Dimensions September/October 1999
Butterfly Houses: A Lesson in Conservation and Sustainable Development
By Thomas Krakauer
When the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science opened Magic Wings in April 1999, steel and glass metamorphosed into a stunning exhibition. Aside from the beauty of the 5,000 square foot conservatory, the 250 varieties of tropical vegetation and the 1,000 living butterflies create an unforgettable experience. Museum visitation has been affected, both in overall numbers and demographics. Moreover, the lessons and impact extend far beyond North Carolina to tropical rainforests where the butterflies are farmed, and to conservation efforts worldwide.
Audience and Education
Where in the past families and children were the museum’s primary audience, adults and senior citizens now comprise a significant portion of our visitors. A visit to the museum has moved beyond “It’s a great place for children” to “Wow! I love it.” An additional benefit of the Magic Wings exhibition has been in the expansion of the museum’s adult volunteer program.
It is not difficult to understand why butterfly houses have become so popular in recent years. People are immensely fascinated with their fluttery inhabitants. Perhaps it is the way butterflies enter the world, through metamorphosis. Or maybe it is the fact that they are in this world for such a short time. Some species live for just a few days, and most live for only a couple of weeks. Whatever the reason, we are flocking to these live exhibits in ever-increasing numbers, and more butterfly exhibits open every year.
The first documented butterfly house, called Worldwide Butterflies, opened in Dorset, England, in 1978. A decade later, America’s first two live butterfly exhibits opened, the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Georgia, and Butterfly World in Florida.
As of 1996, there were nearly 150 living butterfly exhibits at zoos, gardens, and other educational centers throughout the world, with more than 60 in England and over 24 in North America (Ross, 1996). Most are less than 10 years old. Some are stand-alone, while many others are part of a larger garden, nature park, or museum. Butterfly houses are more than just magical shrines to the fanciful insects. Increasingly, educational centers are installing these structures to give visitors a glimpse of the beauty not only of butterflies as we know them, but also of their complex life cycle, and their habitats.
The educational effort associated with butterfly houses goes beyond the traditional walls of a museum or zoo. In fact, this effort reaches into the tropical rainforests of developing countries, where local peoples are learning about habitat conservation.
Curators have uprooted the age-old notion of the untouchable butterfly collection with its dried specimens mounted behind glass, by creating tranquil havens where visitors can immerse themselves in these beautiful creatures. Seeing so many butterflies, up close, alive, and flying freely makes quite an impression. The butterflies, however, aren’t free; there is a monetary cost associated with each one. The insects must be re-introduced continually-and behind the scenes exists a complicated, extensive infrastructure for doing just that.
Most butterfly houses stock tropical species, which has led to the formation of a large international trade in live butterflies. During the last two decades, butterfly farmers and ranchers in foreign lands have been breeding the insects and exporting them to butterfly houses around the world, with great success.
An International Success Story
La Finca de Mariposas, or The Butterfly Farm, in Guacima, Costa Rica, is one example of how this marriage between ecology and business can promote conservation by providing a rationale for local people to protect the rainforest habitat. In 1983, Joris Brinckerhoff was a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica. He saw that the country was suffering economically from its dependence on agricultural exports that were not indigenous to the country and thought, “Why not export the best of Costa Rica-its beautiful natural history-in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment, but actually enhances it?” (Bronaugh, 1993). In 1984, he and his wife converted a horse pasture into one of Latin America’s first butterfly farms. Stressing the importance of preserving the butterfly habitat, the couple trained local people in conservation methods and assembled a work force of native Costa Ricans. Eventually 15 of these people started their own butterfly farms.
How does one induce butterflies to breed? Actually, no special effort is necessary. The breeding of butterflies occurs naturally in the tropical forest. Farmers place house-sized netted cages on the forest floor, then add adult butterflies. Every day, workers remove clumps of eggs from the cages (a female butterfly may lay more than a hundred eggs over her lifetime of a couple weeks). The eggs are placed on proper host plants in smaller cages, where they hatch into larvae, or caterpillars. As they develop, the larvae are transferred to new plants until they become pupae. It typically takes one to two weeks for the insect to emerge from its chrysalis, or butterfly-specific pupa (a butterfly produces a chrysalis, while a moth produces a cocoon). During this period the pupae are shipped, with the timing being critical. If the package is lost in the mail, the butterflies will emerge and die before they arrive at a butterfly house.
Upon arrival at its destination, the chrysalis is ready to spread its new wings as a butterfly. Typically, each chrysalis is glued or pinned to a cork board that is displayed in full view of the public. The butterflies emerge after a few days, flutter their glorious wings, and captivate an audience of butterfly house visitors.
What’s a Typical Butterfly House Like?
Most butterfly houses are 1,000-8,000 square feet, with architectural details similar to those of a large greenhouse. While all displays feature luxuriant flowers and tropical plants, some other elements one might find include cascading waterfalls, shimmering pools, misting and fogging systems, and piped-in natural sounds. In addition, some exhibits include an insectarium, or an area designed specifically for breeding insects.
These “typical” elements do not come without a price, however. Houston’s Cockrell Butterfly Center cost $6 million, and Ontario’s Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory required more than $15 million (Ross, 1996). Magic Wings at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science cost $7 million. Along with the initial start-up costs of erecting a butterfly house, there is also the budget strain of keeping it stocked with insects and plants.
A young visitor to the Magic Wings Conservatory holds butterflies in her hands.|
Maintaining a butterfly house and feeding the butterflies is not an easy task. Caring for the necessary greenery is often mind-boggling. For example, some butterflies prefer nectar from specific flowers, while others have a taste for fermenting fruit. Taking care of the garden and making trips to the produce aisle at the local market keep butterfly house staff incredibly busy.
“The trickiest thing about maintaining a butterfly house is keeping the plants healthy, because the butterflies depend on them for food and cover,” says Tom Hecker, Butterfly House Director at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science. “Unfortunately, we provide the perfect environment for all sorts of pests, which are continually attacking the plants, and we can’t spray pesticides that might harm the butterflies.” Hecker says that his staff spends a great deal of time researching, to identify first the pests, and then the means by which they can be controlled. “If you don’t have adequate nectar plants, the butterflies won’t thrive,” says Hecker.
In addition, the exhibition must comply with government guidelines; the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has stringent regulations to reduce the chance of introducing new agricultural pests and microbial diseases of native insect populations. “If a plant dies, we can’t just pull it out,” Hecker says. “We have to trim it and keep it in a freezer for three days, according to the USDA, to kill any pests or diseases that might affect our local plants. When we bring tropical plants into the country to use for stocking the butterfly house, we must take similar precautions, to eliminate the possibility of introducing harmful pesticides and pesticide residues.”
But butterfly houses have proven to be worth the effort. Butterflies are fantastic tools in diverse disciplines, including genetics, toxicology, virology, and animal and plant husbandry. The North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, in particular, received funding to create a graduate teaching assistantship for a zoology graduate student at Duke University to develop visitor-based research, and involve high school students who participate in our YouthALIVE! project in biological research. Many butterfly houses arrange seminars, workshops, and community outreach programs, as part of their institution’s educational mission. Such classes create awareness, and promote conservation.
The conservation effort associated with butterflies and butterfly houses reaches past the host institution and its local community. The business of raising butterflies, including farming or ranching, and exporting them, has in some cases provided an incentive to tropical breeders to preserve the rainforest. Unlike most other types of agriculture in tropical countries, which are dependent upon cleared forest for planting crops or grazing cattle, butterfly farming requires intact forest. Since host plants are collected by the farmer for use in rearing the larvae, the butterfly farm is dependent upon land that is forested. The principal threat to butterflies, as with most wildlife, is the loss or alteration of habitat. Butterflies depend on the availability of nectar plants for the adults and host plants for the voracious caterpillars. If the plant or habitat disappears, so does the butterfly.
The Xerces Society, an international, non-profit group that focuses on public education and conservation issues regarding invertebrates, provides an example of habitat conservation in action. In order to create economic opportunity for local people and encourage careful management of their natural resources, the Xerces Society and the Zoological Society of San Diego (ZSSD) developed a pilot butterfly farming project in Barra del Colorado, Costa Rica. Project staff taught a women’s cooperative to raise local butterflies and export them, in their chrysalis stage, to butterfly houses and zoos. Because the continued success of their butterfly farm required plant and butterfly stock from the adjacent forest, long-term prosperity for the farmers of Barra del Colorado depended on local stewardship of the forest.
Although the Xerces Society/ZSSD project has faced some social obstacles, project leaders intend to continue pursuing this sort of endeavor, which will help the peoples of developing nations find ways of earning a living while keeping the tropical rain forests intact. “The basic premise of our program is to help local peoples utilize intact forested areas to provide a means of economic development so that they can live and not have to go into the forest to poach,” said Melody Mackey Allen, executive director of the Xerces Society. The North Carolina Museum of Life and Science provided a similar spark to create a butterfly farm in San Ramon, Nicaragua.
While there exists some debate regarding how much butterfly farming in itself can actually do to preserve tropical forests, it is a step in the right direction. “Education is the key to habitat conservation,” according to Michael Weissmann, co-founder and former curator of the Butterfly Pavilion and Insect Center in Westminster, Colorado. “Captive-bred butterflies serve as the ambassadors to the world of insects and their habitats, using their bright colors to draw attention to the crisis of habitat destruction worldwide.” Weissmann believes that it will take increased educational efforts to preserve these critical habitats. “Butterfly farmers are doing their part by producing the living ambassadors that will draw attention to the crisis,” he said. “In order to complete the education partnership, conservation organizations can help best by directing some of their funding resources into educational programs and materials directed at butterfly house visitors.”
The Profit Margin
While promoting conservation, butterfly farming might also be boosting wild populations of tropical butterflies in their native lands. Farmers harvest only 70-90 percent of all pupae and adults, which allows those remaining to go free and become breeding stock for future generations. In the wild, butterflies have just a two percent survival rate. In fact, some tropical facilities, including The Butterfly Farm in Costa Rica, rear individuals of rare and endangered species and systematically release them, specifically to boost natural populations.
Farmers may earn as much as $1,000 each year by harvesting two-thirds of the emerging adults, leaving enough to replenish and sometimes enhance wild populations. Considering that the local annual per capita income is under $100, the butterfly farmers have a big incentive to preserve the land that supports their livelihood.
As individual butterfly farmers and their communities prosper, national economies grow-which means more funding for national programs, including conservation.
The Butterfly Farm, Costa Rica
The Butterfly Web Site
Lepidoptera Topical Index
North American Butterfly Association
Ross, Gary Noel, “Butterfly Houses: Magic Gardens of the 1990’s,” American Butterflies, Fall 1996, pp. 14-21.
Bronaugh, Whit, “Farming the Flying Flowers,” Wildlife Conservation,
Thomas Krakauer is president of the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Durham.