This was my last week tending baby butterflies in 2016, as Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom is nearly over. The varieties we have only live a few weeks, so when the exhibit ends, the conservatory is closed to visitors while all our insect friends finish out their short but happy lives.
The “rules” posted in the vestibule – Elly Maxwell, our entomologist, prefers to limit the rules as much as possible – include
Please keep fingers out of food dishes!
Watch your feet! Be aware of butterflies on the floor.
Please don’t pick the flowers.
Watch out for hitchhikers!
No outside plant material in the display.
I brought my lovely daughter Heather, who proved adept at finding hidden butterflies – the camouflaged Southern white covered in mist from a fan below, and the Mexican bluewing hiding deep within a plant but still in a sunny spot, below that.
(As a child, she was our “finder” when objects went missing. The Southern white butterfly eventually concerned her enough that she asked me to check on it, so I moved it to a sunny and dry spot, and it took off immediately.)
We didn’t plan to have moths this year and so our moth case isn’t out in the exhibit. Moths lay eggs quickly so we don’t want them out in the conservatory and always keep them separate. But a supplier sent us some luna moth cocoons so we dealt with it. Elly is collecting the moths for possible use in a pinned collection she is creating.
A sunny day made occupants and visitors alike happy at Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom.
One of the questions I was asked most often Tuesday was, as one child put it, “Why are you putting water on the floor?” With sun pouring through the glass, I had to do this about every hour, more often than usual.
I tell people that many of our butterflies come from jungle and rain forest environments, and while we can’t bring in all of their native plants, we replicate their humidity and temperature the best we can.
Some butterfly nicknames make sense, some less so. Crackers get their name because the males make a “cracking” sound when being territorial. The two below are a gray cracker, which is gray, and a red cracker, which is blue.
The butterfly on the right above is a blue morpho. You can just barely see the blue topside at the wing opening. If you’re wondering why I didn’t just wait for it to open, you clearly are not one of the people who has waited 20 minutes or longer for this to happen.
We had a tough combination at Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom on Tuesday: lots of small children and lots of butterflies that wanted to hang out on the floor. Besides the obvious traffic hazard, the floor was a little chilly so I moved any butterflies that seemed inclined to linger there.
One advantage of having lots of small children visit is that they are quite concerned about the welfare of the butterflies. Several of them called me over to look at an emerald swalllowtail that was motionless on a leaf. It was battered but not quite dead, so I gently scooped it up and promised to put it in a protected area (which I did), and reminded them that the butterflies don’t live a long time, so this one might just have been 85 in butterfly years.
Just after this, a boy about first grade came up, softly took me by the hand and led me to the object of his concern, a black crumpled object in a puddle below a misting fan.
“That’s a dead leaf. It’s OK,” I told him.
“I thought it was a butterfly.”
“No, it’s a leaf, but thank you. That was important for you to tell me. Good job.”
We also had a few butterflies that hadn’t developed properly, but were strong enough to fly around and find food. One orange Julia in particular was a bit wrinkled and a little slower than it should have been, so when I found one child preparing to hand it off to another, I pointed out how its wings were not quite as flat as they should have been and asked them to be extra careful.
The giant owl below was a worse off example, and it kept falling to the floor. I ended up moving it to our orchid room, where at least if it fell again it would land on dirt, not concrete.
Identifying butterflies as opposed to other creatures is especially interesting because they can offer two very different views, depending on whether you see the top or underside of their wings. One of the most striking examples we have is the blue morpho, which is brown with an outer row of spots on the underside, but a brilliant blue on the top.
In the two photos below, you can see the underside, then the top side of the same zebra mosaic butterfly’s wings.
We get visitors who are quite serious about photography, with equipment to match. I often ask them if there is any particular variety they are seeking, and usually they’re just looking for whatever is new.
One gentleman, though, was focused on finding a clearwing. I had seen one in the emergence case and when I was letting out numerous other small butterflies, I called him over and pointed it out on the underside of a shelf.
“Do you want to shoot it here before I let it out, so you can be sure you have it?” He shook his head and I realized he needed it in a natural environment, so I released it and we watched together to see where it landed.
(Just after that a 9ish boy on the opposite side of the case tapped the glass and asked me if I would get out the red and black swallowtail that was shivering there. “Sorry, that one’s not ready.” Case relocked.)
The clearwing conveniently landed on a plant just below shoulder height, and soon there were several photographers gathered, politely taking their turns at the angles they wanted. After a few minutes, the gentleman showed me one of the many photos he had taken of the clearwing and explained that he and another gentleman he had met about 20 years ago had started shooting butterflies at the annual exhibit at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, but then had started traveling to Midland as well.
“Mine’s better,” he said of his photo.
“Oh, so you compete to see who can get the best shot of each variety,” I said, smiling and nodding.
He wouldn’t confirm it aloud, but his sly smile spoke for him.
It’s time for the best 8 weeks of volunteering I will spend all year: tending baby butterflies.
This is the quietest week of Butterflies in Bloom, because the exhibit isn’t open to the public yet. Friday morning it will be; get all the details at www.dowgardens.org/butterflies.
What is there to do with no visitors? The usual: check the chrysalis case for parasites, check further to see who has emerged and if anyone is in trouble, then water the floor. Seriously, because so many of the species we get are jungle and rainforest dwellers, we keep the humidity in the conservatory cranked, so in addition to running the misting fans, we water the floor, which is mostly brick.
This puppy at left (haha!) displays the humidity inside the chrysalis case, with readings updated every 15 minutes.
I release butterflies when they are flying about quite actively, practically beating the glass. How long this takes is closely tied to size. Smaller butterflies might take a couple of hours to fully extend and dry their wings, while some of our largest varieties can take half a day.
I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story, but if you have questions, by all means ask in the comments. And check back the next seven Wednesdays for more butterfly photos.
This guy bummed me out because I don’t think he’s going to make it. This is a brown clipper that got stuck emerging, so the wings were out and starting to dry, but they weren’t completely unfolded because the abdomen was stuck in the chrysalis. I watched him struggle for several minutes, wishing our fabulous entomologist would walk in and save the day, but she didn’t so I unpinned him and gently scraped away the paper-thin trap. Unfortunately, the struggle might have exhausted him, because he didn’t move much after that, although I did see him uncurling and curling his proboscis about an hour and a half later just before I left. (I’m saying “he” but truly I don’t know. Some are easier to tell than others.)
At right, this black and white butterfly resting near the conservatory walls had a silhouette effect.
Some butterflies prefer being close to the ground, like this swallowtail at right. As long as this doesn’t place them near the emergency exit, which carries a wicked breeze beneath it this time of year, near or even on pavement is fine.
Some of our butterflies are hybrids of two varieties, like this longwing at right. This is near the small pond, home to a pair of quite old frogs who have learned to love this annual exhibit.
A sunny day meant lots of emergence for Butterflies in Bloom this week. When the temperature hit 85 in the Conservatory, the vents opened, so keeping the floors wet was a challenge this week. I still managed to squeeze in a few photos, and stayed after my shift to try for a few more.
A sunny day in the Dow Gardens Conservatory meant lots of butterflies emerging this week. Visitors still were frustrated by the blue morphos, which seem to know when a camera isn’t ready to capture the striking blue topsides of their wings, and instead present the interestingly patterned but quite brown undersides.
I felt their pain. Among the varieties I saw but didn’t get were a queen (my own fault, I put one in the nursery tree but forgot to shoot it), Mexican bluewing, tailed jay and the tiny but striking Atala hairstreak.
Of course, the climate indoors and that outdoors were quite different.
The waning days of winter showed most of the snow pack gone, but the “pond ice is unstable” sign remains up to warn visitors.
Back indoors, one of the frogs came out to sun itself, which was fun to point out to the kids. Usually the frogs stay in the pond and are much harder to spot, although “Can you find the frogs?” is a great question to ask kids who can’t seem to settle down.
Among the largest babies of Butterflies in Bloom are the giant owls, below. The exhibit continues through April 19.
Week 3 of Butterflies in Bloom service began a little warmer, although someone thought the Sisters sculpture needed scarves.
I haven’t seen any chipmunks or deer, but a squirrel was eyeing me closely.
Inside the Conservatory, the volunteer going off shift told me that two visitors were waiting for a blue morpho to emerge … and waiting … and waiting. After I had been there half an hour, the woman wanted to leave but she was afraid it would come out as soon as they turned away.
I told her that at this point, the poor thing was stuck and would not be emerging any further. If a chrysalis falls from a shelf with a butterfly partially emerged, I’ll retrieve it, scrape the chrysalis away and hang the butterfly in our handy “hospital tree,” a Norfolk pine behind the emergence case. The undersides of the shelves, though, are so full and busy that I won’t interfere there.
Speaking of the Norfolk pine, it got a lot of new residents while I was there. How many can you spot?
Here’s one of them, a monarch. I call them “beautiful and stupid” because they are notorious for crashing and needing rescue.
The Conservatory, by the way, is full of fabulous tropical plants. I wish they were labeled like the ones in the rest of Dow Gardens and plan to ask why they aren’t. I’d be happy to help tag.
So far the butterflies have been relatively unmolested in the food dishes. I’ve had a few children try to coax them onto fingers while they were feeding on flowers, and I point out that just like you don’t bother dogs when they’re eating, you should let the butterflies finish their meals.
I also saw signs of mating behavior for the first time this week. The scarlet Mormon above was in the tree for a reason and needed more recovery time, so I was annoyed when another butterfly came around with other things on its tiny little mind. But their lives are short, so hey. There also was a pair of Julias mating, with another butterfly on deck, so to speak; we do see trios close together sometimes.
As opposed to the first week, when the bitter cold outdoors made it difficult to keep the humidity in the Conservatory high enough, there were lots of new butterflies emerging, perhaps a dozen just in the two hours I was there.
That doesn’t mean the cold has passed. Far from it as you can see above, with snow surrounding the red bridge that leads to the exhibit. (Dow Gardens also has a fully barrier-free streamside path that leads to Butterflies in Bloom, but I alternate routes.)
Sometimes even when butterflies are quite strong, they don’t go far after being released from the emergence case. This one decided that chilling on the case’s back door was just fine.
We had several blue morphos emerge, which made me happy because they are a visitor favorite. They are our largest butterfly; one is pictured above on a delicacy, rotting kiwi. When it opens its wings, the “top” sides are a beautiful blue.
Some species take longer than others to be dry and strong. Swallowtails, like the one above on the Nordic pine in the nursery area, sometimes shake as if they are chilly. Monarchs are notorious for crashing and needing quick rescue, and the blue morphos are so large that they make take half a day before they are ready for release, while some small species are vigorously flying about inside the case in two hours or less.
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:
Do not chase the butterflies.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
When we do open the case, spray the absorbent pads lining the bottoms with water.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Wet. Not bad on a small scale, but this was puddle wet, enough to make wings waterlogged and useless.
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.
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.