Teaching Tuesdays: Behind the scenes at a butterfly house

Every year, Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, hosts Butterflies in Bloom, a butterfly house that is unusual in that visitors are allowed to touch the butterflies. I am a butterfly caregiver, so here are some photos from last week, three days before opening.


This case is home to all the chrysalids while the butterflies and moths grow and prepare to emerge. How do the chrysalids get there? They are pinned. Entomologist Elly Maxwell gets boxes that she opens inside a box with sleeves, then sorts the contents. She and volunteers then carefully pin them and add them to the case.


There is much more drama than the wiggling and stretching creatures, though. One key task is inspecting the case for invaders — either from within, through parasitic wasps, or from without, through the tiny white ghost ants that pervade the conservatory. We are careful not to let any cords or leaves touch the case so ants can’t get across that way.

When the case is not open for removing invaders or ready butterflies, it must be locked. The USDA would shut the exhibit down otherwise. Visitors understand that live butterflies can’t leave, hence the two sets of doors. However, we also cannot let dead butterflies or even parts such as wings leave the building, no matter how much students or Scouts might beg. Plant material can’t leave, either, on the off chance it might have eggs on it.


One of the jobs of a butterfly caregiver is to rescue crashed butterflies. Sometimes they fall from their chrysalids onto the moisture-soaked pads below. The case is lined with these mats because the inhabitants need about 93 percent humidity to develop properly. The red stuff isn’t blood, but meconium, which drips out as the insects emerge and pump fluid into their wings.


This is a crasher. If a butterfly falls before its wings are ready, it needs to be placed somewhere it can attach itself and reorient hanging down to finish the process. I reached into the case, “tickled it under the chin” as Elly says, and waited for it to crawl onto my hand.


This is the “nursery” for recovering butterflies. That Norfolk pine is where I was trying to get my butterfly friend to go. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a good grip and fell through the tree to a potted plant blow, and this is how it looked when I left:


Here is one that developed properly but still is in the case, photographed through the glass case front:


Here’s an underside shot of another species:


Just as butterflies like it humid inside the case, they like it humid in the conservatory, which can reach 90 degrees. Hence, another critical butterfly caregiver task is watering the floor. Not kidding.


When watering or even just walking around, you have to make sure you don’t dampen or trample one of the winged residents, which sometimes hang out on the floor.


Misting fans also help keep the humidity up.


As long as visitors are careful, they are encouraged to interact with the butterflies. Remember that the wings are too fragile to touch. There are many species in this exhibit, including some from Asia and Africa, and if one lands on you, you are welcome to let it hang out there if you like.


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