By Kimberly White
They spent the winter months on upkeep, using shovels, clippers, spades and rakes to trim back, dig out weeds and pull poorly performing plants—but most importantly, creating a “caterpillar garden” filled with the plants the larva need to metamorphize from multi-legged insects into brightly colored fluttering beauties.
Now, volunteers with the Panhandle Butterfly House are in the final stages of preparation for opening day on Saturday, May 6. The beautifully landscaped vivarium, or butterfly habitat, is stocked with hibiscus, salvia, lemon coral, sage and other plants and flowers, and will be filled with hundreds of hungry butterflies—which were en route from a facility in central Florida just hours earlier.
“The butterflies are cooled to slow down their metabolism, and they’re placed in little paper sleeves and then carefully packed with ice packs and shipped overnight (from central Florida) through UPS,” explains Mary Derrick, extension outreach coordinator with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).
“When that box arrives at the store, they immediately call our butterfly wrangler, Peggy, and tell her, ‘The butterflies are here.’ She comes down and picks them up, brings them into the (butterfly habitat) and opens them up and releases them.”
The Butterfly House is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season, which runs through Aug. 26. The nonprofit was founded by Jack and Fonda Wetherell with the goal of increasing awareness about butterflies and their importance as pollinators in healthy ecosystems.
District 4 County Commissioner Rob Williamson will speak during opening ceremonies as well as various educational groups.
“What we are doing this year to celebrate is to have more educational events in addition to just being open,” Derrick says, adding classes such as “Butterflies 101” and learning how to propagate milkweed will be held during the three-and-a-half-month period.
Painted a cheerful yellow, the Butterfly House sits at the foot of the Navarre Bridge, the grounds themselves filled with a cornucopia of plantings such as Black-eyed Susans, milkweed, dill and fennel, on which the caterpillars feed before their big transition.
On opening day, volunteers will place several wire mesh-sided boxes inside the vivarium, and visitors can watch as caterpillars feed on plants that are particular to their specific species of butterfly.
“Each species of caterpillar feeds on a particular plant. That’s why monarchs and milkweed are so linked, because monarch caterpillars will only feed on milkweed,” says Derrick. “(Females) will only lay their eggs on milkweed—not on gladiolas or petunias or anything else—because that’s what their caterpillars can eat.”
Inside the house itself, one wall features a display of mounted butterflies from around the world donated by Gulf Breeze resident Dr. Tom Grow. Tours are available 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and docents tell visitors all about the Butterfly House, butterflies in general and answer questions about their biology, behavior and the particular plants they eat in both their larval and adult stages.
A typical tour takes about half an hour, but “people can stay as long as they want. That’s why we have several benches, so people can sit and they can linger here, take photographs—they can stay as long as they like,” says Derrick. “Some people come in and out quickly, some people stay for quite some time.”
The facility also hosts pre-scheduled group tours for elementary schools, 4-H clubs, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and other organizations Mondays-Wednesdays. In addition to its seasonal opening, volunteers host “Monarch Madness” each October to celebrate the migration of the Monarch butterflies.
The Butterfly House operates as a part of Santa Rosa Clean Community System, Inc., and the UF/IFAS Cooperative Extension Service with the support of the Florida Master Gardeners, according to its web site.
In 2015, more than 14,000 people from 48 states, 2 territories and 17 foreign countries visited the exhibit, which has previously been recognized as the Best Horticultural Program in the Nation by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents.
The Butterfly House is located at 8581 Navarre Parkway off Highway 98 at the foot of the Navarre Bridge. For more information, visit panhandlebutterflyhouse.org.
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