Rare butterflies light up the day at Durham museum

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 07:14 PM

Hundreds of rare butterflies that looked like neon signs with wings lit up the day Monday at the Museum of Life + Science in Durham.

The Magic Wings Butterfly House lived up to its name as wide-eyed children watched as Blue Morpho butterflies flapped gracefully around them, lighting on their heads, shoulders, hands and even on one man’s nose.

Monday was the first day of a month-long release of more than 1,000 of the tropical insects – one of the rarest and largest butterflies in the world.

The Morphos have beauty and presence. Like the late actress Bette Davis, when they enter a room, the atmosphere changes.

“Look!” said one young girl as a Morpho lit on her finger. She struggled to keep her hand from shaking as five, 10, 15 seconds elapsed as the Morpho – wings up – rested motionless.

It then flew off, landing on a nearby tree to sip banana juice left by museum workers.

“They’re ambassadors of the insect world,” Ulrich Hartmond, butterfly house director, said of the Morphos. “They’re gorgeously pretty, quiet and peaceful. And they don’t sting and bite.”

Communications manager Leslie Pepple said that the museum has never had Morphos in such numbers.

“This is an opportunity to bring the tropics to the Triangle,” she said. “They’re pretty rare, and exist mostly in the wild in Costa Rica.”

The museum buys them from South and Central American farmers whose practices are environmentally sustainable.

“Butterfly farming is a steady source of income in some areas where they might not other otherwise have steady income,” Pepple said. “We had to do a lot of coordination to have 1,000 Morphos here, but I think it was worth it.”

Museum patrons agreed.

Sally Garrett drove with her family from Raleigh to see the Morphos.

“We’ve raised butterflies ourselves from a kit and released them,” she said. “They’re so beautiful. This is the highlight of our trip.”

Eight-year-old Rachael Rhoad of Raleigh was fascinated by how the Morphos, which have a brown underside, can camouflage themselves by blending in with their environment.

“At first, we couldn’t find any butterflies, but we found out they were all camouflaging,” she said.

Anna Schulman, 10, of Medfield, Mass., came to the butterfly house with her cousins from Raleigh. She coaxed a Morpho to rest on her finger.

“I got a little nervous at first, and sort of held it away,” she said. “Then I got it on my finger, and it flew away. I think they’re beautiful.”

Six-year-old Laney Rhoad of Wilmington said her favorite creature is the elephant, but she still enjoyed her encounter with the butterflies.

And 8-year-old Julia Kraus of Raleigh was tickled when a Morpho put one of its legs on her hand.
“That was really cool,” Julia said.

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For information about the butterfly exhibit, visit www.lifeandscience.org or call 919-220-5429. The museum is at 433 Murray Ave. in Durham. A special evening fundraiser to support the Magic Wings Butterfly House will be held from 7 to 10:30 p.m. July 12. Guests can enjoy a special after-hours view of the conservatory and sample foods from South and Central America, catch an evening train ride and dance to live music. Tickets are $60 per person. More information is at lifeandscience.org/visit/events/night.