Dave Carty
Dave Carty
HEARTLAND USA |  May/June 2007

Beauty on the Wing

Butterfly houses are gardens of living color

Bill Stevens is a great, white bear  of a man--well over six feet tall and pushing 220 pounds. Among other callings, he’s been a chef, a dance instructor, a full contact martial artist, and a world-class raconteur. But for the moment, he’d been struck dumb. He sat unmoving on a bench in Denver’s sauna-like Butterfly Pavilion & Insect Center, gazing around the room, a single bead of sweat on the end of his hooked and broken nose. Butterflies by the hundreds flitted about, and Stevens couldn’t take his eyes off them.

We had decided to tour the Pavilion on a whim. In addition to being close friends, Bill and his wife Bev Thomas are my dance instructors, and after a hard two days of hammering dance technique into my willing but slow-off-the-dime body, the two of them collapsed on the sofa and declared a recess. Bev suggested visiting the Butterfly Pavilion, a half-hour’s drive from their north Denver home.

Denver’s Butterfly Pavilion opened in 1995, the first stand-alone, non-profit butterfly house in the country (most butterfly houses are attached to zoos). The concept behind the Pavilion was simple, even if its execution was not: give the public a place to see these outrageously gorgeous tropical insects and they’d pay for the privilege.

So far, the idea has been successful beyond anyone’s dreams. The upshot is that an expansion is underway, which should be completed early in 2001.

There’s more to the butterfly pavilion than butterflies, however. Other insects--some bizarre, some grotesque--make guest appearances. Deb Hruby, the associate director of the Pavilion, says the Pavilion folks have dubbed the room where these bugs are housed the "Crawl-a-see-em."

"We’ve got arthropods from all over the world," she says. "On the touching part of the room (where intrepid visitors can handle certain insects) we have a rose-haired tarantula, a hissing cockroach, giant mealworms, and sometimes we’ll put a centipede or stick insect in there. We like to rotate the insects a bit."

Needless to say, fondling bugs appeals to kids more than to most adults, but Bill and I, juveniles to the bone, decided to pet the tarantula. Not Bev. I tried to convince her that the huge spider felt like a furry mouse (it did!), but she wasn’t buying it. "I just can’t," she said.

Fuzzy tarantulas notwithstanding, butterflies are by far the biggest draw. The Denver pavilion and other houses buy chrysalids (a chrysalis is to a butterfly what a cocoon is to a moth) from around the world: Kenya, Costa Rica, the Phillippines, El Salvador and Malasia. Butterfly farmers in these countries raise the butterflies and collect the chrysalids, pack them in cotton, and after jumping through multiple official and bureaucratic hoops, sell them to houses across the U.S. Once they arrive at the Denver pavilion, they’re carefully examined, then pinned up in a chrysalis viewing area. When they hatch, they’re herded into the main enclosure, where they flit about for the few remaining days of their lives to the endless delight of visitors.

Currently, there are about three dozen plus butterfly houses in the U.S, and more are in the works. The staff at these places are quick to point out that butterfly houses are helping preserve the rainforests they live in from ranching and slash and burn farming, quite laudable goals. But to most, the main attraction is seeing butterflies in sizes and colors they never dreamed existed. On our trip, we saw Scarlet Mormons as broad as my hand as well as Paper Kites and Common Morphos that were half that size, in blues and greens and reds and other neon colors so luminous and spectacular that they could have flown directly out of a Disney animated movie.

For lovers of flora as well as fauna, a visit to the Pavilion is almost worth the trip for the plants alone. The enclosure has a clear glass ceiling, and the temperature inside remains at a fairly constant 80 degrees with 70% humidity. Hibiscus, Lantana and dozens of other tropical flowering plants spiral to the ceiling nearly twenty feet up, and tendrils of exotic vines wrap themselves around the trees planted along the enclosure’s walkways. The plants have to be trimmed back on a regular basis, but the pavilion supports such lush growth that’s it’s conceivable the vines would wind themselves around you, were you to stand in one place for a day or so. A small brook trickles through the building and it’s been stocked with coy and one giant catfish named "Andrus." Andrus wasn’t receiving guests the day we toured the facilities, but he’s evidently nearly three feet long--almost as long as the stream he lives in is wide. Here and there, box turtles poke their heads through the vegetation, size up the crowds, and backpeddle into the shadows.

Different butterfly houses feature different butterflies, and the date of your visit will also determine the types of insects you’ll see. Curator Mark Deering of the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House in St. Louis, Missouri, says there are between 1200 to 1500 butterflies in their enclosure at any one time. But the species mix can change monthly.

"The tropics (where most of their butterflies come from) don’t have a winter or a summer per se," Deering says. "But they often have a wet and a dry season. And the types of butterflies that they will produce in those times will be different. So if you came in December and then came again in July, I might still have approximately sixty species but you might see quite a few different ones. "

Like the Denver Pavilion, the St. Louis butterfly house encloses a jungle-like garden with rock walkways, a pond and a waterfall, including a plaza where visitors can sit and watch the insects float by. Although the house has been open just a little over a year, attendance has been far beyond what anyone expected, due in part to in-house tours for seniors and other visitors from out of town, as well as educational programs for school kids from kindergarten through high school. Like the Denver house, they too are expanding--as is the fascination with these beautiful creatures of almost anyone who has ever visited one of these places.

Back at the Denver Butterfly Pavilion, Bev and Bill and I spent the last half hour of our visit wandering the lush pathways around the inside of the enclosure. Children watched wide-eyed, then raced back to tell their mothers what they had seen. Most of the adults, however, seemed content to sit and watch or to walk contemplatively around the inside of the concrete and glass room. There’s something about the pavilion that makes you want to slow down and relax. I circled the enclosure several times and saw different insects on each lap. To my immense delight, one or two butterflies landed on my hair and shoulders, but when I turned to watch, the shy creatures quickly flitted away.

Far from discouraging people from interacting with the butterflies, Deb Hruby was happy to provide tips on how to get the insects to interact with you.

"Butterflies taste with their feet," she says. "When people come in smelling real good they (the butterflies) tend to land on them. And they also like bright colors. So wear bright colors and take your time moving around. If you’re resting on a bench near one of their nectar sources, butterflies will more than likely land on you." Stevens, who wasn’t wearing bright colors but who had doused himself liberally with cologne before the trip, had several butterflies land on his head and arms. I rounded a corner in time to see him staring at a buffed out candy-apple blue butterfly that had perched on his arm and was slowly fanning its two-inch wings. When the brilliant creature finally flew away, Stevens watched it soar to the roof of the enclosure and vanish.

The Pavilion butterflies have short but high-profile careers. After being gathered in a tropical third-world rain forest and then flown halfway around the globe, they hatch into an environment where nearly all their daylight hours are spent posturing for tourists. Still, it’s doubtful that it goes to their heads, for most of them die just two short weeks after their emergence. Visit a butterfly house one week, and your visit the next will likely put you face to antennae with an entirely new generation of haute couture insects.

Bev and Bill and I finally decided, reluctantly, to end our tour. Attached to the pavilion was a small giftshop that sold chocolate chip cookies and custom coffee. We sat at a table sipping coffee and staring at the cars racing by outside--a far busier place than the small and quiet world we were about to leave. Lucky for us, this little corner of paradise would still be around whenever we wanted to visit again.

Beauty on the Wing

Want to visit a butterfly house?
Here’s a partial list of locations:

Birmingham Zoo Insectarium
2630 Cahaba Rd
Birmingham, AL 35223
205-879-0409

San Diego Wild Animal Park
15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd.
Escondido, CA 92027-9614
619-234-6541

Greater Los Angeles Zoo
5333 Zoo Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90027-1498
323-644-6400

Marine World Africa-USA (seasonal)
Marine World Parkway
Vallejo, CA 94589
707-643-6722

Butterfly Pavilion and Insect Center
6252 West 104th Ave.
Westminster, CO 80020
303-469-5441

National Zoological Park
3000 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008
202 673-4789

Smithsonian Insect Zoo
Smithsonian Institute
National Museum of Natural History
Tenth and Constitution Avenues, NW
Washington, DC 20560
202-357-1386

Butterfly World
Tradewinds Park
3600 West Sample Rd.
Coconut Creek, FL 33073
954-977-4400

The Day Butterfly Center
Callaway Gardens
Pine Mountain GA 38122-2000
706-663-2281

Brookfield Zoo
3300 Golf Rd.
Brookfield, IL 60513
708-485-2200

The Butterfly Center
Callaway Gardens
Pine Mountain, GA 31822-2000
706-663-2281

The Butterfly Place (seasonal)
Papillon Park
120 Tyngsboro Rd.
Westford, MA 01885
978-392-0955

Mackinac Island Butterfly House (seasonal)
Sawyers Greenhouse
1308 McGaulpin
Mackinac Island, MI 49757
906-847-3972

Cincinnati Zoo Insectarium
3400 Vine St.
Cincinnati, OH 45220
513-281-4701

The Cockerell Butterfly Center
Houston Museum of Natural Science
One Herman Circle Dr.
Houston, TX 77030
713-639-4678

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