Henrico County VA

Butterflies Live! returns to Lewis Ginter



Walk into the north conservatory at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden between now and Oct. 14, but walk carefully because you may step on a butterfly or a caterpillar.

Every Friday from now until the end of the Butterflies Live! exhibit, Grant Howell and the other butterfly technicians at the garden will receive FedEx boxes full of 300 pupae, which will be taken into a special emergence room where behind layers of netting and two entrances the pupae hatch.

The types of pupae in each shipment changes depending on conditions in the source locations, Howell said. “I like to say I don’t know what the weather in Malaysia is like,” he said.

Butterflies in the exhibition come from all over the world including Malaysia, Thailand, Ecuador, Columbia, Costa Rica and Kenya. As many as 7,000 pupae will be ordered during the course of the exhibition, according to garden spokeswoman Beth Monroe.

Once pupae have been sorted by size, species and the volume of the shipment, attached to the foam boards and have hatched, garden officials wait for them to harden, which can take a couple of hours, according to butterfly technician Jessie Kelly.

“If they emerge in the morning we’ll usually wait until the afternoon to let them out,” Kelly said. “If they’re hanging onto the netting we know they’re ready to go.”

Doris Longwing (Heliconius doris) native to South America is one of at least 24 different species to be featured in the Butterflies Live exhibit.


As Howell gathered a large Owl butterfly from the side of a box and placed it into a mesh cube carrying case to take into the conservatory on a recent morning, he admired its unique markings. (The undersides of the Owl butterfly’s wings resemble the owl eyes they’re named for, displaying a technique called mimicry.)

“These are really great,” he said. “They’re like the charismatic mega-fauna.”

Butterflies often will be released on trays of fruit and usually will start feeding immediately, Howell said, as he placed the large Owl on a tray of orange slices.

“They like the rotten fruit best,” he said.

During the first week of the exhibition technicians released as many as 75 butterflies one day, since there were about 600 chrysalides in the emergence room instead of the usual 300, said butterfly technician Caitlin Cyrus. Butterflies are released Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m.

Monroe and Cyrus stressed how atypical it was to have 75 to release and said it was usually closer to 30 at most.

“We may only have a couple, or we may have a dozen,” Monroe said. “We’re trying to manage expectations.”

Inside the conservatory, beds are planted with shade and filler plants from the conservatory’s collection and nectar plants brought in especially for the exhibition, said Grace Chapman, director of horticulture for the garden.

“A lot of these plants are available locally,” Chapman said. “Hibiscus, pentas, lantana, and lots of salvias.”

Since opening the exhibition, more plants for Monarchs, Atalas, and Julias to host on have been added and a nursery table has been set up in the center of the conservatory. Caterpillars will hatch and feed on the host plants, including Milkweed for Monarchs. All three of these butterflies are native species.

“I’ve found a lot of people come specifically looking for the nursery because we have it on our website and kids will run up and say, ‘Look it’s the nursery,’” Cyrus said.

Beautiful jade green Monarch chrysalides hang in one case, and coontie plants with tiny white Atala eggs and freshly hatched caterpillars crawling around on their leaves sit in the other. By the end of their growth cycle, the Atala caterpillars will have grown almost 1,000 times hatching size, Cyrus said.

To facilitate the life cycle of the Atala species of South Florida – once thought to be extinct – garden officials specially ordered the palm-like cycad coontie plants.

“The idea is we’ll have them placed in strategic locations,” Howell said. “Hopefully they’ll grow back so we don’t have to buy more.”
Butterfly technician Grant Howell lifts the lid to show how Paper Kites emerge from chrysalides in the butterfly emergence room. It can take a couple of hours for wings to harden, according to butterfly technician Jessie Kelly. “If they emerge in the morning we’ll usually wait until the afternoon to let them out,” Kelly said. “If they’re hanging onto the netting we know they’re ready to go.”

‘Crash course in butterflies’
The exhibition is all about evolving and learning in the process, both Howell and Monroe said. The technicians are documenting everything they’re doing, including the way in which they covered the doors with netting so that it will be easier to repeat the procedure in the future.

“We’ll likely do this again next year,” Monroe said. “People just love it. … We learned a lot from having the tropical species in 2009.”

Cyrus, like many of the other technicians has a degree in biology, but not specifically in butterfly biology.

“This has definitely been a crash course in butterflies,” Cyrus said. “I didn’t know much when I started. I’m actually more into plants, but I plan on going to grad school and after this I now plan to specialize in the interaction of plant and insects.”

Howell said the job really meant that he had to be a Jack-of-all-trades.

“I was climbing up and attaching netting, and I care for the trees and manage the temperature and humanity for a whole wing of the conservatory,” he said.

To help maintain ideal conditions for the butterflies, technicians check the humidity in the conservatory three times a day and try to maintain as close to 70 percent humidity as possible, Howell said. During the hottest months of the summer, it will become even more important for visitors to stay hydrated, he said.

“Be prepared,” he said. “Just keep in mind you’re going to the tropics.”

Howell reverses the fans during the day to draw some of the hot air upward and then reverses them at night to increase circulation. He has also programmed special misters to spray when the humidity drops, he said.

“It’s a constant balance,” Grant said. “They are all tropical plants, but if it gets too humid it can start causing fungus growth. . . This is all kind of new to me. I’m used to aquatic insects and the like.”

Technicians also have to make sure that predators of butterflies don’t get in, Cyrus said.

“Every day we melt down the spider webs and check for ants,” Cyrus said. “Mice will eat them too, so we have mouse traps around. So will frogs.”

As a tree frog croaked nearby, Cyrus chuckled. “It’s too high up for me to get,” she said.

An intriguing visit
As visitors arrive, technicians answer questions about butterflies, help direct traffic and calm down visitors who might be timid, Monroe said.

Julie Settles and her 4-year-old daughter, Adaire, were among the visitors June 1. Adaire walked in and spotted a giant Owl butterfly with a look of initial trepidation, but when Cyrus walked over and handed her a butterfly identification card, her face lit up and she proceeded to wander around the exhibit delightfully pointing out the ones she’d found.

“She’s pretty intrigued,” Julie Settles said about her daughter’s scavenger hunt.

Walk and talk tours, family workshops, activities in the children’s park and other lectures have also been scheduled during the Butterflies Live! exhibit, as well as an exhibit of art by Laura Garrett on display from June 9 to Oct. 14.

The Garden exhibited Butterflies Live! in 2004 and in 2009. Three years ago, more than 81,000 visitors attended, and Monroe expects a similar number this year. She visited on the Sunday after the exhibition opened with her daughter and son and said that it was fun to see the exhibition as just a visitor.

“My son keeps saying, ‘I like the thermometer one,’” she said. “I still don’t know which it was. It’s funny what their 5-year-old brains pick up.”

During this year’s four-day opening, the garden welcomed 4,348 visitors, she said – three more than during the same period in 2009.

“I guess it just shows the consistent appeal of the butterflies,” she said.

Bright, sunny days are the best times to attend the exhibit, Howell said, because butterflies may roost down in the foliage if it’s too shady.

“If you come between 3 and 5 p.m. they’re kind of tuckered out,” he said. “Plus it’s super hot.”

To keep the butterflies from escaping and to comply with permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture volunteers will check visitors at the door for butterflies, Monroe said. Large bags and strollers are not permitted this year to prevent butterflies from hiding in them, Monroe said.

The exhibit is open daily from 9- 5 p.m. and admission is included with regular Garden admission. Admission is free to both the Garden and exhibit on July 4. For details, visit http://www.lewisginter.org or call (804) 262-9887.
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