Tropical Butterfly House - FAQ

Tropical Butterfly House Frequently Asked Questions

LIFE CYCLE QUESTIONS

How long do butterflies live?

Butterflies can live from a few days to a month or longer. We estimate the average life span to be a couple of weeks.

How long does the entire life cycle take?

It varies according to species and environment. In general, eight to 15 days as an egg, a few weeks or more as a caterpillar, and from a week to 9 months as a pupa. Some butterflies complete a generation in one month! A few species have a two-year life cycle.

Why is this one's wings damaged? Will it recover?

It may have flown into a window, fallen into a puddle and then stuck to something, or chased another butterfly and crashed into something. A careless touch from a person may have damaged it. Butterflies lack the physiology to repair damaged tissue; however many butterflies can fly with extensive wing damage.

If their life is so short, how do you get new ones? Do you raise them?

We do not raise our butterflies from eggs, for two reasons. 1) We do not have permission from the USDA. 2) We could not sustain enough plant material for them. We purchase our pupae from butterfly farms in tropical countries, where they are sustainably farmed. If you look on the boards where the chrysalides are pinned, you can see the names of the suppliers.

Where do your butterflies come from?

The butterflies in the Tropical Butterfly House are imported. We receive weekly shipments of pupae primarily from El Salvador, Costa Rica, and the Philippines.

The butterflies we have are not wild captured, but are raised on butterfly farms. Female butterflies are placed in netted areas and supplied with native plants appropriate for their eggs, and the resulting caterpillars are protected and fed until they pupate, and then shipped here. Two important points are that wild populations are not depleted to obtain these butterflies, and the land where they are farmed is not destroyed.

Perhaps even more important, butterflies are farmed locally, by people whose jobs often draw on resources in the rainforests. This provides jobs that promote stewardship of the environment, & that bring with them a greater appreciation for the complexity of the butterflies' natural habitat. Rather than being forced to view the forest as a commodity to be used as quickly as possible, butterfly farming allows people to find profit in caring for the plants and animals around them. In a world where jobs and the environment are often pitted against each other, butterfly farming supports both at once.

How do you stop them from laying eggs?

Most species of butterfly only lay eggs on a few types of plant. They recognize the plants by distinctive chemicals the plants produce. If the chemicals are not there, butterflies will not be stimulated to lay eggs. To prevent the butterflies from reproducing, we do not grow plants on which they normally lay eggs.

What is a pupa?

A pupa is the stage between larva and adult (in insects with complete metamorphosis) where larval cells and structures gradually reform into adult cells and structures.

What is a chrysalis?

Chrysalis is a special name for the pupa of a butterfly. Chrysalids or chrysalides is the plural. All chrysalides are also pupae. When you look at a chrysalis, what you see is actually its exoskeleton, just as the skin of a caterpillar is its outside. They may resemble bird droppings, parts of plants, or lichens.

What is a cocoon?

A cocoon is an outer casing constructed by larva of silk or dead leaves which protects the chrysalis. Cocoons are made by moths and other insects.

OPERATIONAL QUESTIONS

How much to pupae cost?

We pay about $2.50 per pupa, plus shipping fees. We purchase about 350 - 600 pupae every week.

How and why do you pin them?

We need to pin the chrysalides to allow air circulation around them, and to place the animal in the most natural position to emerge. Most chrysalides have a small silk pad attached to the tip of their abdomens. We put the pin through the silk, and into the soft foam of the pinning board. If the silk has come off, we glue the pin to the pupa using a low temperature glue gun.

Why can't I touch a butterfly? Why is the person in the window touching them?

Any time anyone touches a butterfly, they risk damaging its wings. Even very careful handling can damage the wings. In order to get the butterflies from the window into the exhibit, somebody has to touch them. The animal care staff is trained to handle butterflies with minimum risk of damage, and they also try to handle them as little as possible.

What do you do when it is injured or dead?

If a butterfly is only slightly injured, we don't do anything. If it cannot fly, we humanely destroy it. Dead butterflies are collected, autoclaved, and incinerated, or used internally for educational purposes. That is the USDA requirement. We cannot give them to visitors, not even teachers.

Why is the window dirty?

Because of the fluids which newly emerged butterflies release. These fluids can stain, and make the place a little messy. In case you are worried that butterflies will poop on you, we have never had a report of this happening! (Fun fact: caterpillars produce huge quantities of poop. The technical name for caterpillar poop pellets is frass.)

Why is it so hot in here?

We grow tropical plants in here, and most of our butterflies are from warm climates. The warm temperature keeps them healthy.

Do you let them sleep at night?

Both the plants and the butterflies need rest. We have the lights on a computerized timer to give the Tropical Butterfly House eight hours of darkness in every 24 hour period.

Why can't I take a plant or butterfly?

Plants are slow growing, and if you damage them or take parts of them, it will make the exhibit less enjoyable for others. We are also obligated by our permit to destroy any plant material that we remove from the exhibit It is a violation of our USDA permit to remove butterflies. We could be closed if the USDA found our butterflies outside. We certainly don't want one of our butterflies to pass a parasite to a native species, or to damage an indigenous plant population.

Why shouldn't I pick a tiny flower and walk around with it?

As long as it is on the plant and producing nectar, that flower is useful to the butterflies. Once it is picked, it no longer provides nectar. Besides, you will not attract butterflies by showing them the tiny flowers. They can only see wide patches of color, so they probably are not even aware that you have a flower in your hand.

BEHAVIOR QUESTIONS

Will they bite me?

Absolutely not. Butterflies' mouthparts do not allow them to bite, chew, pierce or even nibble. They are tube-shaped, like straws, and can only be used to sip. That is why we have to let the fruit in the feeders get so icky. Until it is over- ripe enough to exude juices, the butterflies cannot eat it. The butterfly only eats solid food in its larval stage.

Why did it land on me? Why won't it land on me?

We have not found a formula for why butterflies land on certain people. We have found that they are attracted to bright colors, especially red and yellow. If a butterfly does not land on you, please do not be disappointed, and don't try to make it crawl onto you.

Why is this butterfly on the ground?

Butterflies do not always want to be flying. They need to rest too! The butterflies are not aware that the walkways are potentially bad places to land. So be careful to watch your step so you do not disturb the resting butterflies. You may also notice that they often land on the ground near the fans. Butterflies enjoy the airflow and will often position themselves so that they are oriented near it.

What are those butterflies doing?

You may often see two butterflies attached at the abdomen. These butterflies are mating. Once a mate is chosen the male will grasp onto the female's abdomen with claspers. He transfers sperm into her abdomen where it is stored in a special pouch. When the female lays her eggs they have to pass through this pouch and are then fertilized.

What happens when they emerge?

First the legs emerge. They reach out, find something to hold onto, and pull the rest of the body out. The wings are small and soft, but soon expand as the butterfly pumps fluid into them. When they are fully expanded, the wings can dry. The butterfly excretes excess fluid, and is ready to be released. We do two releases each day. Even if butterflies are ready to go, they wait. Opening and closing the emerging window dries out the chamber, and can cause damage to the pupae.

GARDENING QUESTIONS

How can I attract these butterflies to my yard?

These species are not native to our area. But you can attract many beautiful butterflies. Plant large masses of brightly colored flowers, and provide blooms over a long season. Learn the host plants of local butterflies, and provide some. Encourage everyone in the neighborhood to plant butterfly gardens, and to consider going pesticide free. Learn to love caterpillars!

Should I put out a fruit feeder in my back yard?

That would not work in Seattle. Most of the butterflies in temperate climates eat nectar rather than fruit. But ants and yellow jackets both love rotten fruit.

SPECIES QUESTIONS

I saw this butterfly at Woodland Park zoo's butterfly exhibit. Is it a native or a tropical species?

Many butterflies native to the southern tip of the US are also native to central and South America. No butterfly in the Tropical Butterfly House is a Washington state native, except for the monarch, which is found east of the cascades.

How many butterflies/species are in here?

We don't know exactly. We try to maintain a population of eight hundred to twelve hundred. Depending on the time of day and how recently we got a shipment of pupae, there may be more or less activity. We have had over 100 species since we opened. At any given moment, we have fewer. Even tropical species are seasonal.

Why are there ants, fruit flies, slugs, aphids, mealy bugs, etc?

Most nursery plants are treated with insecticides before they you buy them, but we got untreated plants so that the nectar would be safe for butterflies. The plants came with many uninvited critters. We use biological controls, and accept that there will be some pest species living in the butterfly house.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION AND CLASSIFICATION

What is an arthropod?

Arthropod refers a phylum of invertebrates that is characterized by having an exoskeleton, segmented body, and jointed appendages.

What is an insect?

Insecta is a class of arthropods. To be an insect you must have three body segments (head, thorax, abdomen) three pairs of legs, antennae, compound eyes, & usually one or two pairs of wings.

What is a Lepidoptera?

Lepidoptera is the order of invertebrates that contains butterflies, moths, and skippers. The name means scale wing. Both butterflies and moths wings are covered in small overlapping scales. This is why we must be so careful to not touch their delicate wings.

Currently there is no scientific consensus as to the exact date of when moths/butterflies appear in the fossil record. Here are two of the most popular opinions:

The first primitive moths appear in the fossil record about 140 million years ago, during the Age of Dinosaurs. The oldest known fossil butterflies date to about 40 million years ago, from the Age of Mammals. OR: The first primitive moths are found in Cretaceous amber which dates from the Age of Dinosaurs, over 70 million years ago. The oldest known fossil butterflies are from Green River Shale in Colorado, which dates from the Age of Mammals, about 48 million years ago. [Different sources differ on the ages.]

The closest relatives of Lepidoptera are the caddisflies (Trichoptera). The caddisfly larva resembles a caterpillar and spins a cocoon out of silk. Like Lepidoptera, caddisflies have wings with a large surface area. Some caddisflies link their front and hind wings in flight as moths do.