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Blog At the Museum

A butterfly’s 10,000 mile journey to the Museum

A boy and a butterfly, with the butterfly in focus

The next time you visit the Museum’s Butterfly House, consider this: every butterfly that flutters around you was born thousands of miles away, and, in many cases, on the opposite side of the world.

The journey of each of our butterflies is a remarkable one — often 10,000 miles or more — from the jungles and forests of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, Malaysia, and the Philippines to Durham. Our butterflies are a story of conservation and international cooperation.

The Museum spends about $68,000 every year on butterflies from suppliers around the globe, and those dollars — generated from visitors, Members, and donors — support conservation efforts and economic development around the world.

Where do we get our butterflies?

Some of our butterflies come from Jacob and his team near Quito, Ecuador. They collect adult butterflies from local forests, let them lay eggs on plans in their farm enclosures, then rear the caterpillars to chrysalids for export. They continue to breed more generations in captivity, occasionally gathering more adult butterflies to rejuvenate the gene pool.

Ecuador butterfly breeders

Meanwhile, some of our other butterflies start their journey in Costa Rica, where more than a hundred families breed butterflies in small operations around the country. For many of these families, income from butterfly breeding can propel them into the middle class.

A Costa Rican butterfly breeder

Around the globe, on the island of Marinduque in the Philippines, small operations breed butterflies in simple and small cages. These butterfly pupae eventually make it to Durham. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean small, though — each family may produce a few dozen butterfly pupae per week, but collectively, these families in Marinduque produce more than 120,000 butterflies per month.

Philippina Butterfly Breeder

Finally, on the east coast of Africa, breeders near Malindi, Kenya, produce many of the butterflies that come to the Museum. With more than 250 butterfly species in the region, these operations help support the local economy and help protect the local forests from logging and clear-cutting operations.

Kenyan butterfly breeders

How do they get here?

These international suppliers carefully sort and pack butterfly pupae into small boxes and ship them to the United States. The pupae are remarkably sturdy during the long trip. Even in a sealed box, there is plenty of air for them to survive during the four- to five-day journey from their starting countries to Durham.

The Museum receives a new box of butterflies every week. A typical package shipped to the Museum contains 400 to 500 butterfly pupae.

A box of butterfly pupae

What happens when they get here?

Museum staff carefully unpack these boxes upon arrival, and then the pupae are sorted and hung up on cords to create suitable environmental conditions for their development. These new arrivals usually emerge as adult butterflies within seven to ten days and are released into our tropical observatory where they can feed on flowers and fruit nectar.

Butterflies have relatively short lifespans. Typically, they live no more than two months, and their time as adult butterflies is less than one month. Considering how far the butterflies come to get to the Museum, their short adult lifespans can strike some visitors as unfair or even tragic.

But what we hope guests can take away from this fact is that what we experience at the Butterfly House is something rare, fleeting, and beautiful. It’s a miracle of modern transportation and science that we can witness and observe these remarkable creatures, gathered from four continents around the planet, together here at the Museum, every day we’re open.

Their time with us is short, so all of us should take a few extra moments to appreciate them.