Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 1: Settling in

Butterflies this year include the chocolate pansy on the right, perched on the lock of the case.
Butterflies this year include the chocolate pansy on the right, perched on the lock of the case.

It’s butterfly time!

The annual Butterflies in Bloom exhibit at Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, is eagerly anticipated. Visitors range from classrooms of preschoolers to busloads of seniors, families to photographers. Unlike some other butterfly exhibits, visitors are allowed and even encouraged to touch the butterflies. With that in mind, a few quick guidelines if you go:

  1. Do not chase the butterflies.
  2. Do not grab the butterflies or touch their wings. Let them land on you, or put your finger in front of one and wait for it to crawl onto you.
  3. Do not bother them while they are eating. Seriously, I have to tell adults this, not just on flowers but on what could only be food dishes.
  4. Do not pout if a certain one doesn’t land on you. Some are more sociable than others; hold still and wait for a different one.

Last week I had my first volunteer shift of the season, before the exhibit opened to the public. The entomologist, the fabulous Elly Grosteffon, had told me that the bitter cold had made it hard to keep the humidity up high enough, so only about a dozen had emerged.

Inside the butterfly case.
Inside the butterfly emergence case.

Sure enough, there were only a few flying around the conservatory. I checked for the other expected occupants; the canaries and frogs remained, but when the canaries became noisy I couldn’t hear the Chinese quail calling in return, and learned it had died of natural causes. Another change from last year: no moths, taking a break.

With no visitors yet, I had essentially two jobs: monitor the case for emerging butterflies and water the floor. The conservatory is always warm and humid, but butterflies need insanely high humidity like 96 percent to thrive, so we do several things to help:

  1. Keep their case closed as much as possible. Even when there are several that are flying vigorously and seem ready to be let out, I do it in batches, which I think of as “Everybody out of the pool!” If you’re strong you’re coming out, if not you’re waiting.
  2. When we do open the case, spray the absorbent pads lining the bottoms with water.
  3. Water the floor. Water the floor. Water the floor, with a hose if possible or with watering cans if there are lots of visitors. Preschool girls in particular love to help so I let them, even though they can only lug watering cans that are half full.

There also are misting fans over which we have no control. We do NOT water the plants, which have their own tender. Yes, I am jealous of his cool job.

A recently emerged buckeye.
A recently emerged buckeye.

This little one was strong and ready to come out. It crawled onto my finger and got comfy, requiring some coaxing to leave for more appropriate plant material.

A crasher who sadly did not survive.
A crasher who sadly did not survive.

This one was not so fortunate. It was struggling to emerge and then fell to the floor of the case. Sometimes “crashers” can be placed in the protected area we have behind the case and do just fine. I gently scraped away the rest of this one’s chrysalis as quickly as I could and hung it in a Norfolk pine, where I kept watch but its wings remained crumpled. When I checked with Elly later, she proclaimed it done for, saying it had started emerging quite a while earlier but must have gotten stuck and had its wings start to dry folded; that can’t be reversed.

This one fared better.
This one fared better.

If we can retrieve them while their wings are still wet, their chances are good. That was the case with this one, which I saw fall as it emerged and scooped out right away.

Norfolk pine to the rescue.
Norfolk pine to the rescue.

I coaxed it into hanging and it immediately began the process of unfurling and flapping its wings, looking better quickly. If you see a “butterfly nursery” sign next to the case that indicates visitors shouldn’t move past it, these are the creatures we’re protecting.

And then there's this.
And then there’s this.

We also have to protect butterflies from themselves. Why? They can be stupid. Not only are some of them babies, but just imagine the brain size.

The one pictured above is a case in point. I looked at the tree and saw that someone I had placed there was missing. Sometimes they fall onto lower branches; nope. No, this one had gone as full out stupid as it could get and gone for the concrete floor. Stupid why?

  1. Cold.
  2. Wet. Not bad on a small scale, but this was puddle wet, enough to make wings waterlogged and useless.
  3. Ants. There weren’t any lurking this day, but if an injured butterfly stays on the floor long enough, ants might start into it. We keep parasites out of the emergence case, but we can’t keep ants out of the entire conservatory.
  4. IT’S. A. FLOOR. People expect to see butterflies flying, not crawling. Whenever there are large groups, we warn them to watch their step just in case.

I’m volunteering Tuesdays from noon to 2 p.m. through April 14, so if you’re visiting during that time say hi. You can’t miss me; I’ll be wearing a fluorescent green volunteer shirt with #DGBFLY printed on the front.

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