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Curator creates a cocoon for butterflies at museum

By Cindy Atoji Keene

A little known fact about butterflies is that they have a long tongue like a straw that can sip off beads of sweat when landing on humans. “They like sweet and salty, and can also take in amino acids for nutrients,” said Lea Morgan, curator of the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science in Boston. “Some people find this a little yucky but butterflies don’t bite or sting,” said Morgan, who is fascinated by both the beauty and science of the over 400 butterflies and insects who live at this indoor conservatory.

Q: Where do your butterflies come from?
A: Since butterflies have a short life space – they only live for a couple of weeks – we restock the insects with weekly shipments. We receive about 400-500 chrysalids (butterfly pupae) a week from Ecuador and Costa Rica and other regions such as Asia, Africa and Florida. The butterflies are not taken from the rainforest and plucked off trees – they come from butterfly farmers and brokers who breed them in greenhouses to control pests while taking a few from the wild for genetic diversity and breeding.

Q: Do butterflies have personalities?
A: After working with the butterflies for over eight years, I definitely think that butterflies have different recognizable patterns. Some are more playful than others while others hide or even play dead. The Blue Morpho butterflies circle around people and fly up and down in a line together because they’re very territorial. The Owl butterflies are also quite lively and fly around in pairs doing a courtship dance.

Q: What does it take to maintain conservatory?
A: The butterfly garden needs to have 60 percent humidity, warm temperatures, and lots of nectar plants. With so many butterflies in a small space, we supply extra nectar and water sources and need to follow USDA containment guidelines for educational displays of Lepidoptera. There’s always plant work to do – trimming, cleaning, and pest removal as well as managing the new shipments of chrysalids. These are hung in containers in a temperature-controlled incubator until they emerge. We have boxes and boxes of these little chrysalids on shelves, all in different stages of hatching out of their pupas. Once they’re ready to fly, they are released into the garden.

Q: Do butterflies poop?
A: Because butterflies only drink nectar and other fluids, they release liquids, usually little drops every once in a while. But when they first come out of the chrysalis, they use these liquids as energy, then release the rest. Large owl butterflies can expel a large stream, so when handling them, we know to point the abdomen away unless we want to get squirted.

Q: Are you working on butterfly conservation?
A: Butterflies are an indicator species for how the enviroment is doing. Some species, like roadside butterflies are doing better, but as habitat diminishes for many, they are disappearing. I’ve traveled to Costa Rica and Ecuador to observe and photograph species as well as Arizona, Florida, and Ohio. In New Hampshire we are working to preserve the native Karner blue butterfly by promoting sunny and sandy openings for native vegetation to grow for this little butterfly.

Q: Do you have a butterfly garden at home?
A: At my parent’s house in Wolfeboro, N.H., we’ve planted a lot of nectar plants and part of the land is all milkweed. I haven't made a way station yet for Monarchs but basically I don’t let my dad mow the milkweed.

Q: Have any butterfly questions from the visitors stumped you?
A: One child asked, ‘How do butterflies hear?’ I went, ‘Huh. That’s something I never thought about.’ I had to do a little research. I found they sense vibration with little nodes.

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