May 12, 2011
It is said that April showers bring May flowers. So what do May flowers bring? Pollen, which attracts bees (and attacks the sinuses), and nectar which feeds the butterflies, emblematic of the welcome change in seasons. We know it’s spring when we start to see butterflies again, but how do butterflies know when it’s time to come out? Well, two ways—temperature and length of day, which increases as the weather gets warmer, says Dr. Robert Robbins, research entomologist and Lepidoptera curator at the National Museum of Natural History.
According to Robbins, the first butterflies of the season came out in Washington in the middle of March, during the few warm days we had that month. These early butterflies overwintered as adults, hidden underneath bark and in nooks in the woods. (Other butterflies may spend winter as an egg, a caterpillar, a pupa or fly south to avoid the cold). In the Washington, D.C. area, the most common species of butterflies you’ll see now are: Commas, butterflies that are a mixture of neutral colors like tan and brown with the exception of a big silver comma mark on their wings; Mourning Cloaks, black butterflies with yellow around the edges, so named because hundreds of years ago they looked like they were wearing cloaks for mourning and Spring Azures, very pretty light blue-colored butterflies. These butterflies aren’t likely to be around much longer, but not to worry, there are still plenty more to see.
Now, while the National Mall isn’t a very good habitat for butterflies, the ATM team scoured the museums to bring you the top five places to see butterflies around the Smithsonian Institution.
1. Take a stroll among live butterflies and exotic plants at the Butterfly Pavilion at the National Museum of Natural History and learn how butterflies and plants have changed and evolved alongside one another over the years. With more than 40 butterflies on display, you can get up close and personal with butterflies from around the world. Ticket purchase is required before arrival.
2. Continue east of the Natural History Museum to find the Butterfly Habitat Garden, where nectar plants (which nourish the butterflies) and host plants (on which they lay eggs) come together to attract butterflies and encourage them to breed there, says Jonathan Kavalier, supervisory Horticulturist at Smithsonian Gardens. “The habitat garden is designed to encourage native butterflies,” says Kavalier. “There are about 50 butterflies that are common in the D.C. area and I would say that we have certainly a couple dozen represented in the garden.” The garden is busiest around the summer months but there’s already been some activity there, so get a jump on the crowds and enjoy the pesticide-free oasis for some of the prettiest harbingers of spring.
3. While finding butterflies outside comes at no surprise, they can also be found in some unexpected places, like the museums. With the end of the space shuttle program in sight, it’s important to remember the scientific experiments conducted aboard the shuttles and at the International Space Station. For example, did you know that a butterfly habitat was flown aboard space shuttle Columbia on the STS-93 mission in July 1999 for a butterfly metamorphosis experiment? Learn more and see a duplicate of the habitat at the Space Science exhibition station at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.
4. Adult butterflies usually have a short lifespan. “If you bring a butterfly into the lab, where it won’t get eaten by a bird [or some other predator] and you feed it some kind of nectar or sugar solution, most butterflies will live approximately a month,” says Robbins, “maybe a drop longer, sometimes a bit shorter.” Some species are even endangered. See one, the Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly, on a 1996 single stamp (back when they were 32 cents) in the Postal Museum’s virtual exhibit collections. Granted Federal Endangered Status since 1984, this may one of the few places to see one up close. It is also one of many butterfly stamps searchable in the museum’s Arago database.
5. The newly-restored Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art boasts a number of stunning attractions, among them a “lidded jar with design of butterflies.” See it now in its renovated surroundings. If you’re still on the hunt for more butterflies, stroll around the rest of the galleries and look closely at the paintings, you may find some additional butterfly renderings there.
While you are out and about, enjoying the weather, be on the lookout for other local springtime beauties like: the black and white stripped Zebra Swallowtail, which can be found eating pawpaw plants along the Potomac and Pautuxent Rivers, the yellow and black stripped Tiger Swallowtail, which feeds on the tulip trees which grow so abundantly around Washington and the Monarch butterflies, which should be returning back from Mexico.
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