Nothing welcomes warmer weather like the annual “Wings of Fancy” Butterfly and Caterpillar Exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. Since 1997, it has grown into one of Montgomery County’s most popular venues for field trips, first dates and Sunday strolls. “Wings of Fancy” runs through Sept. 17, leaving plenty of time to visit.
Some come to learn about the role butterflies play in our ecosystem. Others come for tips on attracting butterflies to their own gardens. In addition to the hundreds of live butterflies from all over the world, special events are offered in conjunction with the exhibit. “Wings and Wine” (for adults) is in its second year. Ever been to a butterfly birthday party?
Even “Wings of Fancy” repeat attenders find something with each visit. What’s new this year? We asked Conservatory Manager and “Wings” veteran Kathy Stevens, who has been a part of the exhibit since 2004.
“Wings of Fancy” is wildly popular. How do you keep it new and different?
Each year when the exhibit returns, it is new, just as each spring is new and is never quite the same as any other year.
More specifically, this year, we received Atlas moths for the first time in three years. The Atlas moth is the largest moth in the world.
In addition, we received greater numbers of clearwing butterflies than in year’s past. With more [of these] present, they are easier to find in the exhibit.
Many of our less common butterflies are sent in small numbers, say five at a time. It is not always easy to find those five among the hundreds of other butterflies in the exhibit, if all five emerge successfully.
What do you mean by “emerge successfully”?
Whenever we receive chrysalises, whether it’s five of one species or 25, there is always a chance that one or more may have problems that prevent them from ending up in the exhibit. Occasionally some are damaged during shipping or have a parasite or disease that prevents them from emerging as a healthy adult.
Once they emerge, they have to get their wings expanded quickly and hardened off so the wings are properly formed. If not properly formed, the butterfly can’t fly or can’t fly well. Those butterflies cannot be released into the flight house. It’s a small percentage of butterflies that fail, usually less than 10 percent of our total numbers. It varies from year to year.
Who knew so many people are into butterflies? Give us an idea of how many people visit the exhibit each year.
Attendance at “Wings of Fancy” has consistently been over 40,000 visits per year. There are hundreds of first-time visitors each season and thousands of second-grade students who come with their schools. There are also many visitors who have been coming once a season or once a month or once a week every year.
Do butterflies creep some people out?
Yes, some children and adults are nervous around the butterflies, but they are quite a small number when compared to those who enjoy being near them and watching the butterflies as they fly freely from place to place in the exhibit. Some visitors prefer to look in through the windows from outside the greenhouse, to see what it’s like in the exhibit and decide if they wish to enter.
Any rare species?
Rare to us, yes. Several species that are new to us or rarely received before are: Archeoprepona demophoon – Silver King Shoemaker, a lovely butterfly with iridescent blue stripes on its upper wings, Kallima linachus –Orange Dead Leaf which mimics a dead leaf exactly when its wings are closed, and the Birdwing butterflies which are very large and stand out visually, but don’t live very long.
Butterflies are rare because they have very specific habitat requirements (plant communities and environmental conditions) or complex life cycles that are not easily replicated in a protected breeding situation. Butterfly farmers tend to focus on the species that are most adaptable to cultivation.
And your favorite?
That changes every week. There is something beautiful and interesting about all of them. I really like the Starry Night Cracker. It’s deep, velvety blue-black on its upper wing with small iridescent blue spots that look like stars in the night sky, which is how it was given one of its common names.
Are butterflies endangered?
All butterfly species in North America are suffering declines in population. I would venture to guess that the same is true for the Central and South American species, as well, given the rates of deforestation and habitat removal, but it seems to be most rapid in North America (or maybe I am most aware of the situation in North America). We consider a species rare if we never receive it or only receive a few chrysalises over the course of the season.
Do all the butterflies live until the end of the exhibit?
No. Each butterfly may only live a few weeks and some species are seasonal. The butterflies on exhibit vary throughout the season. We receive shipments of chrysalises every week but do not have the ability to determine what we receive. We ask for certain species but the growers send us what they have.
How many “flight attendants” does the exhibit require? Do you take volunteers?
There are four employees in the conservatory throughout the year; three full-time and one part-time. Six additional employees are hired for the butterfly exhibit.
We mostly need volunteers in May, June and September, weekday hours especially. During the summer, we have lots of student volunteers working on their Student Service Learning requirement so these shifts are usually full. Once school begins again in September, there is more of a need for volunteers. We are having training sessions Aug. 17 and 19 for new volunteers who can volunteer on weekdays in September. Join us!
“Wings of Fancy” runs through Sept. 17 at the Brookside Gardens Conservatory, 1500 Glenallan Ave, Wheaton. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 3 through12; free for ages 2 and younger. For information, visit www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trails/brookside-gardens/wings-fancy-live-butterfly-caterpillar-exhibit or call 301-962-1400. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.