Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Desert Butterflies

As Seattle endured a late blast of cold weather and a mild dusting of snow last week, peripatetic Life Sciences Volunteer, Terry Pagos, vacationed in sunny Arizona. One of the highlights of her trip was a visit to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Here's why.

Not only do I love to visit butterfly exhibits in different places, I also try to learn the different husbandry techniques and hopefully, bring back new ideas for our Tropical Butterfly House. My visit to the Desert Botanical Garden’s Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Butterfly Pavilion in Phoenix was no exception.

The primary difference between Pacific Science Center’s Tropical Butterfly House and the DBG Butterfly Pavilion is that ours is an indoor garden conservatory whereas theirs is a screened-in structure, exposed to the elements. The outdoor temperature really matters for this exhibit. A netted tent-like building makes sense in a desert climate, but it also limits the exhibit's season, which is from March 3 to May 13. Any earlier and it could be too cold. Any later - it will be too hot for the butterflies.

As guests and readers of this blog know, Pacific Science Center receives an average of 500 butterfly pupae per week from all over the tropical world via overnight shipping. These pupae are almost immediately displayed in an emerging window until they emerge as adults ready for flight. The Desert Botanical Garden, on the other hand, receives fully emerged butterflies from a butterfly farm in Florida, again by overnight transport. These animals are shipped in a slightly cooled condition and revived once their container is opened in the warm garden. When I was there, the garden was alive with flying butterflies everywhere!

Pacific Science Center has more cubic feet of space for butterflies to fly but that also translates to more places for them to hide from view to the public. Perhaps it is the lower ceiling at the DBG Butterfly Pavilion, the abundant sunshine, the sociable nature of their species, or all three of these factors that made the butterflies feel very accessible for viewing. I didn’t spot any butterflies clinging to the netting walls or ceiling. On the other hand, few butterflies landed on guests.

The Desert Botanical Garden's Butterfly Pavilion and our Tropical Butterfly House are both licensed under permits from the United States Department of Agriculture. All guests at both facilities are carefully inspected before they leave the gardens to prevent errant escapes. The DBG interpreters were armed with sheared feather dusters to brush away any “hitch-hikers”.

On the day I visited, there was an extraordinary number of Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charitonius). Other prominent species were the Julia Longwing (Dryas iulia), Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) and Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). The most sought after butterfly in the exhibit was the Buckeye (Junonia coenia). Wouldn't you know, a Buckeye landed on my cap. I had to stand patiently as one guest after another came up and photographed the beauty on my head!

One thing both our Tropical Butterfly House and the Desert Botanical Garden’s Butterfly Pavilion have in common is an abundance of enthusiastic visitors of all ages. Everyone, young and old, marvels at the beauty and fragility of these flying insects. I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to visit and support butterfly exhibits. There is so much to learn from these little wonders.

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