Winged and Wonderful:
The BUTTERFLIES of The Hershey Butterfly Atrium
Have you ever found a butterfly perched on your head (or hair) or a flower? I remember a time when the butterfly population dwindled and a sighting was few and far between. Today, not so many miles away from my suburban roots, my flowering plants attract more and more each year. If you delight in watching their delicate wings gently flapping as they move from plant to plant, make it a point to add The Butterfly Atrium at the Milton & Catherine Hershey Conservatory in Hershey, Pennsylvania to your must-visit list.
The Butterfly Atrium is the year-round home to 300 to 400 species of tropical and North American butterflies. They spend their days drinking nectar from flowers through their (straw-like) tongues and those that don’t feast on the fruit juice find their nourishment from organic material, tree sap, and rotting animal matter.
What can you expect to find at the Butterfly Atrium?
A Plumeria tree (known for its flowers that are used to make garlands or leis; Hawaiian Ti Plant “Red Ruby” and “Red Sister,” Golden Shrimp and Jatropha plants, and a Cacao tree with its pods that contain the cocoa beans used to make chocolate. Before you go, brush up on your butterfly facts courtesy of Katherine Serfass, Hershey Gardens Lead Butterfly Atrium associate.
What are the immediate and far-reaching environmental benefits of a thriving butterfly population?
The benefits of a thriving butterfly population are many, but one of the most important benefits is their role as pollinators. Pollinators are animals that move pollen from one part of the flower to another part. This pollen then fertilizes the plant. Only fertilized plants can make fruit and/or seeds, and without them, the plants cannot reproduce. Although wind is also considered a pollinator, the agricultural industry depends heavily on animal pollination for crop production. We, humans, depend on pollinators, too! The food we consume results directly from the work of butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, ants, flies, and flower beetles. They are essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
What are a few varieties of butterflies living in the atrium?
We have approximately 50 species of butterflies in the Butterfly Atrium at any given time, and we have USDA permits for around 500 species. The variety of species changes from week to week, but some of the more frequent varieties in the Butterfly Atrium are the Owl Butterfly, the Blue Morpho Butterfly, and the Postman Butterfly. We have four to five species of Owls in the Atrium at any given time. They are easily recognized by their large size and the eyespot on the side of their wings. The Blue Morpho is our most conspicuous butterfly variety and a fan favorite. Guests love watching their gorgeous blue, iridescent wings as they fly from place to place. The Postman has long, narrow wings and sports a wide variety of colors and patterns.
When and why was the atrium established?
The Milton & Catherine Hershey Conservatory, which includes a year-round Butterfly Atrium and the Educational & Horticultural Wing, opened in July 2016. Before the Butterfly Atrium, Hershey Gardens had a seasonal outdoor butterfly house that was open from May to September. Opening a year-round space for butterflies allows Hershey Gardens to now be open 363 days a year and host more school groups, which speaks to Mr. Hershey’s legacy of providing educational and cultural opportunities to visitors. The Butterfly Atrium also gives visitors the opportunity to see beautiful, tropical butterflies in a lush, tropical environment any time of year: fall, winter, spring or summer.
What are a few interesting facts about butterflies every adult and child should know?
People tend to confuse the terms “chrysalis” and “cocoon.” The two are not interchangeable. All butterflies and moths form a chrysalis, which is the exoskeleton left after a caterpillar sheds its skin the last time. Only certain moths, those found in the silk moth family, spin a cocoon around themselves before they go into their chrysalis.
How does Hershey acquire new butterflies? Does it rely solely on in-house breeding/mating?
We acquire new butterflies from butterfly farms from all over the world. Once the caterpillar sheds its skin the last time and exposes the chrysalis, the butterfly farmers in their country of origin will harvest them and send them to a hub in Colorado, where they are repackaged and sent here. The native butterflies come from as far as Florida and as near as Schuylkill County, which is only about 50 miles away.
We do not have the full butterfly cycle in the Atrium because we do not have host plants. Host plants are the plants on which adult butterflies lay their eggs and caterpillars feed. If we had host plants, the concentration of butterflies and the sheer number of eggs laid by each individual would be too much for us to manage. The two stages we do have are the chrysalis and the adult, winged butterfly.
Many thanks to Katherine for taking the time to answer my questions.
Anyone with a fascination for butterflies will be captivated as, one after another, these gentle creatures go about their day. One of the delights is watching them feast on nectar and mingle with guests. They might also land on you so be sure to check for hitchhikers when you leave the atrium.
Before or after spending time in the atrium, discover “The Amazing Lifecycle of the Butterfly” at the Chrysalis Cabinet. Hundreds of jewel-like chrysalis hang in the Chrysalis Cabinet until it’s time for them to emerge and release into the Butterfly Atrium. This is a rare opportunity to have a glimpse at the pupal stage of a butterfly.
If you’d like to cater to butterflies in your garden, click on this link for butterfly gardening basics.
RECOMMENDATION: The butterfly garden pairs beautifully with the acres of plants, trees, and shrubs at the Hershey Gardens. My friend, Pennye and I were surprised to see roses blooming in the rose garden so late in the year. We visited Hershey on an early fall (drizzly) day on Fri., Sept. 28, 2018, and there’s so much to see – one extraordinary garden theme after another.
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My media trip was supported by Visit Hershey-Harrisburg but my opinions are my own.