Richmond couple finds fulfillment, beauty in bringing up butterflies
By Lou Fancher
The anise swallowtail and monarch butterflies raised by Lynette and Kevin Rivard in a series of aquariums in the Richmond home they’ve occupied since 1976 offer far more than beauty to their beholders. Married since 1975 and parents of five now-adult children and 15 grand-children, the couple finds profundity and simple pleasure in the activity.
Richmond resident Kevin Rivard appears recently with two of the anise swallowtail butterflies that he and his wife have raised in their home. (photo courtesy of Kevin Rivard) While shepherding tiny eggs no larger than a 16th of an inch long on a journey that has the harvested “babies” resting on leaves on a kitchen windowsill to become quarter-inch young caterpillars, Lynette keeps a careful eye on their progress. Placing them in a junior aquarium, future butterflies feast on milkweed, fennel or the shells of their own eggs to become plump, 1-inch caterpillars. When they go into their chrysalis stage, another aquarium holds the former caterpillars that she says at first “look black, like bird poop, but turn a brilliant green with those bright orange stripes.”
Lynette Rivard appears recently with one of the anise swallowtail butterflies that she and her husband have raised in their Richmond home. (photo courtesy of Kevin Rivard) Once encased in the pupa’s layers of protective shell (which Kevin likens to gold leaf sheets when viewed in the closeup photographs he takes), they develop, shed all but their forelegs, hatch and emerge as winged creatures hanging upside down. The couple says butterfly wings are initially shriveled, but once dry, their wings expand, their signature bold colors are revealed and flight is inevitable.
“I can’t think of anything more profound than actually seeing the caterpillar come out of the egg and go from that stage to the butterfly,” says Kevin. “No matter what stage you’re at with them, there’s another stage coming.”
Encouraged to take that concept of progressive growth into a metaphorical realm or apply it to human development, he says, “Hopefully, reaching each new stage will give opportunity to find a better place, a better way of being.”
Lynette, offered the same prompt, says, “I’m a caregiver by profession, and I’ve been watching the end of life and death for 20 years, up close. Imagine you’re on an anise bush and your friend caterpillar goes into the chrysalis and you think your friend is dead. Then it hatches and now it’s a butterfly, but it can’t tell you, ‘It’s OK, I’m still here, I’m just a butterfly now.’ In a way, it’s like the people I care for, who die and move on and have changed. People die and leave behind their bodies — if there is something else they become, how could they tell us? I think of that, even if it sounds weird.”
Arguably, thoughts about life and death and meaningful purpose rarely “sound weird” in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Lynette says setting up outdoor classrooms for kids to learn the process, another butterfly activity in which they’re involved, has brought joy as she witnesses the thrill and excitement young people find in releasing the butterflies. Kevin says that even for adults, “It’s an experience that, until you do it, you can’t understand how seeing your efforts come to fruition — they’re flying around, laying more eggs — it gives you hope, I guess.”
The Rivards for decades ran Diversified Printing, their family-owned business. Kevin most often ran the printing press; Lynette knew how to run the press and also everything else the business required: shooting and handling the film, managing the counter, overseeing the bookkeeping and more. Already accustomed to working and living together 24-7, Kevin says raising and releasing butterflies has only increased and strengthened the bonds of their relationship.
That unexpected benefit to their well-established connection brings to mind questions: What got the Rivards started in the “butterfly business?” Were they environmentalists and aware of the real threats to butterflies and nectar-spreading insects due to development encroaching on natural wetland habitats and harm caused by increased use of agricultural pesticides, climate change and other forces? Western monarch butterflies’ numbers have declined sharply in recent years, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that their species warrants protection.
“My interest got started as a child,” Lynette says, “But around 1990 my kids were the right age to understand how to raise a butterfly from a caterpillar. One of my daughters found a white thing and said, ‘Mom, I think that’s an egg.’ So we started collecting eggs. We learned it’s best to harvest eggs because if the egg hatches into a caterpillar and a paper wasp invades, a little wasp larvae grows inside it and comes out and the caterpillar dies. The window for rescue is only about seven to 14 days.”
Kevin recalls with a laugh when the oldest of their four daughters got them started growing fennel at home. Fennel is one of the plants on which butterflies lay their eggs.
“We’d drive a van to a place outdoors, all jump out and go running around collecting fennel. She was embarrassed, and she always was someone who figured out solutions. She suggested growing it at home.” Lynette adds, “She even planted it herself. It’s a big plant now, and we cut it back each year.”
The Rivards sometimes have as many as 25 eggs to watch and tend at a time. This year, finding enough milkweed to fill the three new 4-by-4-foot nursery beds they added to their home’s plant nursery took extra effort.
“We went to nurseries in Oakland, San Jose, Marin County and all the way to Folsom and Sacramento,” says Kevin.
Eventually buying 100 containers of the bushy variety that their monarchs seem to prefer — five or 10 caterpillars can go through a one-gallon container in a day — they produced and released roughly 200 butterflies this season.
“We’re still popping out one or two a week,” says Lynette. “We even have some swallowtails in the chrysalis from 2018. We’ve had them hatch three years after they’ve been in a chrysalis. I mark them with glitter glue; colored for each year so I can keep track.”
The Rivards recall long-ago family outings to Brentwood to pick fruit. Now, they say housing developments have replaced most of the orchards and that butterfly populations there have plummeted. Even so, they find hope in their little patch of milkweed and fennel. They say if people make small changes like planting wildflowers, milkweed, fennel and other plants, the butterflies will survive, thrive and return annually to share their beautiful bounty.