Butterfly Diary 2016, Week 3

Four longwing butterflies in a feeding dish
Four longwing butterflies in a feeding dish
It’s butterfly Twister! A fifth one was in the same feeder just before I shot this (of course); three of these are small postman butterflies

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.

A green and brown butterfly hanging upside down
Not on the floor but near, upside down on the storage cabinet beneath the emergence case

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.

Emerald swallowtail
This emerald swalllowtail likely did not live much longer; the varieties we bring in have life spans of only a few weeks

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.”

A butterfly (sorry, ID is tough sometimes)
A clipper near the frog pond … but not too near

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.

Giant owl butterfly

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.

(The most thorough ID site I have seen is at Discover Life, www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q.)

In the two photos below, you can see the underside, then the top side of the same zebra mosaic butterfly’s wings.

The very striped and patterned underside of a butterfly's wings

The top side of the same butterfly's wings, black except for a white nearly vertical stripe

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.

Four different varieties of butterflies share a feeding dish
Butterflies of different types often feed together, but this is the first time I’ve seen such a variety share a food dish.
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Butterfly Diary 2016, Week 2

A little girl asked why one butterfly didn't have eyes and I said it did, but they were black ... like this one's

Butterfly on a tropical plant

This week I’ll largely post photos. That’s what most people want anyway.

There was a lot of emergence in this, the first full week of Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom. We also had three mating pairs, which I haven’t seen this early on. For the most part people kept a respectful distance, but one woman plucked a mating pair off a marigold when I was busy elsewhere and put them on her toddler grandson to photograph. SERIOUSLY? Like you’d want to be bothered that way. And no, they were not at all inclined to separate; I don’t know how long they go at it, but some of them remained fond of each other for my entire 2-hour shift.

Mating swallowtails
Mating great yellow Mormon and swallowtail
Mating swallowtails
Same pair, side view
A zebra longwing on one of the marigolds brought into the conservatory for the butterflies
A zebra longwing on one of the marigolds brought into the conservatory for the butterflies
A trio at one of the food dishes
A trio at one of the food dishes
A Mexican bluewing whose coloring is more of a light violet than the usual cobalt blue
A Mexican bluewing whose coloring is more of a light violet than the usual cobalt blue
A starry night cracker, one of my favorite varieties
A starry night cracker, one of my favorite varieties
A different starry night cracker, sharing a banana
A different starry night cracker, sharing a banana
Another of our smaller varieties, a buckeye
Another of our smaller varieties, a buckeye
Somewhat larger, a malachite
Somewhat larger, a malachite
A swallowtail without one of its telltale "tails"
A great yellow Mormon without one of its telltale swallow”tails”
Same variety, different specimen; note the two "tails"
Same variety, different specimen; note the two “tails”
A little girl asked why one butterfly didn't have eyes and I said it did, but they were black ... like this one's
A little girl asked why one butterfly didn’t have eyes and I said it did, but they were black … like this one’s
More flying critters
More flying critters …
Butterfly on foliage
… and another …
A butterfly on a flowering plant
… and another
Mating pipevine swallowtails; note the top one's wing is so battered you can see the yellow of the marigold through it
Mating pipevine swallowtails; note the top one’s wing is so battered you can see the yellow of the marigold through it

Butterfly Diary 2016, Week 1

photo of several rows of chrysalises of different types
photo of longwing butterfly
This small postman decided the outside of the case was a fine to place to chill, thank you.

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.

photo of humidity gauge reading 99.9 percentThis 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.

photo of several rows of chrysalises of different types
A view of the “ceiling,” that is, the underside of a shelf. When a chrysalis doesn’t have silk sticking out of it to pin through, we glue on a tuft of cotton. They change appearance as the occupants grow. For example, just before emergence, those green chrysalises will darken until they appear nearly purple.

photo of an underdeveloped brown clipper butterfly clinging to a luna moth chrysalis

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.)

photo of a black and white butterfly

 

 

At right, this black and white butterfly resting near the conservatory walls had a silhouette effect.

 

photo of a swallowtail butterfly resting on a stem near the ground

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

photo of three emerged paper kite butterflies clinging to chrysalises
This is a view of recently emerged butterflies taken through plexiglass, hence the reflection. (Sorry, but humidity means keeping the case closed as much as possible.) The three black and white creatures just left of center are paper kites, true to the tag at the end of their row. The one second from left had emerged just a few minutes prior, hence the fatter body. To the right is a leopard lacewing.

photo of a hybrid longwing butterfly

 

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.

 

 

 

photo of a leopard lacewing butterfly on a light pink flower
This might be tough to decipher at first. This leopard lacewing is clinging to the flower, not flying. The redder coloration to the left is the underside of its wing.

 

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 5: A photo gallery

My favorite photo of the week, a paper kite hanging from its chrysalis.
A spicebush swallowtail feeds on a zinnia.
A spicebush swallowtail feeds on a zinnia.

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.

This shows the underside of the wing of the butterfly pictured at top, the spicebush swallowtail. This one is hanging in our “nursery” Norfolk pine for some extra attention and drying time.
This shows the underside of the wing of the butterfly pictured at top, the spicebush swallowtail. This one is hanging in our “nursery” Norfolk pine for some extra attention and drying time.

 

A Mexican bluewing still in the chrysalis case. The dark spots on the TENA pad are meconium, or waste fluid, that the butterflies expel as they unfurl and flap their wings to dry while hanging. We put pads under each chrysalis shelf and spray them heavily to boost the humidity in the case.
A Mexican bluewing still in the chrysalis case. The dark spots on the TENA pad are meconium, or waste fluid, that the butterflies expel as they unfurl and flap their wings to dry while hanging. We put pads under each chrysalis shelf and spray them heavily with water to boost the humidity in the case.

 

A chrysalis for one of the owl butterflies, I believe the giant owl. See how it’s transparent at the top? The Dow Gardens entomologist, Elly Maxwell Grosteffon, said this one likely would be emerging within the next day.
A chrysalis for one of the owl butterflies, I believe the giant owl. See how it’s transparent at the top? The Dow Gardens entomologist, Elly Maxwell Grosteffon, said this one likely would be emerging within the next day.

 

I reached out to Elly for help when I couldn’t identify this while editing and she told me it is a lacewing. Many photos show the tops of butterfly wings, so identifying by the undersides is harder. It gets trickier still because so many varieties have duller undersides for camouflage, such as the popular blue morpho, which is brown with a line of large spots on the undersides, but a brilliant blue on the wing tops. The blue morphos also are notoriously uncooperative for cameras.
I reached out to Elly for help when I couldn’t identify this while editing and she told me it is a lacewing. Many photos show the tops of butterfly wings, so identifying by the undersides is harder. It gets trickier still because so many varieties have duller undersides for camouflage, such as the popular blue morpho, which is brown with a line of large spots on the undersides, but a brilliant blue on the wing tops. The blue morphos also are notoriously uncooperative for cameras.

 

A small postman.
A small postman.

 

A giant swallowtail.
A giant swallowtail.

 

A queen, which is the type, not the gender. It is somewhat battered, likely from courting rituals. I find the orange Julias and zebra longwings especially amorous, and sometimes gently shoo them out of the nursery when they try to mate with a new insect, such as the orange sulphur that crashed with its wings furled and had trouble hanging onto the tree at all. Sadly, it did not survive.
A queen, which is the type, not the gender. It is somewhat battered, likely from courting rituals. I find the orange Julias and zebra longwings especially amorous, and sometimes gently shoo them out of the nursery when they try to mate with a new insect, such as the orange sulphur that crashed with its wings furled and had trouble hanging onto the tree at all. Sadly, it did not survive.

 

A pipevine swallowtail.
Above, a pipevine swallowtail. Below, my favorite photo of the week, a paper kite hanging from its chrysalis.

My favorite photo of the week, a paper kite hanging from its chrysalis.

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 4: Winter gives way to spring

The waterfall near the entrance is much more liquid now.
A newly emerged buckeye. While many have a mostly brown background, some breeders emphasize colorings that are purple or green, like this one.
A newly emerged buckeye. While many have a mostly brown background, some breeders emphasize colorings that are purple or green, like this one.

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 waterfall near the entrance is much more liquid now.
The waterfall near the entrance is much more liquid now.

 

As the stream by the Conservatory thaws, multiple layers of leaves that were frozen into it are revealed.
As the stream by the Conservatory thaws, multiple layers of leaves that were frozen into it are revealed.

The waning days of winter showed most of the snow pack gone, but the “pond ice is unstable” sign remains up to warn visitors.

The frogs LOVE the butterfly exhibit. It is tasty.
The frogs LOVE the butterfly exhibit. It is tasty.

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.

A giant owl on my hand, for scale. This variety has noticeable weight to it, and scritchy feet.
A giant owl on my hand, for scale. This variety has noticeable weight to it, and scritchy feet.

 

Another giant owl.
Another giant owl.

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 3: Romance in the air

A scarlet Mormon resting and one that has other ideas.
The "Sisters" sculpture is one of four purchased to remain in Dow Gardens after the Zimbabwean sculptors in residence left.
The “Sisters” sculpture is one of four purchased to remain in Dow Gardens after the Zimbabwean sculptors in residence left.

Week 3 of Butterflies in Bloom service began a little warmer, although someone thought the Sisters sculpture needed scarves.

Stay on the path, the squirrel says.
Stay on the path, it says.

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.

This blue morpho became stuck while trying to emerge.
This blue morpho became stuck while trying to emerge.

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.

The Norfolk pine where we hang butterflies that need more time to dry. I try to put them high enough that if they fall, they still will be visible so they can be rescued again.
The Norfolk pine where we hang butterflies that need more time to dry. I try to put them high enough that if they fall, they still will be visible so they can be rescued again.

Speaking of the Norfolk pine, it got a lot of new residents while I was there. How many can you spot?

A monarch. If I had to guess one butterfly that would be on this tree, it would be a monarch.
A monarch. If I had to guess one butterfly that would be on this tree, it would be a monarch.

Here’s one of them, a monarch. I call them “beautiful and stupid” because they are notorious for crashing and needing rescue.

I have no idea what this plant is. I'd like one, though.
I have no idea what this plant is. I’d like one, though.

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.

Two Julias and a great Southern white eat together.
Two Julias and a great Southern white eat together.

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.

A scarlet Mormon resting and one that has other ideas.
A scarlet Mormon resting and one that has other ideas.

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.

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 2: Lots of new friends

Sticking close to "home."
Resting above eye level.
Resting above eye level.

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.

One of Dow Gardens' iconic red bridges.
One of Dow Gardens’ iconic red bridges.

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.)

Sticking close to "home."
Sticking close to “home.”

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.

Noms. A blue morpho butterfly eating rotting kiwi.
Noms.

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.

A swallowtail butterfly taking a little recovery time.
Taking a little recovery time. (There are three other, blurry, partial butterflies in this shot: buckeyes at the bottom and at the right, and a blue morpho just off the “tail” of the swallowtail.)

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.

Got questions? Ask!

Ice and Orchids at Dow Gardens

One final orchid.
One of the orchids in the "orchid room" of the Dow Gardens' Conservatory.
One of the orchids in the “orchid room” of the Dow Gardens’ Conservatory.

At Midland’s Dow Gardens this time of year, you get a marked contrast: snow and ice outside, tropics inside the Conservatory.

When I visited last Tuesday, the restroom were under construction, so my first sight was this:

Chic and shiny portable restrooms.
Chic and shiny portable restrooms.

These are the loveliest portable restrooms I ever have encountered. Want to know if one is occupied? Check whether the light above the door is red or green. Why so nice? Duh, Midland. If they’re still there this Tuesday I’m going inside whether I need to or not.

Following are photos I took on the way to and from the Conservatory, outside it and inside. The orchids are not labeled so I cannot name the varieties, but welcome comments from anyone who can.

The iconic waterfall.
The iconic waterfall, almost but not quite entirely frozen.

 

The lovely ballerina, snowed in but not forgotten.
The lovely ballerina, snowed in but not forgotten.

 

Ice formations.
Ice formations.

 

More ice formations.
More ice formations.

 

A pitcher plant. I plan to grow these at some point.
A pitcher plant. I plan to grow these at some point.

 

A stem of orchid blooms.
A stem of orchid blooms.

 

One final orchid.
One final orchid.

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 1: Settling in

A recently emerged buckeye.
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.

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.

case

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.

jewels

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.

mat

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.

green1

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.

nursery

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:

green2

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

under1

Here’s an underside shot of another species:

under2

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.

watering

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.

onground

Misting fans also help keep the humidity up.

fan

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.

onhand