Butterflies Take Up Permanent Residence At Connecticut Science Center

Butterflies are "the feel-good ambassadors of the invertebrate world," says Kim Kelly, horticulturist at the Connecticut Science Center.

Because who doesn't love butterflies? In the lepidoptera family, they are outnumbered by comparatively drab and unglamorous moths. But nothing captures the heart like the brightly hued, seemingly weightless little buggers that flit, fly and chase each other, leaving a fleeting vision of color in the air.

Connecticut residents now can see them any time of the year in the Science Center's permanent exhibit Butterfly Encounter. These are not the orange-and-black Monarchs we are accustomed to seeing, but 40 to 50 different species of tropical butterflies brought in from warm climates all over the world.

At any given time, about 200 butterflies live in the room, going about their butterfly business, landing on plants chosen for their appeal to butterflies, sipping nectar, eating their favorite foods — rotting tropical fruits, yum yum! — and possibly temporarily parking themselves on human visitors, if those visitors are quiet and still and don't scare them off.

Kelly, manager of Butterfly Encounter, says the butterflies are imported as pupae from chrysalis farms worldwide.

"Residents of these areas rely on agriculture, so there is deforestation," she says. "By raising butterflies, the people learn about ecology and conservation and ecoliteracy in their own countries."

"We see them as being very pretty, but agriculturally they can be pests. In different areas of the world, farmers may get rid of them," adds Kaila Ringgard, a science-show presenter in Butterfly Encounter.

Kelly adds that as one of the shortest-lived insects — their life cycles take up the final few weeks in the life cycle of the caterpillars they used to be — butterflies can be considered "the canary in the coal mine." "Any disruption impacts their ability to survive," she says. "Deforestation, weather, climate."

An "emergence cabinet" in Butterfly Encounter is filled with some newly acquired pupae, who will live in the room once they emerge from their cocoons. Because of the short lives, Butterfly Encounter is constantly cycling in newly emerged butterflies.

Butterfly Encounter is a 900 square-foot room, floored with teak, which isn't harshly affected by heat and humidity. And it is hot and humid: always 80 degrees, 80 percent humidity.

All around the edges are growing plants, which the butterflies love, primarily epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads. But the little critters can land anywhere, including the floor, so visitors are asked to watch their step. The room is sealed off from the adjoining gallery by a double set of doors that keep butterflies from escaping.

Butterfly rooms are closed ecosystems, regulated by the USDA, which keeps a close eye on non-native species. Keeping butterflies in the room is good for butterflies; they would suffer in the air-conditioned galleries. It's also good for the environment, because the innocent-looking bugs could cause trouble if they made a break for it.

"We don't want these creatures getting out and becoming the next gypsy moth," says John Bordeaux, the science center's vice president for advancement.

BUTTERFLY ENCOUNTER at Connecticut Science Center, 250 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford, is open Tuesday to Friday 1 to 4 p.m. and weekends and holidays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last entry daily is at 3:30 p.m. Admission is $6 on top of regular admission, $5 for members. ctsciencecenter.org.

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