In one stride, visitors to the in Chesterfield go from a low humidity temperate zone to a steamy tropical jungle.
A fairyland of dancing, vibrant colors – both butterflies and blooms – bursts on the inside of the Butterfly House’s 7,900-square-foot Tropical Conservatory. Blue Morphos, the sky blue stars of the March Morpho Mania exhibit, are seemingly everywhere, meandering up, down and sideways like performing marionettes, stopping to feed on nectar or rotting bananas, racing from brilliant pink variegated orchids to searing red hibiscus blooms and darting in and out of thick foliage in endless games of tag.
These blue beauties from Costa Rica are joined by a rainbow assortment of winged friends from around the world – the red-and-black Ruby Lacewing from Asia, Africa’s Green-Banded Swallowtail, the orange-and-black striped Orange Tiger from El Salvador, the Paper Kite from Malaysia and the Philippines with its intricate black, white and yellow wing pattern and many more. The overall effect of all these different shapes and colors flitting about in a tropical setting, complete with waterfalls and a stream, is captivating.
“It’s creative and lovely,” said Joan Delaplane of south St. Louis.
“The foliage here is exquisite,” added her sister, Ellie Delaplane of Chicago, as she stood in the expansive Tropical Conservatory.
The sisters enjoy going to butterfly houses wherever they travel, and occasionally they are rewarded with close encounters.
“Ooh, one just landed on my head,” Ellie Delaplane said,smiling. “I felt it.”
March Morpho Mania
March Morpho Mania, which started March 1, features thousands of Blue Morphos, swelling the Butterfly House ranks to 3,000 or so butterflies representing 60 to 100 of the 18,000 species worldwide, according to Mark Deering, director of the Butterfly House. Deering, an entomologist who has been with the Butterfly House since it opened in 1998, said the facility is more than bright colors and entertaining entomology.
“It is entertaining,” he said. “But we’re really hoping most people who come here walk away with a little more knowledge than what they came in with. The plan is to help people get a better appreciation of the natural world, in hopes that they’ll see the worth in preserving what’s around them.”
To that end, there are more than butterflies at the Butterfly House. The Grand Hall offers displays of arachnids including spiders and scorpions, beetles of various shapes and ecological niches, walking sticks, mantises, and everyone’s favorite, cockroaches.
“It’s kind of good,” Deering said. “People come through here (the Grand Hall) and go ‘Eewww.’ But hopefully by the time they go through the Butterfly House and learn a little bit more, they will have a better appreciation of these country cousins of butterflies.”
Still, the energetic, brilliantly hued butterflies tend to be the biggest attraction. Typically, butterflies live about three weeks, but the Blue Morphos will survive from one to three months. In the wild, butterflies are preyed on by birds, lizards and other insects.
“Most butterflies will get nailed before they reach adulthood,” Deering said. “They play an important role in the food chain.”
Their long life in captivity is due to the safe environment of the Tropical Conservatory and a protein-rich diet with plenty of sugar, Deering said.
The Blue Morphos, about 300 of which can be seen at the Butterfly House throughout the year, are raised at the El Bosque Nuevo (which translates to The New Forest) butterfly farm in Costa Rica. A two- to three-day trip packed in foam or cotton brings the chrysalids to the Butterfly House, where they gradually emerge as butterflies. After a period of about 24 hours for the wings to fill with blood and harden, the butterflies are placed in a transport cage and released into their new home. For the March Mania exhibit, chrysalids began arriving Feb. 1.
The Conservatory, with its 38-foot-tall ceiling and 80 degree, 75 percent humidity environment, is ideal for the mix of tropical butterflies that inhabit it. The lush mix of some 200 plant species, many of which are low-growing, provides a safe habitat.
“A lot of the butterflies we have are considered lowland butterflies,” Deering said. “They spend a lot of time in the underbrush here.”
Education is a prominent part of the mission of the Butterfly House. Signs throughout the exhibit share interesting facts about butterflies, describing their behavior, parts of the body, reproduction and defense against predators and more. For instance, butterflies typically have bright wings for attracting mates, but dull undersides so they can blend in by folding their wings.
Speaking of winging it, the Blue Morphos striking iridescent blue wing color isn’t pigment – it’s caused by light bouncing off the scales of their wings. These are the kinds of facts that will help visitors get the appreciation Deering said is so vital to the survival of these beautiful but delicate creatures.
“They’ll come away from here realizing that butterflies are relatively fragile ecologically and need particular host plants to survive on,” Deering said.
This is important whether those butterflies hail from Costa Rica, or a back yard in Missouri. Fostering and protecting butterfly habitat locally is a great thing to do. It’s also a win-win, as people can help protect the environment while also getting the benefit of enjoying butterflies during the warm weather months.
“We have crafts and events here throughout the year that are designed to show people what they can do to help out,” he said.
The Butterfly House, which is open year-round, is clearly a showcase operation.
“When other exhibitors come to visit, they are thoroughly impressed,” Deering said. “This is considered one of the best butterfly houses in the United States.”
The Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House is located in Faust Park, at 15193 Olive Blvd., Chesterfield. Hours are currently 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, expanding to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Admission is $6 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $4 children 3-12, and free for kids 2 and under. Admission is free with a Missouri Botanical Garden membership. For more information, call 636-530-0076.