Think spring: butterfly exhibits
By Carrie Johnson Rowlands
Butterflies have been the subject of fascination since the beginning of time. When a butterfly spreads its wings, it showcases colors created only in nature. It is delicate, yet strong. What appears to be magnificent coloring is actually, in some cases, a mirage created by its maker. When a butterfly soars through the air, it brings a vision of springtime before the eyes. It is no wonder museums dedicate entire exhibits to this creature.
There are more than 18,000 species of butterflies, with more than 1,000 native to New York. Much like humans, they are active only during the day. Another similarity is that they utilize all five senses. Believe it or not, though, butterflies eat a whole lot more than us. For example, monarch butterflies need to eat 20 to 30 milkweed leaves over the course of two weeks. Comparing the development of a human baby to the growth of the monarch caterpillar, in two weeks the human baby would be the size of a bus!
Butterflies live anywhere from two days for some species up to a good part of the year for the monarchs. In fact, the monarch is one species which migrates to Mexico for the winter, laying eggs along the way. Like all species of butterflies, the eggs then hatch into caterpillars, which in turn build a cocoon-like chrysalis around themselves and then emerge as the exquisite flying insects we are so familiar with.
But if we aren’t more careful with our use of herbicide and pesticides, the natural butterfly population could be in danger. That’s one of the reasons many educational centers and museums offer butterfly exhibits – to teach us how to maintain the butterfly population in our own backyards.
We are lucky enough to have one exhibit in the Capital Region and three others within driving distance.
(the Museum of Innovation and Science)
15 Nott Terrace Heights, Schenectady
Butterflies runs through April 19
With springtime just around the corner, miSci is making room for the butterflies. The tropical, glass-walled house sitting just inside the entrance to the museum looks almost miniature. Peek in through the glass and glimpse lush, tropical foliage and the flutter of butterfly wings. Walk inside, and a heavy dose of summer awaits, complete with the smell of flowers and feel of humidity on your skin.
Hundreds of butterflies native to New York have moved into the 350-foot greenhouse, museum space once occupied by the trains and dinosaurs. Monarchs, Painted Ladies, and Swallow Tails all fly freely around, giving you the opportunity to view them in every stage of life, from eggs, to caterpillars, to the chrysalises pinned inside the special emergence chamber.
The foliage is native to New York State and includes Cherry trees, Poplars, New York Iron Weed, Asters and Milkweed.
MiSci Director Mac Sudduth said, “Part of what we want to show people is that if they plant these types of foliage in their yards, these are the kinds of butterflies they will attract.”
The Milkweed plant is especially important. Monarchs, with their orange and black wings, are the most popular and widely known butterfly and need milkweed exclusively to survive and thrive.
The Painted Ladies, with swirls of orange, black, and white painted on their inner wings are most common and not at all picky about their plants. In fact, they will mate and lay their eggs on almost any type of foliage. They are the smallest butterflies inside the greenhouse exhibit.
One thing is for certain about butterflies: they appeal to everybody. Though the exhibit is marketed to school groups, youth groups and families, Sudduth said it’s interesting to see the different kinds of people who come through the exhibit. “We get lots of seniors and couples that are dating. They come to see the butterflies, because it’s very romantic. It seems to be something that appeals to almost everybody.”
He said many of the children come into the museum with a fear of butterflies, but after learning about them, they enter the butterfly habitat and enjoy their splendor.
The Butterfly Conservatory
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park W & 79th Street, New York
Runs through May 26
The Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History is one of the museum’s most popular annual seasonal exhibitions. It features up to 500 live, free-flying tropical butterflies imported from farms in Florida, Costa Rica, Kenya, Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador and Australia. Before you walk into the 1,200-square foot vivarium, or “Butterfly house,” a series of illustrated panels and photographs offer a lengthy education on butterfly reproduction, development, defense mechanisms, evolution and conservation.
A path, landscaped with tropical plants, leads you through the makeshift rainforest. Butterflies fly about the artificial habitat, stopping for a drink at a nectar feeding station or initiating a more up close and personal visit with you by landing on your shoulder, arm, or head. In fact, on the way out, any possible hitchhikers are detected with special, reflective mylar that lines the exit.
Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden
The Strong National Museum of Play, 1 Manhattan Square Drive, Rochester
Open year round
A humid, lush environment filled with up to 1,000 fluttering domestic and exotic, brightly-colored butterflies awaits when you visit the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden. Opened during an expansion of the Strong Museum in 2006, it’s touted as the only year-round butterfly garden in upstate New York. This 1,800 square feet of space represents a type of play called “nature play”, which benefits humans by slowing our pace and helping us relax. Indeed, a sense of relaxation comes over you within minutes of walking inside and starting down the paved path, which leads you through about 150 species of tropical foliage, past a turtle pond, and near a cascading waterfall, while some 1,000 brilliantly-colored, free-flying tropical and native butterflies flutter above.
“Most people, when they walk in, aren’t expecting to see what some 800 to 1,000 free flying butterflies might be. You’re not hunting for butterflies in plants. They’re everywhere. They might even land on you. It’s not overwhelming, like walking through a cloud, but they’re very prominent,” said Shane Rhinewald, director of public relations.
Because of the short lifecycle of most butterflies, the museum flies in up to 800 pupae from butterfly farms all over the world. As these magnificent creatures fly overhead, you may also notice several four-footed and fine-feathered friends, like turtles, a toucan, Chinese Button Quail, and goldfish. In fact, the greenhouse maintains its own ecosystem.
As you walk through, stop and take a peek into the clear glass of the emergence chamber. Every single imported butterfly arrives in its cocoon. If you’re lucky and timing is on your side, watch as the butterflies emerge. When it hatches, their wings are wet; in fact, you might even witness as they hang upside down until their wings dry.
Just don’t grab at the butterflies yourself as they are very delicate. The entomologist on staff will help you hold one or even pose for a quick, but memorable photo.
Said Rhinewald, “Be ready for an experience unlike anything else indoors in this area. It’s like walking into an oasis. In the dead of winter, when its twenty degrees outside, its nice to go somewhere warm where nature is at play all year.”
Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens
281 Greenfield Road, South Deerfield, MA
Open year round
The Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens spans 8,000 square feet and houses nearly 4,000 exotic and domestic butterflies. Walk inside the glass structure, and you will be transported to a tropical paradise, filled with the sound of thousands of fluttering wings. Being the magnificent creatures they are, it should come as no surprise that butterflies enjoy surroundings that are almost as beautiful as they are. They swoop gracefully amidst the plants and flowers, flying over the small heart-shaped pond and waterfall, perhaps glimpsing at the Japanese Carp swimming below them. “With around 4,000 butterflies, the chances of one landing on you are good,” said business manager and part owner George Miller. He advises wearing brightly colored or white clothing to increase your chances.
If the weather is on your side, step outside, and you will find a one-acre outdoor garden adorned with native flowers and trees which attract native butterfly species, allowing you to see them in their natural habitat. Admission also includes viewing of educational videos and exhibits.