A permanent butterfly pavilion will open at the museum Friday.
Visitors will be able to feel the oasis of an August day after an afternoon rain all year,complete with heat,humidity,horticulture and hundreds of fluttering butterflies.
“Butterflies + Plants: Partners in Evolution” allows visitors to learn about the relationship between these colorful flying creatures and plants over millions of years.
“It is simply breathtaking and magical,” said Elizabeth Duggal,associate director of the National Museum of Natural History,at the exhibit preview Wednesday.
The exhibit,for which planning began in 2006,is divided into two sections: the exhibition hall,open to everyone,and a live butterfly pavilion.
The exhibit's main hall offers visitors a tour of the co-evolution of butterflies and plants from the Jurassic period to modern time. Through murals,timelines and photographs,visitors will learn how nature has evolved and changed.
The 1,200 square-foot butterfly pavilion,which accommodates approximately 35 people at once,is a temperature and humidity controlled environment that houses more than 400 butterflies of 30 to 40 species. However,the types of butterflies in the pavilion will vary over the year,said Nathan Erwin,exhibition manager.
“This is not just your typical butterfly exhibit,” said Sally Love Connell,exhibition developer. “We tried to get science stories in here and make connections. We wanted to balance the fun with the learned.”
Duggal said visitors will learn some surprising tidbits,such as butterflies' close relation to moths.
“Moths have gotten a bad rap over the years,” Duggal said. “Rather than just eating our wool sweaters in the attic,they are beautiful to look at,look so much like their butterfly relatives and are as equally important to the ecosystem.”
This colorful sports drink helps replenish the salt that butterflies need,said Nathan Erwin,exhibition manager,whom David Letterman calls “the Smithsonian Bug Guy.”
As visitors stroll the “rainforest,” they will encounter butterflies flying,often inches from their faces,sipping nectar,roosting and flexing their wings to warm them before flying,Erwin said.
“They're so beautiful,so different,so close … so very close,” Connell said.
There will be a fee of $6 for adults to enter the butterfly pavilion,less for children and seniors. The fee,which stirred controversy because of the Smithsonian's always-free policy,is necessary to support expensive operating costs,Connell said.
“It wouldn't be possible without charging people,” Connell said.
The Smithsonian horticulture division is devoting a greenhouse to grow pesticide-free plants for the exhibit.
New butterflies must be purchased twice a week from around the world to replace those that die,and additional staff was hired to maintain the exhibit,Connell said. The butterflies have an average lifespan of two to four weeks,Erwin said as a yellow and blue emperor swallowtail butterfly from Africa flew by and perched on a leaf.
Each week,the museum receives chrysalides from Malaysia,Costa Rica and Africa. The chrysalides are hung in the pavilion,and visitors can witness the final stages of metamorphosis,Erwin said.
Erwin said the Agriculture Department prohibits the museum from breeding nonnative species. He said the museum must be vigilant to ensure butterflies do not lay eggs,which he said doesn't happen very often.
Visitors are asked to do a “little shake” before leaving to ensure they don't have a hijacker on their back. Double,interlocking doors at the entry and exit and a blast of air when the doors are opened keep butterflies from escaping.
The dome-like pavilion has no right angles,which promotes flying,said Elizabeth Musteen,museum project manager. If the dome had corners,the butterflies would congregate in the corners and die,Musteen said.
“Butterflies aren't rocket scientists,” Erwin said.