Friday, February 15, 2013

Totally Texas -- A butterfly obsession

Rosine Smith Sammons Butterfly House

Texas Discovery Gardens

Dallas Fair Park, Gate 6


After a series of overcast days, I headed for the Butterfly House at the Texas Discovery Gardens in Fair Park. Bright-winged little creatures flitting among tropical flowers -- a perfect prescription to chase away the blues. If the sun doesn’t shine on your visit, don’t worry. Butterflies are less active on overcast days, which actually makes them easier to photograph. If possible, clear your schedule, as I did, to arrive for the midday release of butterflies newly emerged from their pupae. (Not from cocoons, on-site entomologist John Watts informed us. Cocoons are for moths, not butterflies.)

The Butterfly House’s USDA educational permit does not allow it to breed butterflies, but it receives pupae from butterfly farms around the world, including North Texas butterfly breeder Dale Clark’s Butterflies Unlimited farm. Butterflies arrive in in pupal form, and Watts chats with visitors daily as he releases a dozen or so newly-emerged insects into the Butterfly House.

On my visit, butterflies from at least half a dozen species climbed over the edge of their large net over a thirty-minute period. As they took to their wings in search of food and freedom, Watts let us pick his brain about all things lepidopteron.

What do butterflies eat? Only liquid food, chiefly nectar, but also fluids from various other sources, including the trays of rotting fruit tucked discreetly around the Butterfly House’s conservatory.

Why are they so colorful, anyway? Contrary to common wisdom, the dust-fine scales that give the wings their color don’t help butterflies fly. But don’t scrape the scales off -- they serve other essential purposes, warning off potential predators or allowing butterflies to identify members of their own species -- either as competitors or mates.

The last discussion brought up the question of how to tell male butterflies from females. Butterflies often do so by smell -- some male butterflies can distinguish the pheromones of females for miles. For human observers, Watts said, the best clues are behavioral. Female butterflies “taste” plant leaves for their suitability as host plants for caterpillars -- touching leaves with their feet, where butterfly taste organs are located. Males circle other males in flight to determine dominance.

The big Central American blue morpho patrolling the Butterfly House’s aisle, Watts said, was most likely a territorial male. He landed on the shoe of a Butterfly House volunteer, another sign of dominance.

So how do you encourage a butterfly to alight on you? Although it depends on the time of day, wearing white or light blue clothing -- even having white hair -- helps. As does your scent. In lieu of slathering yourself with butterfly pheromones, try a splash of Obsession perfume or the Avon’s Skin So Soft lotion you wear to repel mosquitoes. Butterflies love it!

The Butterfly House is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Last admission at 4:45 p.m.) Tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for children ages 3-11. For more about Texas Discovery Gardens and its programs, see

Want to see butterflies on the west side of the metroplex? Fort Worth Botanic Gardens hosts conservatory butterflies this year from March 3 to April 8. See

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