing before, either, and this way I’m a lot happier.”