July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

Butterflies aren’t free, but they’re available

FOR CENTURIES, PEOPLE THREW rice at newlyweds with nary a qualm. But in the 1980s, problems surfaced. “Birds try to eat the rice,” says Rick Mikula, “and it can block their digestive tract.” Then balloons came into favor. “But they can drift out over the ocean and choke turtles and whales,” Mikula adds. Nobody, however, has ever choked on a butterfly, so, now, during bridal season, Mikula does a thriving business selling them—at $100 per dozen—merely so wedding guests can release them.

Mikula, 46, isn’t just some butterfly-by-night operator. His Hole-in-Hand butterfly business in Hazleton, Pa., has been breeding and selling lepidoptera since 1980. And, more than just an entrepreneur, Mikula is completely besotted by the creatures. “Butterflies,” he marvels, “are about the most beautiful things in the world.”

The son of a coal miner and a sales clerk, Mikula, a college dropout, returned to his native Hazleton in 1972 after serving in the Navy and took a job as a machinist. As a hobby, he photographed birds; then he began focusing on butterflies too.

Soon, because he felt their colors were most vivid just after they emerged from their cocoons, Mikula began raising butterflies himself.. “It appeals to something nurturing in his nature,” says his wife, Claudia, an administrative assistant at a mining firm. In time, Mikula became a butterfly evangelist, writing about them and giving seminars. Mikula is a particular hit with juvenile offenders in New Jersey, to whom he lectures on butterfly farming as part of a careers program sponsored by the state. “Rick is an unbelievable teacher,” says Darrell Carrington, who supervises the program. “He speaks the same language as the kids.” He has set up butterfly zoos, including the Butterfly Emporium at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and he sells more than 25,000 of the creatures a year, shipping them by overnight delivery (FedEx in the summer because their white trucks deflect heat, UPS in the winter because their brown trucks absorb it).

Mikula raises what he calls his livestock in seven greenhouses on three farms in Lewisburg. “When people think of greenhouses,” he says, “they think of gorgeous flowers. What I have is a bunch of plants and caterpillars.” He has 50 types in all but prefers the monarch because it is native to most of North America and its one-year life span makes it much more durable than most varieties. What’s more, Mikula is doing his small part for a species whose winter habitat in Mexico has suffered increasing incursions from humans. “Butterflies have a better chance [of reaching adulthood] being reared in captivity than they do in the wild,” says Bruce Giebink, a University of Minnesota entomologist.

Though Mikula supplies butterflies for the occasional funeral, the active season for weddings, from June to October, is his busiest time. The butterflies, which can live up to five days without food, are tenderly packaged in easily opened triangular envelopes. Adjusting readily to the wild, their survival rate on release is close to 100 percent.

Beyond the business of breeding and selling, though, there remains Mikula’s almost mystical attraction to the creatures he nurtures. “To make a wish come true,” he says, “Native Americans would whisper it to a butterfly, which would carry it to the Great Spirit in Heaven. And there the wish would be granted.”

Something no one would ever say about rice.

MICHAEL NEILL

GLENN GARELIK in Schnecksville, Pa.

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