Like many children, Chris Hunter Hebdon enjoyed being outdoors, searching for insects on the ground, in the water, and on plants. Beetles were her favorite.
Her love of insects came from her mother, who, when she returned to school to become a biology teacher, took Hebdon with her on field trips in the Walla Walla area.
Hebdon’s fascination with creatures that crawl, fly, hop, and squirm intensified while she was a student at Washington State University (’74 Entomology), and it has metamorphosed into a growing business-the Susquehanna Butterfly Co.
From late May well into October, her booth at a farmer’s market in the Binghamton, New York, area, where she lives with her husband, Clifford, attracts people like milkweed draws monarchs. Hebdon’s net enclosures burst with color and motion. Black swallowtail caterpillars munch parsley leaves, and monarch chrysalises dangle like jade pendants from the netting.
Everyone calls her The Butterfly Lady.
However, Hebdon did not have insects on her agenda when she enrolled at WSU as a philosophy major. But she was back outdoors and looking for bugs after she switched to bacteriology and took insect taxonomy courses taught by William J. Turner. “The field courses I took from him really cemented changing my major to entomology,” she says.
For years Hebdon had a butterfly garden in her yard, which backs up to the Susquehanna River. After leaving New York State Electric & Gas two and a half years ago, she decided to supplement her income by mixing the pleasure of butterflies with business, bringing her back to her longtime love of insects.
Hebdon raises several species of native butterflies, including an estimated 3,000 monarchs. Some start as caterpillars and eggs in her garden, which is planted with butterfly-friendly cone flowers, liatris, hops, dill, parsley, and, of course, butterfly bushes. She also grows milkweed, on which monarchs depend for development and egg laying. Three large screen houses protect the butterflies.
At the market, she fields countless questions. She enjoys teaching others about these amazing insects, their life cycles and migratory habits, and how to attract butterflies to more back yards. She also sells books about butterflies, directs customers to other resources, and speaks to schoolchildren and garden clubs.
She sells monarch chrysalises and swallowtail and other caterpillars at the market and a Wild Birds Unlimited store. Each chrysalis is attached to a card containing information on how to feed and release the butterfly and which plants will encourage it to stay in your garden.
Illness prevented Hebdon’s mother from realizing her dream of becoming a biology teacher. Yet as Hebdon tags and releases a monarch and tells an enthralled preschooler how it will fly all the way to Mexico, she is living that dream.
Marlene Jensen is a freelance writer whose weekly columns
appear in The Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, New
York. She loves butterflies, but isn’t too keen on
Hebdon can be reached at email@example.com. Her sister,
Beverly Hunter (’75 Bact, ’75 M.S. Botany), is a scientific
research technician in WSU’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology