By Ryan Trares
For The Republic
Among the vivid green plants of a tropical hothouse, flashes of blues, purples, oranges and other bright colors flit in and out of the light.
Distinctively patterned orange and black monarch butterflies jigger in crooked paths through the air. The delicate white and dappled yellow of the ghost sulfur butterfly moves between blooming flowers.
The blue morpho slowly flaps its wings, revealing brilliant blue coloring that serves as a beacon for awestruck adults and children who pass by.
The technicolor radiance of more than 40 types of butterflies and moths is the perfect antidote to the dragging final days of winter. Butterfly Kaleidoscope is an annual feast of color at the Indianapolis Zoo and its attached White River Gardens.
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Visitors can walk freely among the bougainvillea trees and birdnest ferns, encountering diverse species such as the bamboo page and the sleepy orange out in the open.
Few places in the Midwest offer the chance to see butterflies from the rainforests of Central and South America as well as those common in gardens of Indiana.
“Being immersed inside there with 1,000-plus butterflies flying around you is a really cool thing. When it’s not so nice outside, you can be inside among the conservatory plants, with these amazing butterflies all around you,” said Scott Sullivan, curator of horticulture for the Indianapolis Zoo.
Butterflies are one of the most distinctive and beloved insects in the world. More than 165,000 species exist around the world, including 149 in Indiana.
Everyone knows the Monarch butterfly, and swallowtails also are common locally. But people have likely never seen some of the exotic varieties featured at the Indianapolis Zoo.
People can see the great owl butterflies, with shaded spots on their wings mimicking a pair of predator eyes. Smaller varieties such as the julias, the zebra longwings and the postmen are extremely active and constantly flying from plant to plant. It’s easy to get lost in following the insects on their traverse, Sullivan said.
“They’re just so active, and there’s always a group of them together. Everyone loves to see the big blue morphos, but they’re not as active as these smaller ones,” he said.
While butterflies get the majority of attention from visitors, this year’s exhibit does features noteworthy moths as well, Sullivan said. The Madagascan sunset moth has distinctive wings with iridescent red, blue and green markings.
“They are day-flying moths, and they look just like butterflies, but they’re really colorful and interesting,” he said.
Butterfly Kaleidoscope has grown into one of the zoo’s top attractions, Sullivan said.
The Indianapolis Zoo had a butterfly showcase for more than 10 years but ended the exhibit in 2011. Visitors enjoyed the butterflies so much that it was reborn in 2013. Butterfly Kaleidoscope regularly draws thousands of guests to the White River Gardens Hilbert Conservatory from its opening in March to Labor Day, Sullivan said.
“It’s a huge draw,” he said. “We let them age out at the end of the exhibit, and one day they’re just not there anymore. People get very upset that the butterflies are gone.”
Maintaining a live exhibit of up to nearly 1,500 butterflies and moths is a constant challenge, Sullivan said.
The zoo works with a broker connected to butterfly farms from around the world; the insects for Butterfly Kaleidoscope come from every continent in the world except Antarctica, Sullivan said. Wildlife regulations limit the number of different types of butterflies that are kept indoors, so the zoo carefully chooses different kinds to showcase.
During the run of the exhibit, shipments of about 1,000 pupae come every week containing chrysalises packed in toilet paper and plastic cups.
At its peak in the summer, the exhibit features 1,500 butterflies. Weekly shipments will continue until a few weeks before Labor Day weekend, when the exhibit will close.
Caretakers sort all of the pupa that arrive, then use a dab of glue to stick the chrysalises to acrylic rods and wait for them to hatch. Visitors to the exhibit can watch the progression of the pupae, witnessing the new insects as they emerge and spread their wings for the first time, Sullivan.
Zoo officials ensure that the insects have both pollen and nectar to eat. The conservatory’s wealth of tropical plants provide the former. Lantana and Egyptian star flower are favorites of the butterflies, so when the plants are in bloom, the flowers are packed with insects hoping to get a taste of pollen.
“We heavily plant nectar plants in there, so there’s always something blooming,” Sullivan said.
Plates of fruit and nectar solutions are also set out throughout the exhibit to provide additional nutrients for the butterflies.
A controlled climate, set between 78 and 82 degrees, allows for an ideal habitat for the butterflies. Caretakers have to carefully monitor the temperature as the seasons change over the course of the exhibit; the conservatory’s glass panels capture sunlight, keeping the area warm in the cooler spring and fall months.
But during the summer, special exhaust vents and swamp coolers help keep the temperature from getting too warm.
Careful attention has to be given to protect the insects, Sullivan said. The main concern is that they’ll escape the conservatory habitat and get into the natural ecosystem outdoors.
“They could have a pathogen or a parasite that we don’t want to get to our native butterflies, so we’re really cautious of that aspect,” Sullivan said.
The entrances in and out of the exhibit are monitored constantly by zoo officials, watching to make sure a butterfly isn’t stowing away on a shirt or other article of clothing as people leave.
Butterfly Kaleidoscope is a visual feast for guests, an opportunity to encounter insects in a way they likely never would get to otherwise. But the exhibit also delivers a message of conservation.
People can learn how to support butterflies once they leave the zoo. Displays throughout the conservatory are designed to teach people how to attract monarch, buckeye and swallowtail butterflies to their own yards.
Zoo curators also explain how to responsibly use pesticides as to not harm the insects and to use plants such as milkweed to give butterflies something to eat.