When Butterflies in Bloom extended to Wednesday evenings, it was one of my favorite times to volunteer because the residents would start roosting … cuddling up for bedtime, I would tell young children. This is from the sole Wednesday shift I was able to work this year, around 5 p.m. March 11. No word yet on whether we can open for the last scheduled week of the exhibit.
Sometimes they just get attached. I’ve seen children charmed that a butterfly remains on their clothing or even a finger for 20 minutes. Many, of course, do no such thing. Butterflies in Bloom remains closed through April 5, but at the moment we volunteers still hope to be back at our posts for the two final scheduled weeks.
A swallowtail friend in the chrysalis case last Wednesday. Dow Gardens had to close the Butterflies in Bloom exhibit to the public through April 5, so I’ll be dribbling out the photos I took on the only volunteer shift I was able to get in. Gardens staffers are tending the insects in case the Gardens and Conservatory can reopen for the last two scheduled weeks of butterflies.
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.