Butterflies Under Glass
The main reason that I was hired to be curator at my museum was to run a display of living butterflies. The main reason that I accepted the job was to be able to do some of the conservation work that I have blogged about previously. But running the butterfly exhibit is something that I have genuinely enjoyed. The exhibit is a greenhouse, where we grow a variety of flowering plants that our butterflies use as nectar sources. People can walk around inside the greenhouse among the free-flying butterflies. This type of exhibit is becoming increasingly popular around the world. In the US, there are over a dozen large exhibits in a number of cities including Houston, Denver, Key West, St. Louis, and ours in Chicago. We fly our butterflies year round, and I especially enjoy going into the exhibit before we open on days that it’s snowing outside. I have the place to myself, and I enjoy the contrast of tropical plants and butterflies from around the world with the winter scene just a few feet away.
Exhibit Lab. The chrysalides are in the styrofoam box on the counter.
There are butterflies from about a dozen countries, including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, and Malaysia. We purchase all of our butterflies as chrysalides, mainly because that’s the easiest life stage to ship. The chrysalises arrive in very ordinary looking styrofoam boxes, and are unpacked in a laboratory. We hang them on foam-backed boards, and place them in a sealed case. In a few days to a few weeks, the adult butterflies emerge and are released into the exhibit.
Owl butterfly from Costa Rica feeding on fruit
The butterflies are actually raised on farms in the various countries where we purchase them. The farmers have simpler versions of our exhibit space where they allow the adult butterflies to mate and lay eggs. They put in a great deal of effort growing the kinds of plants that the caterpillars eat, and feeding and caring for the larvae. Once the caterpillars pupate, they are transported to central distribution centers, sorted and boxed, and shipped to people like me.
Butterfly eggs and chrysalides on a farm near San Jose in Costa Rica
Rearing owl butterfly caterpillars on banana leaves. Guacimo, Costa Rica.
Butterfly exhibits like ours are very popular, and likely to be a permanent feature of the zoo/aquarium/museum landscape. It’s a lot of fun working in this field right now, because the technology is still fairly new, and so we are still developing new methods to improve butterfly display. New species are being developed for exhibition every year. It’s also rewarding, because the industry provides a needed infusion of cash to countries in the developing world, and has some other environmental benefits.
Doug with butterfly farmers in Costa Rica
A couple of years ago, I took a butterfly farming seminar in Costa Rica. One family proudly showed us their agricultural fields. There were two small ones, one to grow nectar plants and one to grow host plants for the caterpillars. The largest- many hectares in size- was a block of intact rainforest that they would periodically harvest small numbers of butterflies from for breeding. It was more economically viable for them to use the land that way than to clear it for a coffee or banana plantation.
Life on the butterfly farm. Guacimo, Costa Rica