SHARON — The newly constructed butterfly house at the Sharon Audubon Center welcomes various species of the colorful, thin-winged creatures, which float around the modest-sized wood and screen structure, alighting from time to time on a variety of plants and flowers in the enclosed space.
A walkway allows visitors to wander a bit and enjoy the fanciful show the monarchs, black swallowtails, eastern swallowtails, and painted ladies, as well as a few uninvited cabbage whites, a show put on for an admiring audience without even knowing it. But then again, perhaps the butterflies do realize they are one of nature’s favorite creatures.
The Audubon Center will hold a “Special Celebration of the Amazing World of Butterflies” Saturday to recognize the building of the enclosed butterfly house, as well as a nearby native plant garden that is used to attract butterflies to the site, and a caterpillar rearing lab. There will be tours of the new additions to the sprawling Audubon Center at 325 Cornwall Bridge Road, Sharon, as well as presentations on native butterflies, planting for butterflies, container planting, and other related topics. It promises to be fun for the whole family with ongoing crafts and activities for kids, pollinator searches, music, food, and more.
“The celebration is to give the public a look at what we have created here and to make them aware of what they can personally do to help butterflies,” said Education Program Manager Wendy Miller, as she gently cradled an armful of caterpillars for placement in the rearing lab, where they are put on native plants to eventually form chrysalises out of which hatch butterflies. “The butterfly house and gardens tie in with Audubon’s approach to preserving plants and birds native to the area. We thought it would be a great addition to our center. It’s been a learning curve for all of us involved and I’m still finding out things about butterflies and have more to learn.”
Butterflies are fragile creatures that can be greatly affected by changes in habitat and the use, or overuse, of pesticides on plants and flowers. Their primary job, Miller said, beyond looking beautiful in flight and when alighting on a flower to pull nectar from petals, is as a pollinator, similar to bees and certain birds.
In a somewhat odd twist of nature, some butterflies that overwinter in their chrysalis and then emerge live only a short time, perhaps two to three weeks, according to Miller. Some migrate and return at various times of the year, mostly in late summer. Both situations are not species-specific. So, the monarch you see in late August or early September may not be the same one you saw in late spring or early summer.
According to www.enchantedlearning.com, “the butterfly’s body is covered by tiny sensory hairs. The four wings and the six legs of the butterfly are attached to the thorax. The thorax contains the muscles that make the legs and wings move. Butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis in which they go through four different life stages; egg, larva, pupa (chrysalis), and adult.”
The site reports that “butterflies can only sip liquid food using a tube-like proboscis, which is a long, flexible tongue. The proboscis uncoils to sip food, and coils up again into a spiral when not in use. Most butterflies live on nectar from flowers. Although butterflies (there are 28,000 species) are found all over the world and in all types of environments, most species are found in tropical areas, especially tropical rainforests.
“Many butterflies migrate to avoid adverse environmental conditions, like cold weather. Butterfly migration is not well understood. Most migrate relatively short distances, like the Painted Lady, the Red Admiral, and the Common Buckeye, but a few, like some monarchs migrate thousands of miles.”
Here’s a fact you may not have known: Butterfly fossils said to be about 130 million years old have been discovered. Their development is closely linked to the evolution of flowering plants, and adults are important pollinators of many flowering plants. Flowering plants also evolved during the Cretaceous period.
If you wonder why a butterfly will sometime land on you in a field, it’s been explained that several species need more sodium than that provided by nectar; so they sometimes land on people, attracted by the salt in human sweat.
The Sharon Audubon butterfly house, native plant garden and rearing lab were designed and constructed as part of project made possible by several grants that totaled $15,000, said Miller. One of the grants was used to involve area high school students, including those at Torrington High School, in the project. In addition, home-schooled students in New York State under the tutelage of Israel Fitch, of Butterhill Forge in Millerton, N.Y., researched, designed and helped build an impressive sheet metal butterfly seat that was placed in the native plant garden.
After staying in the butterfly house, all butterflies are eventually released into the wild, Miller said. Plans are to overwinter some of the pupa, at which time they will be put into a state of stasis or inactivity, until they can be released when the weather warms next year.
When collecting samples, staffers and volunteers are careful to check for what is called “OE,” or Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite found in some butterflies that can spread quickly to non-affected butterflies.
Miller said, “Butterflies love native plants, especially milkweed (found a field just outside the butterfly house), as well as herbs and various annuals.” She urged anyone trying to handle a butterfly to be extremely careful (or don’t do it) and to not hold them by their wings, since touching can damage their tiny scales.
Saturday’s Butterfly Celebration begins at 10 a.m., with a session of yoga at a nearby pond. It then moves to a butterfly ID activity and a butterfly house ribbon cutting ceremony from 10:45 to 11 a.m. Then there are all sorts of activities for any age: house and garden tours; presentations, a butterfly boutique where merchandise will be available for purchase; a native plant sale to allow visitors to attract butterflies to their properties; lots of children’s crafts and games, and a storybook walk.
The charge is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. No advance pre-registration or ticket purchase is necessary.
Visit www.sharon.audubon.org for more information.