Severn man's interest in butterflies and moths blooms into an unusual career

The Baltimore Sun

Michael Soukup picked up a royal blue-and-black butterfly and closely inspected it. Satisfied that the specimen was pristine, he gently removed the wings. He put the first of several layers of resins on the wings, set them aside to dry and repeated the process.

"Most everywhere I go, people don't like the idea that a dead butterfly is involved," said Soukup, 48, of Severn. "But once they learn what I am doing, they change their minds."

Soukup is referring to a jewelry-making process he patented using butterflies that he buys from economically depressed areas in the Philippines, Africa and Central, South and North America. Using butterfly wings, he makes "Earwings" or earrings, "Neckwings" or necklaces, charms, broaches, barrettes and tie clips.

In his sixth year, he has grown his business from selling jewelry at local festivals and fairs to buying a shop called Via Chic in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Making jewelry from butterflies is clever but not for everyone, said John Watkins, the grant director for the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit Conservation International.

"We hope that people will find it more socially acceptable for people to use butterflies for such purposes," Watkins said. "But right now, people are squeamish about dead butterflies."

Soukup's passion for Lepidoptera - the insect class that includes butterflies and moths - started in the fourth grade when his brother, Tom, a sixth-grader, made him help collect butterflies for his science project. Soukup was hooked.

His interest in butterflies grew, and he aspired to a career in entomology. But after receiving a scholarship to attend Villa Julie College in Baltimore County, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1987 in computer information systems.

For about 12 years he worked as a computer programmer at St. Paul's Computer Center. He married his first wife, Rachel, and bought a house, where he found a giant green moth his first night. It led him back to collecting, and later breeding, moths.

While his passion continued to grow, his wife was diagnosed with ALS - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - often called Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. She died in 1999.

Believing life was too short, Soukup left his job of 12 years to pursue his dream - butterflies and moths.

With the vast number of butterfly species - about 20,000, according to the North American Butterfly Association - Soukup traveled around the world and met butterfly breeders and collectors.

With a collection of more than 10,000 butterflies, he experimented with various ways to use them.

Floraflies, his first design, is a decorative item that is made by mounting a butterfly in lifelike flying positions, he said. Once he perfected the Floraflies, he added jewelry to his repertoire.

Working 12 to 16 hours, he cranked out about 20 handmade pieces a day, he said. Then in 2002, two things happened - he married Cindy Tinder, and he started the Nature Depot Inc., a home-based business, and began traveling to festivals and fairs.

"He was happy working with the butterflies, and I encouraged him to do it," she said. "Every time he finished a piece, I was amazed at how beautiful it was. I had to have some pieces for myself."

With an initial investment of about $300,000, he grossed about $5,000 his first year and about $120,000 last year, he said. The jewelry ranges in price from $20 to $500.

Although sales are growing, he still meets people who get upset when they hear that dead butterflies are involved, he said.

"It's true that I am killing a butterfly to make my jewelry," he said. "But killing that one farm-raised butterfly is helping to ensure the survival of thousands of wild butterflies. It decreases the pressure to collect wild butterflies, and it helps to preserve their habitat."

Because raising butterflies requires native trees and plants as food sources for the caterpillars, the residents raising butterflies can provide for their families without destroying the rain forest, Soukup said.

"I tell people that butterfly farming is the No. 1 way to bring money into the rain forest, without destroying it," he said. "By purchasing our products, people help to ensure the survival of the rain forest, and they are helping to raise the quality of life of the native people."

Spending about $1,000 a month, Soukup has purchased butterflies from the Kipepeo Butterfly Project. It is one of the programs initiated by Conservation International that supports the people living around the Arabuko Sokoke forest, the largest coastal forest remaining in East Africa, he said.

Soukup's purchases also provide financial support to a small village in the Philippines, he said.

During the past decade, the project has made more than $1 million for the village, Watkins said.

With his business continuing to grow, Soukup has new dreams. He hopes to go international with a store in the Caribbean and wants to visit his butterfly suppliers, he said. He also wants to craft pieces for jeans and handbags.

"I was surprised when we started researching that there was very little out there with butterflies on it," he said. "So I want to put butterflies on anything and everything we can find a place to put one on."

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