051817 Spring blooms: Butterflies emerge from cocoons to fill exhibit
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Spring blooms: Butterflies emerge from cocoons to fill exhibit

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Buckeye. It’s not just a dessert or mascot, it’s also a butterfly that might just land on you at Brookgreen Gardens.

The Butterfly House is open for its seventh season at the gardens. It features more than 19 kinds of butterflies and moths right now, but those numbers will increase as the season continues.

“We have all the southeastern species pretty much,” Andrea DeMuth, vice president and curator of zoological collections, said. Soon there will be more than 1,000 butterflies living in the aluminum mesh structure.

The butterflies are brought in from farms in Texas, Alabama and Florida. They’re shipped overnight as chrysalises, in the cocoon, and then allowed to hatch at the butterfly house. “They look like big marbles,” DeMuth said. “Usually the very first shipment we get, we will get some adult live butterflies so we can turn them right out.”

When shipped as live adults, butterflies are packed in glassine envelopes with their wings folded back so they lie flat. A bit of an ice pack or moist paper towel is included to keep the butterflies hydrated.

“I like to call these my creepy teenagers,” Tara Johns-Berry, the butterfly specialist, said of the pupa hanging in the back room of the house. “And when they graduate, they come out as adults.”

In order to “graduate” the butterflies must work their way out of the chrysalis. It really is hard work, Johns-Berry said. “They have a lot of fluid to move from their body when they emerge to their wings and then their wings are a little wet and they have to dry out.”

Butterfly House is regulated by the Department of Agriculture for educational displays of adult butterflies and moths. The permit allows the facility to house more than the seven native species of butterflies. It also dictates the kinds of plants in the enclosure.

“We can’t stop them from mating, we can’t stop them from laying eggs,” Johns-Berry said. “So we have to break the life cycle with the plants.”

“The butterflies lay eggs on the plants and eggs turn into caterpillars that grow by eating that host plant. So if we don’t have host plants in here the caterpillars are not going to make it all the way to turning into a chrysalis,” DeMuth said.

Plants inside the house are strictly there to provide nectar for adult butterflies. There are some plants outside the house, like milkweed, that cater to wild butterfly needs.

Manners matter at the Butterfly House. When a guest comes into the house they’re taught the ways of the butterfly and to watch their step, DeMuth said. Some butterflies may be down on the path. “They’re going for the moisture down on the path because it has minerals, we leave them be,” DeMuth said. “We also warn people if a butterfly lands on you to not freak out because they don’t bite. All they want is flower nectar.”

If you see a butterfly that looks a little tattered, “Life is tough man,” Johns-Berry said. “A good gust of wind can come through and blow them into a twig. Then there’s skinks, toads and anoles. You can’t create a perfect environment for one bug without expecting that predators are going to want to join the party.”

At the end of the season volunteers catch all the butterflies, then send them to a year-round butterfly facility. If there’s the threat of a Category 2 or higher hurricane, the butterflies are also caught. “We have little pop-up cages for them and then we put them in the back room,” DeMuth said. “Now the back room could blow away, but we’re doing what we can.”

The Butterfly House at Brookgreen Gardens is open April through Oct. 30. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children in addition to regular admission to the gardens.

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