For as long as I can remember I had wanted to work with animals, so when the opportunity arose a few months ago to do just this I couldn’t quite believe my luck, although the animals in questions were somewhat smaller than those I might have imagined.
Tree nymph or paper kite butterflies
As I began work at The Magic of Life Butterfly House I soon realised that I didn’t know quite as much about insects as I thought, and there is much more to these tiny creatures than meets the eye.
The compound eye of a butterfly
They have complex lives, unique behaviour and very specific needs which makes caring for them a complicated and time consuming business which requires a great deal of commitment.
It’s not nearly as straight forward as you might think and life at the butterfly house is a constant challenge to provide the right environment for the butterflies to thrive and breed, whilst also maintaining a safe, appealing and informative visitor attraction.
Although plenty of flowers are available for the butterflies the insects need access to a constant supply of supplementary food in the form of fruit and sugar water to give them the energy needed to fly.
Tree nymph using it’s delicate proboscis to reach flower nectar
Scarlet swallowtail on oranges
Malay lacewing feeding on sugar water
Diadem butterfly drinking banana smoothie from a bottle top
Whilst over ripe mushy fruit may not be appealing to us, it is actually easier for the butterflies to drink from than solid, fresh food.
Female archduke feeding on watermelon
Heat and humidity are also vital to keep the butterflies alive as most species originate from tropical rainforest habitats.
If the house is too chilly the cold-blooded butterflies won’t be able to warm their muscle enough to fly and get to their food sources. Too dry and they will simply dehydrate and die. Such elements can make for a rather uncomfortable work place, even during winter!
Scarlet anartia with water droplets on it’s body
A pair of malachites basking on banana leaves
A blue and white morpho clinging to the sunny walls of the polytunnel
Butterflies such as these minute glasswings, with their unique transparent wings, are particularly susceptible to drying out and a whole population can be lost if humidity if not carefully maintained with regularly misting.
Tiny, delicate glasswings
The turnaround of butterflies at the house is rapid, with new individuals released daily from the pupal cage (the equivalent of an incubator for butterflies!) to replenish the butterflies who have already reached the end of their short lives. In this way every day is different and you never quite know which species will be out and flying on any particularly day.
Watching a butterfly emerge from the pupa is a true wonder of nature, and I was lucky to enough to observe this on a few occasions.
A tree nymph shortly after emerging from it’s pupa
Below: a poor quality video, but here you can see a butterfly flexing and pumping fluid into the wings. If you look closely you might also see it sticking out it’s yellow proboscis!
Struggling free from the outer casing of the pupa, a small, damp butterfly hangs upside with with it’s wings crumpled and useless. Over a matter of minutes to hours, the butterflies flexes the wings and pumps fluid from it’s abdomen along the wing veins until these are fully formed and rigid, ready for their first flight.
The butterflies come in a diversity range of size, shapes and patterns from large and drab, to small and gaudy. Whilst some display clever camouflage to blend in to their surroundings, other are very highly conspicuous and colourful.
Mexican bluewing on a passionflower
Such signals acts as a warning to predators that these butterflies are distasteful and potentially toxic to eat. Bright colours and patterns are also used by the butterflies to recognise their own kind and attract a mate.
A bright orange flame butterfly and a postman clinging to a flower
Zebra longwing with yellow & black stripes
The intricate wave pattern on the underwing of the malay lacewing
Life spans vary greatly among the species, with some spending just a matter of days to weeks in the adult butterfly stage. Individuals from the swallowtail family will be lucky to last just one week whilst species such as the postman can live a remarkable 6 months or more in optimum conditions.
Many butterflies in the house show signs of their ageing and have torn wing edges and faded colours. Far from making them less beautiful this demonstrates how fragile these tiny creatures are, but also how resilient with many still able to fly despite very obvious handicaps.
The emerald swallowtail will live on average just two weeks
The torn wing of a flame butterfly
The Low’s swallowtail also showing signs of age
It has been a hugely rewarding experience getting to observe the butterflies’ life cycles from birth to death and everything in between. I have witnessed matings, egg laying, aerial fights, feeding, caterpillar development and the emergence of brand new from their pupae right before my eyes.
Owl caterpillars decimating a banana plant
Postman courtship displays
Rather like the lives of the delicate and beautiful butterflies, my time at the Butterfly House was fleeting and has now sadly come to an end.
After several months of hard work, I took the decision to leave for a variety of personal reasons, most significant of which is my constant struggle with M.E – a chronic illness. I am however immensely proud of taking the leap and have no regrets, only that I couldn’t stay there long term!
Whilst I won’t miss the mud, the damp and the sheer exhaustion at the end of a working day, I will certainly miss working with some remarkable creatures, and getting to my share my enthusiasm for them with visitors every day.
A postman longwing roosting upside down
All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography ©
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