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Building the Butterfly Conservatory

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How is the Museum's butterfly vivarium made?
The Butterfly Conservatory returns on Saturday, October 8. 
© AMHH/R. Mickens

The Butterfly Conservatory draws thousands of visitors each year, transporting them to a tropical ecosystem lush with vivid, live flowers and filled with hundreds of spectacular butterflies and moths. But while the flora and fauna are quite real, the conservatory is the product of careful planning and design by the Museum’s Exhibition Department, which creates a “natural” garden using artificial lighting, precipitation, and climate control.

Manager of Living Exhibits Hazel Davies, who has been involved with the conservatory for more than a decade, and her team start from scratch each year by determining what species to include and where to get the plants and live specimens.

Choosing the plants is an art in itself. Following U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, the Museum prevents the butterflies from breeding by avoiding any plants that serve as their natural hosts; butterflies are particular about where they lay eggs because the host plant will also provide food to the caterpillars that hatch. Suitability to different light levels, variations in texture and structures, and other factors are also considered in plant selection.

As for the fauna, the butterflies and moths that inhabit the exhibition—usually 550 to 600 individual butterflies, representing about 130 species—come from farms all over the world: Florida, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia. When selecting species, Davies looks for ones that flutter or, if sedentary, are especially showy, such as the huge and spectacular Atlas moth. She aims to include species that are active at different times of day to ensure a lively experience for all visitors.

Since many species live only a few weeks or even just a few days, new supplies of butterflies and moths arrive every week to maintain the exhibition’s population. Butterflies are shipped in the chrysalis stage, a period of days or weeks when they are enclosed in a hard natural shell and can be wrapped in tissue or foam and safely sent by courier. About two weeks before the exhibition opens to the public, the earliest butterfly arrivals are released into their new home, bringing a burst of color and activity to the conservatory.

Caring for the butterflies and maintaining the conservatory requires trained staff onsite seven days a week. In addition, more than 120 trained volunteers work in groups of four for two-hour shifts each day to answer questions, interpret the exhibition, and point out interesting facts to visitors, which can number as many as 350 an hour. A key job requirement is the ability to withstand the high temperature and humidity—80 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent humidity—for hours at a stretch. Those who can take the heat get front-row seats to see the effect exotic butterflies have on human visitors—awe, delight, and occasionally marriage proposals, which occur with some frequency, especially on Valentine’s Day.

The Butterfly Conservatory comes to the Museum every winter.

This story originally appeared in the Fall issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.