Butterfly wings lift spirits of grieving mother

Booming business is a release for pair coping with son's death

by Christine Laue, Caller-Times

SWINNEY SWITCH - At the Homeyers' butterfly ranch, another monarch opens its crumpled wings for the first time.

For several hours, it slowly pumps its damp wings and ascends the white mesh sides of the cage, leaving its soft shell on the cage floor.

For now, its home is Michael's bedroom, where a stuffed dog and Oscar the Grouch are reminders of the teen-ager who died four years ago.

But life has filled this room again, as another caterpillar becomes the latest addition to Michael's Fluttering Wings Butterfly Ranch.

What began for Bethany Homeyer as a way of coping with her son's death has evolved into a full-time business, booming because of a recent trend butterfly releases at events, such as weddings, funerals and birthday parties.

Because Bethany and her husband, Reese, have one of a handful of butterfly businesses in Texas, the bulk of their business comes all the way from Houston, Reese said. They even have out-of-state customers, thanks to the growing popularity of butterfly releases and the couple's home page on the World Wide Web.

Based in their modest ranch-style home a mile south of the Live Oak County community of Swinney Switch, the couple is able to serve far-away customers by placing the butterflies in envelopes that resemble tiny origami paper hats, boxing them up and overnighting the package.

The butterflies enter a sleep state and arrive without injury - a must for the Homeyers, who know firsthand how delicate life is, Bethany said.

Michael's death

Michael was going to a dance Dec. 4, 1993, with his girlfriend and a couple he'd met for the first time that night.

"I was sitting right here that night he left," Bethany said, sitting at the kitchen table and looking out the sliding glass door. "I can remember him walking out that door."

The 18-year-old had graduated in May 1993 from George West High School, where he played baseball and other sports, and was living at home while attending Bee County College. He was the last of the couple's eight children living at home.

Bethany and Reese were awakened by a phone call at 3:20 a.m. Dec. 5.

Because they did not rear their children around alcohol and Michael had promised he never would drink and drive, they were shocked to hear that Michael had been in an alcohol-related accident.

Michael, a passenger in his new friend's car, climbed on top of it as it traveled down a country road at 65 mph, Bethany said. He was "surfing" the car, when he fell off, she said.

He later died from neck injuries.

His blood-alcohol level was .20, twice the legal limit. The driver of the car pleaded no-contest to a driving-while-intoxicated charge in exchange for probation, Bethany said.

For months. Bethany had extreme difficulty dealing with Michael's death.

As she'd done before he died, she prayed.

"I didn't have the strength," she recalled. "I told him, 'God, this one's up to you."

The summer after Michael died, Bethany, a nature-lover, stumbled upon articles and books about butterflies. Her curiosity grew the more she read.

In April 1996, she flew to Philadelphia for a daylong seminar on beginning butterfly farming.

Reese remembers how Bethany's new interest began to heal her.

"I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world because I could see her eyes light up," Reese said.

Bethany would read anything she could get her hands on and talk with anyone about butterflies, she said.

"It really gave me peace." she said. "Maybe it gave me something to focus on."

And working with nature refreshed memories of Michael.

"Michael was my nature child. He was my bug child, and my fisherman," she said with a smile.

It was a perfect fit.

The first caterpillars

The Homeyers selected their first livestock - caterpillars - from a catalog out of California. Two months after the seminar, about 60 painted lady caterpillars arrived in clear cups through the mail.

They went through their whole cycle, spinning their chrysalises the butterfly equivalent of moths' cocoons -- and emerged as butterflies.

"And started fooling around," Bethany said slyly, raising her eyebrows up and down. "They mated."

The Homeyers' experiment was a success. They had the confidence they needed to break into the biz of butterfly breeding.

While other butterfly businesses across the country generally call themselves butterfly farms, the Homeyers call theirs a ranch because they are in Texas, of course, Bethany said with a laugh.

The idea of a butterfly ranch makes people laugh, she said.

Lassos? Spurs? Fenced fields of butterflies grazing on wildflowers?

The valley where the Homeyers' house is located has cattle grazing in fields with wildflowers, and their home overlooks part of Lake Corpus Christi. But the ranch is inside their gray house, which sits on a little more than 2½ acres, about 12 miles north of Mathis.

Floor-to-ceiling shelves in one room display the progression of their livestock - from eggs, to caterpillars, to chrysalises in hundreds of clear plastic cups.

In the same room, a butterfly cage hangs with some of the painted lady butterflies, which look like monarchs but are one-fourth the size.

The Homeyers' indoor cat, Katie Kat, competes for Bethany's attention as Bethany demonstrates how she carefully transports butterflies from cage to envelope.

Michael's room

The door to Michael's room is closed to keep Katie Kat away, but when it opens, the sound of fluttering wings brushing against the soft mesh walls of their cages draws the gray cat in.

"We thought this was a fitting place for butterflies," Bethany said.

It is here that most of the butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. And it's here that they are a step closer to freedom.

A few succeed.

"We have an escapee," Reese said calmly and then went back to reading the newspaper in his rocking chair.

A few people have approached the Homeyers, saying they are hurting butterflies by releasing them into a cruel environment after they've been tamed. But the Homeyers feed them exactly what they would eat if they were born into the wild, and butterflies don't really have any defenses anyway, Bethany said.

"They're going to complete their life cycle (once they are released), but their life cycle in the wild isn't very long anyway," she said.

A butterfly can live one to two weeks in the wild, if predators, such as birds, ants or Katie Kat, don't get it first.

Helping the environment

One of the things Reese and Bethany love about their business is that they are giving back to the environment, they said. Because many butterfly populations are in danger from parasites, viruses or destroyed habitat, the Homeyers are helping restore the environment with healthy butterflies, they said.

Part of the appeal of butterfly releases, they said, is that they are eco-friendly.

Rice is out, wings are in.

Floating balloons are out, flying insects are in.

Rice at weddings can spell lawsuit if somebody falls; birds and other animals can die if they ingest the popped balloons, Bethany said. And pigeon releases can be downright messy, she said.

Butterflies also have been released at ceremonies ranging from mall openings to divorces.

Deneece Squires of Corpus Christi substituted monarchs for party favors at her 2-year-old daughter's birthday party last weekend, but because it was colder than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the children couldn't release them.

In such cases, or for displays such as those on wedding tables, Bethany supplies a wooden frame from which a butterfly cage hangs decorated with vines of silk flowers.

"It was unique. The kids loved it," Squires said. "It was $100, but it was better than buying those bags filled with candy."

A typical wedding release features two dozen to three dozen butterflies and costs about $225, Reese said. Individually, a butterfly goes for $7.50. There is a $25 fee for shipping and handling.

Much of the money goes back into the ground, Bethany said.

Hungry critters

The Homeyers' fees are largely based on the cost of growing a garden lush in caterpillar and butterfly food, such as parsley and dill for caterpillars and bedding plants for butterflies.

Though far from being millionaires, the Homeyers were able to trade in their hard hats for garden hoes. After the business was up and running, Bethany quit her job at Valero Refining Co. in Corpus Christi, and Reese quit his job at OxyChem's McKinzie plant in Corpus Christi.

By next spring, they hope to be able to hire some help and open a butterfly garden. The garden, which they hope will have three houses that would move their operation out of their home, would be a type of rest stop off nearby Interstate 37, Reese said.

Reese, who said he was surprised at how interested he became in butterflies, wants people to slow down and enjoy nature.

"I'm more surprised every day," he said, adding that butterflies capture the attention of the most unlikely people. "Even grown men, great big burly guys, get as soft as can be when they see a butterfly."

Bethany's surprises

Bethany has been surprised by two discoveries in recent months.

Six months ago, her sister, Karen Silver of Tampa, Fla., called and told her to fetch Michael's funeral program, which Bethany hadn't seen since the funeral. Bethany refused, insisting that her sister just tell her why she was calling.

Silver told her sister that the cover of the program was a monarch butterfly resting on a flower.

"It was like a reinforcement" from God, Bethany said. "He's put this in my life. He's given me something else.... I know what I'm doing is right."

Her second discovery was another type of reinforcement.

Bethany has always had an interest in American Indian culture, decorating her home with American Indian art and even deriving the company's name from the Culture "fluttering wings" is an English translation of the Lakota Sioux word for butterfly, she said. While Bethany always has thought she was of European descent, she recently discovered that her great-great-grandmother was full-blooded Pawnee.

The link to her past is ironic: Long before she discovered her own Indian ancestry, she was providing customers with an Indian legend of the butterfly.

The legend says the butterfly can communicate with the Great Spirit so if people want to make a wish, utter a prayer or send a message to God, they simply whisper their message to the butterfly, the I release it to journey to the heavens.

The butterfly, in Christianity and other religions, also is a symbol of human lives, Bethany said.

A prepared script she reads when she gives speeches reads: "As the egg, we are planted in our mother's womb. Our bodies at birth can be likened to the caterpillar in its growth stage. At death . we can be compared to the mummified chrysalis. The emergence of the beautiful butterfly is symbolic of our rebirth after death...."

"I didn't just bury my son in that cold ground." Bethany said. "That was just his body. He emerged in a new life. He's still there. My Michael's wings are fluttering."

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Last Updated: June 5, 1997: Jack Mikula / Neil Weininger butterfly@mgfx.com
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