Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House

Until recently, butterfly houses were more curiosities than mainstream attractions. During the past decade, however, these facilities have become more popular, and their numbers have increased. Riding this wave of popularity is the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House and Education Center in Chesterfield, Mo. This St. Louis suburb is the location of Faust Park, in which the Butterfly House is situated.

The Butterfly House, founded in 1995 as an independent non-profit organization, seeks "to foster a better understanding and increased awareness of our natural world," according to its mission statement. A key aspect of achieving this goal is through the conservatory and education center in Faust Park.

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Naturally, anything dealing with "bugs" is going to be a hit with children. But the appeal goes beyond youngsters. The glittering chaos of swarming butterflies is breathtaking, especially when nothing-no net, glass or any other barrier-separates you from these beautiful creatures. In fact, butterflies frequently land and rest on visitors, providing an eye-to-eye encounter.

Anyone who simply enjoys plants or the balmy atmosphere of a tropical greenhouse will find the conservatory a worthwhile diversion. Open year-round, it offers recreators a much-needed break from Midwestern winter weather.

Keeping the butterflies flying Several specialists are necessary for such a facility. Mark Deering, curator of butterflies, oversees acquisition and maintenance of the star attractions. Stacy Rozier, curator of horticulture, supervises the care of the Butterfly House's other inhabitants-the plants. Rozier came west from the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Horticulturist Phillip Stutz has the right credentials for his job: a botanist with experience in pollination biology. Together with other staff members, they maintain a convincing replica of a tropical forest, complete with a sparkling kaleidoscope of exotic lepidoptera.

Climate control is crucial at the Butterfly House. Temperature and humidity must remain high to keep the butterflies active-82 degrees F and 78 percent humidity are the targets.

Cooling becomes a challenge on hot, sunny days, but a mist system provides some help. Though intended for the benefit of the butterflies, visitors also enjoy the cooling fog. Conversely, heating is the major challenge in winter.

The butterflies themselves constitute a major portion of the Butterfly House's expenses. The insects are shipped in the pupal (chrysalis) stage and can cost as much as $8 apiece (though most are $2.50 or less). The life expectancy of a butterfly ranges from 2 weeks to 2 months after emerging from its chrysalis, so importing new specimens is a continual process. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given its stamp of approval to about 300 species for use. At any given time, you'll find about 60 types at the Butterfly House.

The USDA is adamant about preventing the release of an exotic insect species. The threat of a tropical butterfly becoming established here actually is not too great, considering that most require year-round mild conditions to survive. However, the USDA also is trying to prevent the introduction of parasites that could harm native North American insects.

Releasing any exotic insect into the outdoor environment-accidentally or not-is strictly forbidden. All visitors must pass through a series of doors when entering or leaving the conservatory to prevent escapes. The apparatus resembles something from a science fiction movie, perhaps an air lock in a space ship.

Picky about plants Plant selection is a special job at the Butterfly House. Considering all the effort spent on making the butterflies feel at home, it's ironic that the Butterfly House must scrupulously avoid the preferred host plants of the butterflies. The reason is that, as exotic insects, the USDA prohibits the butterflies from reproducing. Of course, the butterflies don't know that, and with so many butterflies mingling freely, mating does occur. A lack of suitable larval food plants is all that prevents subsequent generations. Therefore, Rozier and Stutz constantly scrutinize plants for egg laying. If a plant turns out to be a possible food source, it is removed from the plant palette.

By contrast, plants with good nectar-producing flowers are critical food sources for the butterflies, and Rozier and Stutz continually search for new and better nectar producers. Flowers, to be suitable, must be the right size and shape, as well as full of nectar. "The butterflies will eventually leave flowers alone if they can't get nectar," says Stutz. He explains that the suitability of a flower for a given butterfly depends on the length of the butterfly's proboscis.

Not all butterflies are nectar feeders-some prefer to feed on fruit. Visitors will find fruit trays scattered throughout the conservatory for this reason.

Good bugs and bad bugs As anyone who has ever worked in a greenhouse knows, pest control in an enclosed environment can be challenging. The Butterfly House faces some greenhouse-type pest problems, and a few that are unique. Aphids, mealy bugs, scales and mites are the usual problems here, says Rozier. The constant movement of materials into the conservatory makes pest introductions inevitable.

The small size of the Butterfly House makes certain pest control efforts feasible that would not be practical on a larger scale. This is fortunate because, for obvious reasons, traditional insecticides are out of the question. Suitable pest controls include insecticidal oils and soaps, alcohol leaf rubs and some occasional handpicking.

Beneficial insects play a crucial role. Valuable controls that Rozier and Stutz employ are Encarsia wasps for whitefly control, Cryptolaemus beetles for mealybug control and lacewing larvae for aphids, mites and other pests.

Ants, a nuisance in themselves, also encourage scales and aphids. The conservatory has a no-food-allowed policy to discourage ants, which would feed on snacks dropped by visitors.

Rather than leaving new plants in their containers, as is frequently the case with relatively temporary plantings, specimens are planted directly into the growing mix used throughout the conservatory. Soil compaction is a constant battle. Foot traffic is confined to paved trails, but watering and general settling take their toll.

The Butterfly House is currently expanding to the outdoors. A native butterfly habitat and teaching garden is under construction and scheduled to open in the summer of 2000. The habitat is currently being installed and will include woodland and prairie plantings designed to attract and support native butterfly species. Additionally, annual bedding displays, also designed to attract butterflies, should put on quite a show-both with butterflies and a colorful bloom. The expansion will create a contrasting but complementary environment where people can learn about local butterflies as well as plants and gardening.

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