Sunday, October 26, 2008

Goodbye to the Butterfly Zone

The Butterfly Zone exhibit over at the Conservatory of Flowers is something I’ve been meaning to go to ever since it opened last spring. Now it’s closing on Nov. 2 and I finally made it over there last week.

I was entranced, walking into the exhibit space, to see butterflies flying around me and feeding on various blooms. But as I examined them more closely I could see that most of them had tattered wings. The caterpillar and chrysalis house was closed, with a sign saying that they couldn’t raise any more butterflies because the exhibit was coming to a close. The USDA (they regulate butterflies?) would not allow the release of their “leftover” butterflies into the wild, so they were just letting the remaining species live out their lives. Note to self: do not wait to visit an exhibit until the last two weeks.

There was only one battered ID guide around that didn’t even list all the butterfly species I saw. Of course I knew the one Monarch I saw on the milkweed. With the help of the $2 official Butterfly Zone ID guide I eventually identified these species:
Julia (Dryas iulia)
Atala (Eumaeus atala)
Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)
Crimson-Patched Longwing (Heliconius erato)
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
But what was the striking black one with iridescent blue stripes and white spots, the most numerous butterfly left in the exhibit? On an empty bulletin board outside the exhibit, dark squares showed where more info once hung. I asked one of the gardeners if she knew about butterflies.
“Why?” she asked, apparently tired of butterfly questions.
“There’s a butterfly that isn’t identified on any of the guides,” I said. “I just wanted to know what it was.”
“Well, the exhibit is about to close. The entomologist has been taking all her pictures down so there’s not a lot left.”
“Is she around?” I asked.
“Oh no, she’s gone. There’s only about a week left now, so …”
Even the entomologist had abandoned it.
On my way out of the Conservatory, I glanced up. Those blue-striped butterflies were clustered thickly on the skylight, like moths around my porch light.

Back home I searched for the mystery butterfly on After paging through more than 100 pages of butterfly images, I found it: a Mexican Bluewing (Myscelia ethusa). One reason my search took so long was that I had no idea where this butterfly’s habitat was, or even if it lived in North America. If I had observed it in, say, my backyard, I could have looked on one of the Bay Area-specific sites and saved a lot of time. The only reason it showed up on is that is also found in extreme southern Texas, since they only include insects from the U.S. and Canada.

Which is really why the Butterfly Zone didn’t grab me like I thought it would. I did see some gorgeous butterflies I probably never would have seen in their natural habitats (unless I traveled to extreme southern Texas, for example). But out of context, they were only decorative, like the orchid in my bathroom. It was more interesting to me to find the chrysalis of the lowly Cabbage White on my kale than have the exotic Mexican Bluewing land on my leg in the glass-enclosed exhibit space.

You can see gorgeous photos of all the butterflies I saw, including the Mexican Bluewing, at I think I was the only adult at the Butterfly Zone without my camera.

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