The Butterfly Pavilion in Amsterdam’s Artis Zoo is one of the best butterfly houses I have seen. There are a wide range of butterfly species flying around in the large tropical house; both children and adults seemed delighted with the overall experience. Large blue morpho butterflies flap about in the hot houses, flashing their iridescent wings, and alighting on dishes of cut fruit. It is a wonderful way to get a taste of the real thing: a tropical jungle. The butterflies are also, for the most part, much easier to look at closely and photograph than in the wild. Hopefully this experience, as well as being enjoyable in itself, will engender a concern for the conservation of butterflies, particularly among children.
The Insectarium in the Amsterdam Zoo was set up by a schoolteacher called Rudolph Polak in 1898, to try to reconnect the urban population with nature (1). The only insect house older than this is in London Zoo, which dates from 1881 (1). There are now many permanent, all-year-round butterfly house exhibitions all around the world, including in colder regions of Europe and North America. For example, one site lists at least twelve places to visit and observe tropical butterflies in England alone (2). There are probably many more, and certainly hundreds of living butterfly exhibits exist around the world. Some of these establishments – like Butterfly World and London Zoo – are heavily involved in the research and conservation of invertebrates, as well in promoting education and awareness of beautiful butterflies.
Maintaining these establishments is not however, easy or cheap. The tropical flowers and plants have to be carefully looked after to create a genuine rainforest experience. What I liked about the Butterfly Pavilion at Amsterdam’s Artis Zoo, was that there were lots of butterflies – people did not have to work hard to find them – and they were for the most part, in excellent condition. No doubt they had to introduce a lot of stock to maintain this status. It may surprise people to know that the butterflies seen in these houses are supplied as pupae: shipped by air freight from all over the world. European butterfly houses are generally supplied by regulated butterfly brokers, who import over 2 million pupae per year into the European Union from all around the world: United States, El Salvador, Surinam, Ecuador Malaysia, Kenya, Philippines, Thailand, and Costa Rica (3, 5). To quote from one successful exhibitor, Butterfly World, in St Albans:
“They are bred in rainforests around the world, on farms staffed by locals who breed multigenerational butterflies in captivity, therefore not affecting the indigenous ecosystem. This type of farming treats rainforest as a sustainable resource, rather than allowing the land to be cleared. A positive aspect of tropical butterfly farms stems from their interaction with the country and people. Areas of tropical land that might otherwise be deforested can be protected whilst the land produces value through breeding and trade of tropical butterflies. In many cases the local population is quite poor, so the farms also provide employment and income.” (4)
The growing popularity of butterfly houses such as this have generated what Boppré and Vane-Wright – in an excellent 2012 paper on this subject – have called a global ‘Butterfly House Industry’ (5). In other words, there is now a mass production of butterfly pupae to supply the demand. This production generally consist of about 50 popular species from the families Nymphalidae (notably Danaus, Idea, Morpho, Caligo, Cethosia, Heliconius, Hypolimnas, Parthenos), Papilionidae (Papilio) and a small number of Pieridae (5). These are generally large and colourful species that can be mass reared, successfully shipped, and relied on to fly about in butterfly houses! But they represent only a tiny fraction of the c. 20,000 butterfly species known, and most butterfly families are not represented. These glamorous butterflies are in effect the honorary representatives for butterflies as a whole, and perhaps the flagships for the insects generally. Large beetles, stick and leaf insects are also quite popular in some zoos, but it is butterflies that people pay to see!
There are controversial issues with this industry, for example to do with fair trade, animal husbandry and the use of wildlife for entertainment: which are discussed in detail by Boppré and Vane-Wright (2012). It seems to me that if we are going to run these multimillion pound/dollar facilities, then it has to be for more than just entertainment and novelty value. Profits must be ploughed back into insect conservation, and the opportunity for education about the status and threats to butterflies in the wild needs to be exploited.
Turning to the stars of the show, Morpho peleides butterflies often gather together in groups (‘mobbing’), apparently to deter their predators; perhaps all those eye spots look intimidating! Interestingly, as Boppré and Vane-Wright point out, fruit-eating butterflies like these morphos really need rotten fruit, but since this ‘supposedly upsets the aesthetic sense of visitors to live butterfly exhibits….‘fresh’ fruit is often offered instead” (5). They rightly point out that it would be better to enlighten people about the real needs of the butterflies. So next time you visit a butterfly house and watch them feeding on some lovely fresh fruit, think of them forcing it down and wishing they could have some rotten fruit for a change!
- Resh, Vincent H., and Ring T. Cardé, eds. Encyclopedia of insects. Academic Press, 2009.
- Boppré, Michael, and R. I. Vane-Wright. “The butterfly house industry: conservation risks and education opportunities.” Conservation and Society 10.3 (2012): 285.