As if riding on an invisible breeze, butterflies of all colors and shapes wove through the air inside the all-glass conservatory.
Great owl butterflies, with shaded spots on their wings mimicking a pair of predator eyes, found leaves and ledges where the sun was shining. A blue morpho emerged from the branches of birdnest ferns and bougainvillea trees to stretch its iridescent indigo-purple wings on a metal vent.
Lucky children extended their fingers, allowing a butterfly to land delicately on their outstretched hand.
The colors of spring have come to technicolor life in Butterfly Kaleidoscope, an annual exhibit at the White River Gardens at the Indianapolis Zoo. Nearly 40 types of butterflies, from monarchs to blue morphos, freely flit through the tropical plants of a 5,000-square-feet conservatory.
The collection is the only place in the area to see butterflies from jungles all over the world, as well as those common to the gardens of Indiana.
“Most of these species are not native, so it’s not like it’s something you’ll see in your backyard,” said Lori Roedell, curator of Butterfly Kaleidoscope. “Seeing the diversity of butterflies is really cool. Most kids from the city don’t get to see that all the time.”
Butterfly Kaleidoscope has become a yearly tradition for the Matthews family of the Center Grove area. Rachel Matthews brought her children Preston, 7, and Dalena, 10, to chase the insects along the stone pathway through the exhibit.
The kids were preoccupied with getting the insects to land on their hands, shoulders and heads.
GO SEE IT
What: An exhibit of nearly 40 butterfly species flying freely in a glass conservatory.
Where: Hilbert Conservatory of the White River Gardens at the Indianapolis Zoo, 1200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
When: Through Sept. 2
Through May 22: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday
May 23 to Sept. 1: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday and holidays
Cost: Admission to the exhibit is included in a ticket to the zoo. Prices vary depending on day from $12.45 to $23.45 for adults, $9.45 to $17.70 for children. To buy tickets or check a price, go to indianpoliszoo.com.
“There are so many of them, and they’re so easy to study in a setting like this. Kids and adults can learn about them,” Rachel Matthews said. “We don’t take enough time to slow down and notice butterflies normally.”
The exhibit has become one of the zoo’s main attractions, Roedell said. Though it originally opened in 1999, the butterfly showcase was closed in 2011. Zoo officials brought it back last year, and it regularly draws thousands of guests each day.
“Butterflies on average are on decline because of habitat loss and pesticides. To be able to showcase that here is important,” Roedell said.
The zoo gets its domestic insects from a special farm in Florida, while a broker in Colorado provides butterflies from all over the world. Shipments of about 1,000 pupa come every week containing chrysalises packed in toilet paper and plastic cups.
At its peak in the summer, the exhibit features 1,500 butterflies. Weekly shipments will continue until a few weeks before Labor Day weekend, when the exhibit will close, Roedell said.
Zoo workers carefully glue each chrysalis to a plastic rod arranged by species. The chrysalises are racked in a screened-in pen, allowing guests to observe each different type.
Occasionally, people can witness a new butterfly emerge and stretch its wings for the first time, Roedell said.
“It can take anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks for them to emerge. Then we release them into the conservatory at posted times throughout the day, so people can see their first flight,” she said.
Butterflies in captivity are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides a permit for the zoo to keep them. Because the department classifies butterflies as a pest category, the zoo’s permit is only for exhibition, not for breeding.
To discourage the insects from reproducing, the plants inside the Hilbert Conservatory are carefully chosen, Roedell said.
“Butterflies have very specific plants that they have to lay their eggs on, and caterpillars only eat certain plants. So we don’t provide any host plants,” she said.
Butterflies feed on both nectar and pollen, so caretakers provide both for the insects. Plates of fruit sit out in the sun to slowly rot, a delectable treat. Nectar solutions made of Gatorade, sugar and Blue Moon beer provide nutrients as well.
“They want sweet and sugary, but they also want the fermented beer. In the wild, butterflies feed on everything from rotting fruit to animal carcasses to dung to mud,” Roedell said.
Plants such as lantana and Egyptian star flower are favorites of the butterflies. When the plants are in bloom, the flowers are packed with insects hoping to get a taste of pollen.
The temperature in the conservatory is kept between 78 and 82 degrees. The glass panels capture sunlight, keeping the area warm in the cooler spring and fall months. During the summer, special exhaust vents and swamp coolers help keep the temperature from getting too warm.
The goal of the exhibit is to give people an idea about supporting butterflies once they leave the zoo.
Displays throughout the conservatory are designed to teach people how to attract monarch, buckeye and swallowtail butterflies to their own yards. Zoo curators explain how to responsibly use pesticides as to not harm the insects and to use plants such as milkweed to give butterflies something to eat.
“We just want to appreciate the diversity and that they’re really cool creatures,” Roedell said. “People see that they’re insects, but they don’t realize that they do a lot of good.”
Habitat: Openings between subtropical hardwood forests and fields.
Range: Resident in Brazil north through Mexico, West Indies, peninsular Florida and South Texas. Strays north to eastern Nebraska.
Color: Bright orange with narrow black border for males, duller orange with more black markings for females.
Fun fact: Specially adapted to feed on pollen, which allows Julia butterflies to live longer than most species.
Habitat: Tropical hammocks, moist forests and in fields.
Range: South America north through Central America, West Indies and Mexico to South Texas and peninsular Florida. Occasionally immigrate north to New Mexico, Nebraska and South Carolina.
Color: Black with narrow yellow stripes.
Fun fact: Was declared the state butterfly of Florida in 1996.
Habitat: Open habitats including fields, meadows, weedy areas, marsh and roadsides.
Range: Southern Canada south through all of the U.S., Central America and most of South America. Also present in Australia, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands.
Color: Bright orange with wide black borders for males, orange-brown with black borders for females.
Fun fact: Migrate up to 2,500 miles each fall. Only about every fourth generation makes it to the hibernation locale in Mexico; the first three generations die before completely the trip.
Habitat: Tropical forests and cultivated land.
Range: Southern Mexico, Central America, South America, Trinidad and Tobago.
Color: Gray-brown wings with large eye-like spots.
Fun fact: Eye spots on the wings are used to scare away predators.
Habitat: All forest habitats.
Color: Brilliant blue undersides of wings, with uppersides featuring black and yellow ringed eyespots on brown backgrounds.
Range: Central America, South America and the West Indies.
Fun fact: Among the largest butterflies in the world, with wings measuring from 5 to 8 inches across.
SOURCE: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History