Butterflies

Three of the wild loves in my life are otters, dormice and butterflies.  I could be accused of being seduced by the charismatic but, in my defence, they are all indicators of healthy ecosystems, and, when your main focus is public engagement, it helps to start with something that most people care about.

Some of my happiest days are spent volunteering at a local butterfly house.  I never tire of seeing the wonder on children’s faces when butterflies land on them, or flash their vivid warning colouration within a few inches of their noses.  Sometimes visitors are able to watch the emergence of a new butterfly, or a caterpillar shrugging off its final skin to reveal the chrysalis beneath, and there are nearly always a number of different caterpillars and eggs to hunt for.

A newly emerged swallowtail in the puparium

A newly emerged swallowtail. The butterfly takes a few minutes to break out from its chrysalis then hangs upside down and pumps fluid into its crumpled wings. When the wings are fully unfurled the butterfly rests for a couple of hours while they dry.

Those who linger can witness a whole range of  butterfly behaviour, from feeding and territorial battles, to courtship, mating, and egg laying.  An invertebrate post watershed soap opera!

The butterfly house is rather like a swan, the beauty and serenity on the surface hides a fair amount of paddling underneath.  Before the opening in April a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes.  The building is given a wash and brush up, plants are pruned and transplanted, borders are weeded, and countless leaves are sponged clean to remove mealybugs, scale insects and sooty mould.

Libby cleaning hibiscus leaves

My daughter Libby cleaning hibiscus leaves

A week or so before opening the first pupae arrive.  One of my favourite jobs is sticking them onto rods ready to hang in a special glass fronted case called a puparium.  Some of the pupae, or chrysalises, are extraordinarily beautiful.  Every time I open a new polystyrene box, and peel back the cotton wool inside to reveal the contents, it feels a bit like Christmas.

Chrysalises ready to hang in the puparium

Chrysalises ready to hang in the puparium

My hope, and that of the owner, is that our visitors will be so inspired by what they see that they take a fresh look at our beautiful native butterflies, and that, maybe  for some, it will lead to a lifelong passion for the natural world.

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2 thoughts on “Butterflies

  1. Hi Gill. What a picture this is of your puparium! They are indeed beautiful and jewel like. Could you please explain how you moved the pupa onto the rod from their original location? I’m learning how to raise monarch butterflies and would like to be able to move the pupas as needed for safe keeping. Thanks

    • Hi Genine,
      I am so glad that you are learning to raise monarch butterflies. There isn’t a week that goes by in the butterfly house when I don’t tell someone about their population collapse due to the spraying of milkweed!

      We use a non toxic latex based adhesive called Copydex to attach the pupae, tail first, to the rods. Ours usually come packed in polystyrene boxes but, if you are collecting the pupae from plants, remove them with a small piece of the leaf or stem they are attached to and dab some Copydex onto that. Fix the rods onto a clean table so that they don’t roll about, it makes the job much easier. Leave them to dry horizontally for a couple of hours before you lift them. Sometimes if there are just one or two pupae we pin the leaves they are attached to onto a rod with thumb tacks. I think you can get hold of Copydex on Ebay. I wouldn’t recommend using anything else as I couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t be toxic to the developing butterfly – although I am sure there are American enthusiasts who use the same method and would be able to suggest an alternative.

      The pupae need to be handled carefully, but they are more robust than you might think. Don’t be alarmed if they wriggle. Some types even make loud clicking noises when they move, presumably as a kind of defence.

      I hope this helps, good luck,

      Gill

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