WASHINGTON - As spring makes its slow return to the hemisphere, the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., is marking the occasion with one of its most popular exhibits - the Live Butterfly Pavilion. Now in its fifth year, the Pavilion is a warm, lush enclosure filled with beautiful flowering plants, in which visitors interact with hundreds of live butterflies, representing species from around the world.
They are gentle, colorful creatures that move with grace and flair. And in a warm and humid enclosure at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., visitors have a rare opportunity to be immersed in a world filled with hundreds of living butterflies.
The permanent exhibit is an interactive and educational exhibition, titled Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution, which provides visitors an up-close look at how butterflies and plants have evolved and diversified together for millions of years.
Dan Babbitt, manager of the Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion, said visitors can get very close to the butterflies while learning about their importance in our ecosystem
“What we want to do is connect people to the natural world and we found that using live animals - and insects in particular - is an amazing way to do that,” he said.
Visitors to the Pavilion, on this day, agree. Nine-year-old Ava Canales had a lovely palm-sized Blue Morpho butterfly on her arm.
“I’ve been here before and I just loved the exhibit like when butterflies land on me," she said. "It’s really cool because you don’t get to see that in your backyard.”
And nine-year-old Gunnar Bruce had an Asian butterfly called a Scarlet Mormon land on the back of his head.
“It’s just cool how the butterflies are all over," he said. "I feel like the butterfly really likes me.”
Babbitt says butterflies are important to the environment for several reasons.
“One big one is because of pollination," he said. "They will travel from flower to flower, taking pollen from one flower and depositing it into another, enabling that flower to be able to create seeds and disperse. So we wouldn’t have a number of our flowers that we like to look at, and fruit that we like to eat, without the butterfly."
"Butterflies are also important as a food source," he added, "because for a number of birds and other insects, they are either eaten as a butterfly or as the caterpillar.”
Babbitt says the exhibit contains between 300 and 400 butterflies representing about 50 species - a small fraction of the world's 20,000 known butterfly species.
“We have butterflies from Asia and from Africa, and South and Central America, and here in the United States," he said. "So we display usually about 50 or so different species in the exhibit at any one time."
He said one of the most popular ones on display is the Blue Morpho butterfly from the Amazon region of South America, which has bright blue iridescent wings. "So it’s a large butterfly, and it’s very flashy,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old Kamri Ball, visiting from Texas, was thoroughly enjoying her "up-close and personal" encounter with one of the exhibit's many Blue Morphos.
“It feels great having him on my arm," she said. "He’s like my old friend. He’s pretty cute!”
The butterflies are raised in their countries of origin by butterfly farmers all over the world who nurture them as caterpillars. Then, once the insects enter the pupae, or chrysalis stage and encase themselves in protective cocoons, they are shipped to the museum.
Babbitt says they then unpack them and hang them up, and then wait for them to emerge into a butterfly.
"Then we release them into the exhibit,” he said.
Babbitt said that while there aren't any endangered butterflies in the Smithsonian’s exhibit, many species - such as the Monarch - are in decline.
“That’s something that we really need to watch out for and really focus on," he said. "The issues of deforestation and the use of pesticides and just general land management issues, to make sure that we can provide for these butterflies.”
He added that it's not just for the benefit of the butterflies, "but also for all of wildlife and for us, to make sure that we have a healthy environment.”
He hopes that his exhibit will help raise public awareness about the plight of the butterflies.
With young visitors like Ava and Gunnar, the message seems to have found a receptive audience.
“I learned that when butterflies flutter when they eat, it’s because they can’t balance on the flower,” said Ava.
And Gunnar said he learned that there’s lots of different species, "and they only live for about three weeks.”
The Smithsonian’s Live Butterfly Pavilion is part of a larger exhibit which traces the evolution of the butterfly and its partnership with plants, which began more than 180 million years ago.
Dan Babbitt said the museum’s goal for the next five years is to reach as many people as it can, one curious visitor - and butterfly - at a time.