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Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory Stays Grounded
George Miller

George Miller, owner of Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory

After six years in business, Magic Wings in South Deerfield is still growing. The business model is complicated and diverse, but the conservatory is also unique enough to attract thousands of visitors every year. And while the green walkways of Magic Wings are a far cry from owner George Miller’s native streets of Brooklyn, he says he feels right at home among the bugs and bushes.

George Miller has to keep a close eye on his inventory. If he doesn’t, it might fly – or creep, or hop, or slither – away.

Miller is the owner of Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in South Deerfield, home to hundreds of species of butterflies and moths, as well as a wide variety of other creatures such as finches, frogs, hissing cockroaches, and prickly devils. And in six short years, Magic Wings has become one of the busiest tourist attractions in Western Mass., welcoming visitors from near and far to walk through an impressive mix of flora and fauna.

He’s not a biologist – Miller has a background in construction, and grew up in Brooklyn, where butterflies are scarce. But he knew a good business venture when he saw it, and today is grateful he didn’t let it fly on by.

Miller explained that there are about 50 butterfly conservatories like Magic Wings around the world, and only a dozen of those are independent and privately owned. That rarity alone makes butterfly farms an attraction, but Miller added that there is a “build-it-and-they-will-come” nature to the business, as well. That was the first quality of the notion of a butterfly farm that intrigued him, as a builder; in fact, his former partner, Alan Rulewich, originally approached Miller merely to build the conservatory, but the relationship soon grew into something larger.

“He saw a similar business outside of Boulder, Colo., and knew immediately that it would be a great draw,” said Miller, noting that Rulewich left the business two years ago. “I felt it was best to strike while the iron was hot, but I knew to succeed it needed a great location.”

Miller and Rulewich found that location on Routes 5 and 10 in South Deerfield, a stretch that is quickly becoming a hub of tourist attractions. Six years ago, the plot of land was home to an established mom and pop restaurant, the Candlelight, which closed in 1999, at the same time the duo was searching for a location to build. The timing was perfect, and building began almost immediately.

The attraction has enjoyed steady growth, but Miller says running a company at which thousands of living things are the main product is one that is more complex and varied than even he could have ever imagined. Magic Wings opened on Veterans Day in 2000, after more than a year of planning, building, and securing a wide array of permits from various state, local, and federal agencies.

“The hardest part was figuring out who we needed to go to for approval for certain things,” he said. “But pretty soon, we realized we needed clearance from everyone, from the USDA to U.S. customs, zoning boards, the board of health … every agency you can think of. The only one that didn’t come knocking was the Department of Defense.”

New Heights

The paperwork hasn’t ceased, either. Six years ago, the conservatory consisted of one butterfly room and a waiting area that also carried gifts and garden supplies, but today, additions and improvements have vastly broadened the venture’s services as well as its size, and with every new development comes a corresponding onslaught of rules and regulations for this unique business.

Magic Wings now includes a full-service restaurant, Monarchs; a gift shop, which will soon be renovated; the indoor conservatory, which doubled in size two years ago; an ancillary educational exhibit room adjacent to the conservatory; an outdoor butterfly garden; and a casual food court and seating area, where plants and flowers that can be found in the conservatory are routinely sold.

The conservatory also accommodates weddings and special events, providing use of the conservatory and catering, photography, and a justice of the peace when necessary. To keep every task in line, Magic Wings employs up to 50 staff members, full-time, part-time, and seasonal. Those employees have titles that range from head lepidopterist, curator, and master gardener to chef, store clerk, and hostess.

All of these features draw about 200,000 visitors through Magic Wings’ doors each year, with about 20% of that represented by school groups. Bus tours are another major player; Miller said he has attended the last three annual meetings of the American Bus Assoc., and has tried to tailor his expansion decisions to what the association says its members and customers are looking for – package deals that include a meal, and something new to see each trip.

“Every year, we try to add some new attraction,” said Miller. “Sometimes, it’s huge; the conservatory expansion was particularly big, and we’ve added new support greenhouses. This year, our focus has been on the restaurant, because that was a hole that needed to be filled.”

Warming Trends

Those expansions alone keeps Magic Wings humming throughout the year, but any business with so many facets also faces its share of challenges, and Miller said Magic Wings is no exception. Some hurdles are similar to those many businesses are facing, such as fuel costs.

“Gas prices have kept our attendance numbers down some this year,” he explained. “People are conscious now of how much of their money is going into the gas tank, and they’re traveling less. If they do come, they’re spending less once they get here.”

Others, however, won’t be seen anywhere else but in a butterfly conservatory. Utility costs are sky-high across the board at Magic Wings, due to the careful temperature control that is necessary in the main room, as well as the full-service kitchen on-site, and the need to keep the entire building comfortable year-round for visitors.

“We’re going through 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of heating oil a month,” he said, noting that the buildings are heated by both gas and oil.
In addition, the butterflies need to be expertly and carefully bred and handled. Caterpillars of varying species must be fed a variety of food, which necessitates storing and growing several types of plants onsite.

“Nectar sources for butterflies are pretty universal,” said Miller. “They don’t need much more than sugar and water. But caterpillars are a different story … every one of them eats something specific, like passion vine. Some butterflies are imported for cost effectiveness, but many are bred right here, and that can get expensive and complicated.”

Various species of butterflies and moths can only be bred during the months they would normally flourish in the wild, Miller explained. If the life cycle is manipulated, the insects can easily contract and spread viruses. Any contagions that spread to the rest of the population could, in a worst-case scenario, wipe out the conservatory’s entire inventory.

All told, Miller said the cost of building and expanding the conservatory is in the millions, and the process has been constant since the venture’s inception, and therefore the pricetag is hard to pinpoint.

In addition, daily operating costs are a major concern that he hopes to address by employing some time-tested practices, like good-old elbow grease, and some uncommon measures, such as converting to corn-based fuel.

“All of our plants in the conservatory are hand-watered, because it’s more effective and far less expensive than installing irrigation and sprinkler systems,” he said. “And we’re sitting on a corn field. Putting in a corn burner could cut our fuel costs by 40% immediately. The trouble is, I don’t know who to turn to to get that approved; again, I’m investigating which government agency I need to speak with.”

Of those 50 butterfly farms scattered around the globe, Miller said he’s visited seven, and will continue to do so in search of better business practices and new ideas. But it’s still the smaller metamorphoses that impress him most, as construction continues and Monarchs Restaurant begins to attract a new set of regulars.

Winging It

Just recently, for instance, some new residents moved into the conservatory – Sugar and Spice, two horned lizards, have taken a small enclosed space in the rear of the farm, while Akbar, a Senegal parrot, stands guard as a family of Chinese button quails scuttle from one small garden to the next.

As he rounds the corner, Akbar whistles a hello to Miller, signaling that even with his Brooklyn roots, he’s part of the jungle now.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]