As a city dweller, you likely have an aversion to bugs. They’re gross, they’re scary and you don’t want to see them. Some bugs, however, get a pass because they’re beautiful, like some people. This is unfair, but true. And thusly, butterflies are revered. We gape at them, point, ooo and ahh at their graceful loveliness.
The greenhouse next to the conservatory houses the exhibit, which includes butterflies from North America, Costa Rica, Africa and Asia.
Before entering, you get a quick tutorial from a volunteer, who points out some caterpillars to you and ushers you through a series of doors and plastic flaps designed to keep the butterflies from escaping.
Getting through the final set of doors feels a little like when Willy Wonka’s guests enter the factory for the first time, or Dorothy discovers she’s not in Kansas anymore. You’re in a room with hundreds of butterflies fluttering from flower to flower, sipping nectar from one and quickly moving on to taste another. A buffet of overripe watermelon, bananas and cantaloupe attracts up to a dozen butterflies at a time, and seems to be a favorite for the owl butterfly.
Most people can identify a monarch butterfly or a tiger swallowtail, but any non-expert would be hard-pressed to name too many of the species on exhibit here, so a chart is posted to help you find the names of your favorites. Their colors, shapes and sizes run the gamut, from some plainer brown and black varieties to some that truly mimic a stained-glass window.
Of course touching the butterflies is a no-no; however, experts advise that if you want a butterfly to land on you, wear bright clothing. On my recent visit, I chose a solid bright pink shirt, which attracted a small butterfly as soon as I entered. It quickly grew bored with my absence of nectar and flew off.
After looking around, I took a seat to wait quietly for more butterflies to land on me, as I was taught on previous visits while chaperoning groups of second-graders. (Wings of Fancy is well known to hundreds of school children throughout the area — The Life Cycle of Butterflies is part of the 2nd grade Montgomery County Public Schools curriculum.)
Proving that my pink shirt was nothing compared to the attraction my forehead provided, a leopard lacewing landed right above the bridge of my nose and rested there for at least five full minutes. My companion’s red shirt also attracted a butterfly — alas, it was on his back and I had to photograph it for him so he could see it.
DIY Butterfly Habitat
If you’re at all squeamish about bugs landing on your face or elsewhere on your body, or hundreds of bugs flying near your head, this exhibit may not be for you. If, however, you find it delightful, you may want to extend the experience by attracting butterflies to your home.
Even if you live in an apartment, you can plant a handful of zinnia seeds in a pot on your balcony to woo butterflies. Although you will likely attract more butterflies the closer you are to the ground, some monarch butterflies have been recorded flying higher than 4,000 feet. Zinnias are easy to grow, they grow quickly and can get up to 4 feet tall. Seeds are cheap and easy to find at your local grocery or garden store. If you can’t wait, buy some pansies that are already in bloom — they’re almost as good.
Alternatively, save some fruit that’s seen better days and put that out on your porch or terrace. Be careful though — squirrels and rats may snag this bait before any butterflies get wind of it.
For more tips on how to attract butterflies to your yard or patio/balcony, check out this blog post.
2016 visitor and ticket information
Open: Daily through Sunday, Sept. 26
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Ticket prices: $8 for ages 13 and up, $5 for ages 3 to 12, free for those 2 and under; $50 individual frequent visitor pass (unlimited entry), $65 dual pass, $125 family pass.