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Behind-the-scenes: Butterfly Pavilion


At the Butterfly Pavilion, in the eyes of hundreds of visiting elementary school students on field trips, the Chilean Rose Hair tarantula known as “Rosie” is famous. The star of the show. But behind closed doors—in her, uh, dressing room—there are terrariums of Rosies primed to entertain. Together they total about seventy with more Rosies “in training.” And nearly each one “works” the Pavilion floor for four hours a week. It was one of the tidbits revealed during a private tour of Westminster’s Butterfly Pavilion—the first insect zoo in the U.S.

My guide was entomologist Amber Partridge. The way she handles, talks to, and studies tarantulas, you’d never guess that early in life she spent a week living in her car frightened of the lone wolf spider in her house. That fear, she says, is a learned thing.

“When kids come here, they’re curious,” Partridge says in the backroom where she measures the growth rate of various species of tarantula. “Kids want to hold Rosie—it’s a fascination. It’s parents that say, ‘Squish! Bad! Kill it!’ you know?”

While educating children with an array of invertebrates alive and in shadow boxes is the Pavilion’s goal, reigniting that intrigue in adults is sometimes a bigger challenge. One way they’re creatively addressing that is with the upcoming Bugs and Beer this month. Adults only, the night starts with a Sunset Stroll through the indoor tropical forest, which offers a rare glimpse and whiff of the angel trumpet flower, an evening bloomer. Next up, Odell beer is paired with insect-infused food from Kachina Southwestern Grill. Time to test your ick-factor.

Another appeal to adults is through flow yoga. Amongst the elephant leaves, hibiscus flowers, and powderpuff, coffee and tamarind tree is a clearing where the monthly sessions are held. It wouldn’t be uncommon for an owl butterfly to perch on your hand mid-warrior two pose.

Overall there’s 1,600 butterflies swarming the vicinity, dipping their proboscis in bleeding heart flowers like a pliable syringe. The lifespan of the butterflies feeding on nectar is two – four weeks, while those feeding on feces and rotting fruit can live up to a year. But new animals are constantly released in their rainforest at 12:30 pm and 2:30 pm. The Pavilion’s pupas come from  around the world via London Pupae Supplies—a butterfly broker. (Yes, they exist.) Once they die, the butterflies are kept at negative 20 degrees for 72 hours to kill any viruses, parasites, and bacteria.

Partridge leads me to the room with the freezer, its walls doused in red light to deter butterflies from entering. Inside are pupae ready to emerge. There’s ways to tell moths from butterflies, she says. One is muted colors. “But that doesn’t apply to all of them.” She reaches into a cage and pulls out the Atlas moth, the world’s largest. Its wingspan, a mesmerizing red, is ten inches. Its round black eyes peer at mine. “I think their faces look like Ewoks,” says Partridge. Outlined on the wings’ sides are snakeheads. It’s no accident. Animals that don’t see well will mistake it for a snake. “It’s all about survival for these guys.”

As a way to redeem my squeamishness from an Indian Ornamental tarantula molt I saw earlier on my tour, I ask to hold the Atlas moth. She agrees, and I can feel the thousands of tiny hairs on its feet grip my hand. I ask, “They don’t sense fear, right?” The question gets me thinking about all insects, which account for 80 percent of life on earth. “If invertebrates could sense fear,” Partridge smiles, “then the world would be in big trouble.”

Get over your fear and learn a bit more about these creepy crawlers at the Butterfly Pavilion.

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