The doorways into the flight room at the Euchee Butterfly Farm in Bixby are hung with lengths of white plastic chain to create a kind of curtain that helps contain whatever species of butterfly may currently be in residence.
Still, escapes are not impossible.
“Whoops,” said David Bohlken, at the sight of a black and yellow zebra longwing perched on a link of chain curtain separating the flight room full of butterflies from the workroom occupied by a few industrious humans.
“Don’t worry,” said Bohlken, who manages to capture the escapee with a deft swipe of his hand. “He’s not trying to get out. He’s trying to get back in.”
Once inside the flight room — a large space housed within one of the farm’s metal buildings — Bohlken opens his hand and the prodigal butterfly flutters off, disappearing among the hundreds of other similar black and yellow creatures that can be seen perched on tree branches, dangling from leaves, hovering around sources of food, or simply flitting about, seemingly at random.
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“During the spring and summer months,” Bohlken said, “we can have as many as 20 species in here. But in the winter, we rarely have more than three or four.”
Right now in February, the zebra longwing butterflies are the dominant species in the flight room. On one side of the room, new members of the group emerge from their chrysalis to take their first flight, while others hover around a patch of passiflora, passion flower plants, which serve as both a food source and a place to spawn new generations.
Bohlken points to a sprig that appears to be coated in tiny yellow dots. “Those are the eggs,” he said. “There’s probably two, three hundred eggs right here.”
It’s just one way the Euchee Butterfly Farm is helping to ensure the butterfly population in Oklahoma survives and thrives, so these delicate creatures can go about their vital work of helping to preserve the state’s natural environment through pollinating all sorts of indigenous plants.
The farm, located southeast of Bixby, sits on the original 160-acre allotment that was presented in 1899 to Neosho Parthenia Brown by her father, Samuel W. Brown, a survivor of the Trail of Tears who later become chief of the Euchee people.
“He picked out this piece of land for his daughter, because it reminded him of his homeland in Alabama,” said Jane Breckinridge, Neosho Brown’s great-granddaughter.
One unique aspect of the land is that it is home to one of last remnants of pure prairie in Tulsa County — a 13-acre natural grassland ecosystem that has never been plowed and has been preserved in its original condition.
Within this relatively modest space are more than 400 species of native plants, animals, birds and insects, including several species not found elsewhere in Oklahoma.
The land has been been passed down “from daughter to daughter,” Breckinridge said, herself a member of the Muscogee Nation. Honoring that legacy was something Breckinridge said was imperative for her.
“My great-grandmother faced a lot of very hard times, but she was determined not to sell this land, but to keep it in the family, and to keep it intact,” Breckinridge said. “She also was the sort of person that, no matter what her own situation in life might have been, was always willing to help anyone who came to her in need.
“One thing that was very important to me was to put this land to use in a way that was going to be meaningful,” she said. “Among Native people, taking care of the land is a sacred obligation. And that obligation was even more important to me, because this land had been bought with blood.”
That is why, in 2013, Breckinridge and her husband, Bohlken, a longtime butterfly farmer and past president of the International Butterfly Breeders Association, developed the program Natives Raising Natives, a unique conservation initiative in which Indigenous people are able to learn the process of butterfly farming.
“We had three goals,” Breckinridge said. “One was to provide sustainable employment for Native people. We provide all the supplies and training that people need to begin, and all the butterflies that they raise, we buy back and use here.”
Breckinridge said about 90 participants are currently involved in farming butterflies. Although the farm puts an emphasis on serving the Muscogee Nation, Breckinridge said a number of other tribes and nations have also been involved.
“Once we describe the program and its purpose, they want to be part of it,” she said.
The second goal is provide young people with a unique, hands-on approach to science education.
“I’ve learned that there are two things that kids really get excited about,” she said. “One is dinosaurs. The other is butterflies. When we have young people come to us, you can see they get really excited about learning, because we’re giving them the chance to learn by doing.”
The third goal is to use native butterflies to help conserve and protect the region’s wild habitat – something that the inexorable growth of modern towns and cities continually threatens.
“It’s not just the big cities,” Breckinridge said. “We look around out here, and see the way that a town like Bixby is growing, and you can easily imagine that in 10 years’ time what we have right here could be gone if things continue unchecked.
“Our ecosystem is a very fragile thing,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to create and preserve these little islands of natural habitats, so that these species of plants and wildlife can continue.”
The farm also established a way station for monarch butterflies in 2014, growing the milkweed on which these pollinators feed to give them the energy to make their epic journey from Canada to Mexico.
In addition, the farm has created a seed bank, primarily for plants necessary for the broad butterfly populations.
Brandon Gibson, a program coordinator at the farm and member of the Navajo tribe, said the bank focuses on collecting seeds for plants native to the northeastern Oklahoma region.
“Because of all the clay in our soil, native plants have to be tough,” he said. “A similar species that was developed elsewhere may not have that same kind of resilience, and probably wouldn’t be able to thrive here.
“People have offered us a lot of unusual and — speaking as a biologist — very interesting seeds,” Gibson said. “But because they are not indigenous to Oklahoma, we have to turn them down.”
The Euchee Butterfly Farm receives some grants, but a good portion of its funding comes from special events it holds on the property, as well as the live butterfly displays it hosts at places such as state fairs everywhere from Tulsa to Minnesota.
The farm also sells “butterfly boxes” — examples of some of the most extremely colorful members of the order Lepidoptera artfully preserved under glass. Even these items play a part in the Euchee Butterfly Farm’s conservation process — the frames for these displays are made from invasive cedar trees that threaten butterflies’ natural habitats.
It may seem like a small thing, but those who work at Euchee Butterfly Farm know that even the smallest effort is important.
“It’s really neat to know that I’m doing something that matters,” Gibson said, “and that even the littlest thing — like planting a couple of seeds that can grow into hundreds of plants — can have a profoundly positive effect on this environment.”