Butterflies in bloom

May 9, 2013

Have you ever seen a butterfly emerge from its pupa?

Now’s your chance. The Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park opened a new special exhibit this week called “Butterflies and Bloom.” It might as well have been called Butterflies in Bloom, because that’s exactly what these insects appear to do when they’re reentering the world, transformed. A display case, known as the “butterfly bungalow” set in the middle of a garden of nectar-bearing flowers contains dozens of pupa, or chrysalis, suspended with pins. Since they’re all in active metamorphosis, you can literally stand and watch the butterflies appear.

Lau Hodges, the curator of the exhibit, has a special taste for the monarchs.

“They turn dark when they’re emerging,” she said. “You can start to see the wing pattern forming. And it has gold leafing — that’s what nature does. It’s so cool, I’d wear them as earrings.”

This is the third time the Conservatory has put on the butterfly show; the last one was in 2008. It’s permitted to receive 50 North American species, including a number of Bay Area natives, including monarchs, western tiger swallowtails, and buckeyes. Hodges gets 400 to 500 pupa every week FedEx from several butterfly breeding farms.

“It’s like a CSA box. They decide what’s in season and what looks best,” she said.

The result is a continual variety of new butterflies emerging, which will pick up in numbers as the season goes on (the exhibit will be open until October 20).

Their wings are very fragile and wet when they first emerge and need to be air dried. Photo: Alison Hawkes.
Their wings are very fragile and wet when they first emerge and need to be air dried. Photo: Alison Hawkes.

Once the butterflies emerge, and Hodges lets them out of the bungalow, they have free reign of a garden of flowers. You can watch them fly around and land to take a drink. The Conservatory was careful not to include any plant species that the butterflies use to lay eggs on because of restrictions against breeding in its USDA permit.

“So I’m practicing butterfly birth control in here,” said Hodges.

Back at the bungalow — which appears as everyone’s favorite — a little butterfly has just emerged, so delicate with its wet wings. It falls to the bottom of the display case, and one of the children watching sounds the alarm. A new butterfly must stretch its wings out to dry like laundry on a clothesline. Hodges picks it up and gives it an appropriate place to rest.

“They hang upside down, let their wings dry off. You can see them breathe and stretch out, do a little yoga, and then we release them into the room.”

Alison Hawkes is the online editor of Bay Nature. 




About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.