Fancy a flutter? Richard Torné wanders into deepest Níjar to learn more about Almería’s only butterfly farm and discovers the fascination with these colourful insects
A young girl looks on open mouthed, gazing at the inside of a small wooden cabinet where a host of butterflies in the pupal stage are being cosseted prior to emerging, phoenix-like, as adults.
It’s not all dewy-eyed amazement, though. Another girl snaps away on a large camera but flinches in horror whenever a butterfly hovers close by, her weary mum explaining for the umpteenth time that they don’t sting.
Irritating children aside, it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to say that the ‘Mariposario de Níjar’ butterfly farm is an oasis of calm and colour in the barren desert of Níjar. Not much larger than a tennis court, it’s also home to some 16 exotic species of butterfly, mostly from the Far East, and central and south America.
Two enthusiastic French women, Yolanda Renedo and Evelyne Stofer, run the place single-handedly. Ms Renedo caught the bug six years ago, during a visit to a butterfly farm while on holiday in the caribbean island of Saint Martin.
“I fell in love with the idea of opening my own butterfly farm – the one in Saint Martin was magical.” For Ms Renedo, a translator by profession, it was a “life-changing transformation”, albeit not as miraculous as the ones she’s used to seeing when butterflies emerge from the chrysalis.
It may not come as a surprise to anyone who has lived in Andalucía long, but the biggest challenge the two faced was not becoming butterfly experts. “It took us two years to do all the paperwork and to comply with regional and EU regulations. That was really hard.”
The centre opened its doors to the public for the first time in April, much to the bafflement of locals and the bemusement of some ecologists, who initially expressed scepticism about the project. Some of the local Nijareños have taken more time to adapt to the concept of a butterfly farm, however. “It makes no sense to them, but to be fair the shop owners send loads of people to us,” she adds.
It’s not hard to fathom the appeal of butterflies – they’re colourful, elegant, gentle and don’t appear to share the more undesirable traits of some of their insect cousins. Well, not all. Some butterflies feast on rotting flesh rather than nectar.
But don’t let that put you off. No other animal epitomizes life’s transience and all its vigour better than a butterfly. Perhaps it’s also to do with the transformation of something seemingly insignificant into something beautiful and life affirming.
Worldwide there are between 150,000-200,000 species. At the farm you can view the magnificent Emperor, a large blue butterfly that feasts on rotting fruit (there’s another of life’s contradictions), and the well known Monarch.
The most common question Renedo gets asked from visitors is about a butterfly’s life expectancy. “That varies. It can be as little as a day with some species like the pine processionary moth, (which is harmless but notoriously deadly to other creatures in the caterpillar stage), while others can live up to a year.”
The numbers you see vary depending on the season and even the time of day, but during my visit I was surrounded by a cluster of butterflies at any one time, their silent flight becoming a hypnotic and playful dance.
As I sat on a bench to observe them, I was reminded of Renedo’s saying which has also become the farm’s motto: “Butterflies are like happiness, if you chase it it’s beyond your reach, but if you sit and wait, it’ll settle over you.” It may sound like the sort of pseudo, philosophical clap-trap you get in Facebook or a Chinese fortune cookie, but I found myself helplessly drawn in. I’m not sure if it worked, sitting there like an awkward statue, but my wife later assured me two Emperor butterflies had teasingly been hovering over and even under me – a sure sign they were in tune with my spiritual state, she said. Bless her.
But that’s perhaps the point. In this age of noisy and brash theme parks, and the increasing demand for a bigger bang for your buck, the farm was a soothing balm. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Renedo dismisses as fanciful the suggestion that butterflies have a personality but agrees that different species have separate behavioural traits, and admits to being surprised whenever they break that pattern. “There’s no question that some species are more gregarious than others. The Julia Butterfly likes to flit around people a lot – they’re naturally inquisitive. Others lay eggs almost anywhere and I remember one laying an egg on a girl’s finger once.
“Every butterfly is a world apart,” she adds grandly. “Even their life expectancy surprises you. It’s wonderful watching them gather together at night to sleep.” Magic.
The ‘Mariposario de Nijar’ is open daily from April to November. Guided tours in English. Tickets for adults cost 8.50 euros. Pensioners seven euros. Children aged three-11, students and the unemployed six euros. Special reduction for groups. For more information, call 617692778 or 673367135. Website mariposariodenijar.blogspot.com