Butterflies Take Flight at Meijer Gardens

Emerald Swallowtail. Photo courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens.

Laurel Gaut might have one of the most fun jobs in Grand Rapids. Gaut is in charge of the Butterflies are Blooming exhibit at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

“I am the horticulturist who takes care of the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory, and when we have our “Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies Are Blooming” exhibition, I order all the pupae, I take care of the emergence area and bungalow, and I typically do the releases.”

Gaut said her favorite part of the job is the arrival each week of the chrysalides and getting to see visitors step into the conservatory for the first time.

“I love receiving the new chrysalides. They are so unique and beautiful,” she said. “I also love seeing people walk into that room for the first time and the overall environment.”

The butterflies take flight on March 1 and will remain air born through April 30. GR|MAG spoke with Gaut to find out more about this year’s exhibition.

Tree Nymph. Photo Courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens
Tree Nymph. Photo Courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens

GR|MAG: I read there are 50 to 60 different species of butterflies that will be on display. How many butterflies will there be total during the entire two months of the exhibit?

LG: We will have over 60 different species and at least 7,000 to 8,000 will fly over the course of the exhibition. We are getting a lot this year. In this first shipment, we’ve received 1500 already.

GR|MAG: So there are new shipments delivered on a weekly basis?

LG: Yes, we receive new shipments usually every Thursday and Friday.

GR|MAG: And how soon from when the shipments arrive do they turn into butterflies and enter the conservatory?

LG: Depending on the species and the weather, it could be two days to a week.

GR|MAG: So when the exhibit opens on March 1, how many butterflies will be taking flight at that point?

LG: By March 1, we will probably have 3,000 to 4,000 butterflies.

GR|MAG: What’s the peak time to visit the exhibit if you want to see the most butterflies or the largest variety of species?

LG: Any time you come there will be thousands flying around. Any time it is a nice sunny day, it will be really hot in there, but that is when they fly the most.

GR|MAG: I read that the room is kept at 85 degrees. Why is that temperature so important for the butterflies?

LG: The butterflies sense everything in their environment, the heat, the humidity, their native environment is very warm and very humid so we try to mimic that as much as possible.

GR|MAG: I read because they are cold blooded they don’t fly as much if it gets too cold?

LG: That is also true. If they get too cold they will just sit and be dormant and conserve their energy.

Red Lacewing. Photo courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens.
Red Lacewing. Photo courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens.

GR|MAG: Is there anything new this year that will be different from the past?

LG: We have all of the same great components but this year we are focusing on the journey that the butterflies take. So there will be more information on the butterfly breeders and where they come from before we receive them.

GR|MAG: So there are people out there, similar to with bees, which have butterfly farms?

LG: Yes, they are usually small-scale farmers in these butterflies’ native lands and they are usually family-operated. They raise caterpillars and they give them their host plant and when they pupate and go into their chrysalis, they send them to one of our suppliers and then they are sent to us.

GR|MAG: Why do people raise butterflies? What’s the purpose?

LG: A lot of times butterflies are so loved because they are beautiful, so they get sent to be stewards of their native environment. So they are there to show a tiny piece of the biodiversity of their native land.

GR|MAG: I know there are several activities and educational experiences that occur during the exhibit’s run. Could you highlight one or two?

LG: We have the Butterfly Ballet again this year, and that is a really great performance. It is usually in our Grand Room.

GR|MAG: One of the activities I saw that looked cool was flashlight night. What’s that?

LG: Tuesday evenings we are open until 9 p.m. and you can come in with a flashlight. Butterflies don’t really sleep they roost, so they hang from the tree limbs, usually grouped by species. And you can hear all the frogs that are also awake at night.

Common Morpho. Photo courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens.
Common Morpho. Photo courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens.

GR|MAG: With 60 different species could you highlight one or two that people might be interested in learning more about?

LG: One of my favorites, and pretty much everyone that comes in, are called a Common Morpho. When they open their wings, they are that beautiful iridescent blue and then when they close their wings they are brown with big eyespots on them.

The closed wings are for camouflage and they have those eyespots to confuse predators. If a predator is going to attack them they will only maybe hurt part of their wing instead of their body parts.

The other interesting thing about them is they are not actually blue. They are what are called structural blue. So our eye perceives it as blue, but it’s really the way they layer their scales that makes them look blue.

GR|MAG: I read that butterflies actually have transparent wings and it’s the layering that creates the perception of color for us?

LG: Yeah, the biology of these creatures is amazing.

GR|MAG: Is there anything else that you think would be important to share?

LG: It’s always good to remind people that it is really warm in there. Be a good Michigander and dress in layers.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

**Photos courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park