About Celeste

Celeste is the Butterfly Rearing Coordinator in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Top 5 Most Frequently Asked Questions in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) strives to bring the natural world to within the public’s reach. Visitors enjoy tropical plants and exotic animals exhibited throughout the indoor rainforest, insect zoo, and practical entomology hall, and as they wander through the CBC, they’re sure to ask tons of questions! To keep you informed, we’ve compiled a list of the top five most frequently asked questions about the CBC and answered them below. Take a look!

Q. Is that real?

A: It depends on what you are asking about.

Usually this question is asked about the chrysalids hanging in the emergence chamber. In that case, the answer is yes! All the chrysalids you see are real! We receive between 800 and 1,000 chrysalids per week. The chrysalids are carefully glued up so the butterflies can emerge in a natural position. If you look carefully, you may see the chrysalids wiggling. You can also observe the freshly emerged butterflies drying their wings. Twice a day, we collect the butterflies with fully dry wings and release them into the CBC rainforest. On Wednesdays until Labor Day weekend, you can watch how we do it during our Wing It! presentation.

chrysalis board

These chrysalids are real! Soon butterflies will emerge from each one.

When this question is about the plants in the Rainforest Conservatory, the answer is also yes, but with one exception. All the plants are real except for the huge central tree. This tree contains the rainforest’s air circulation system. All others are living plants that are meticulously cared for by our staff horticulturalist, Soni Holladay. Each plant is labeled, so keep a lookout for a coffee tree, chocolate tree, pride of Trinadad, pineapple plants, miracle berry bush, and a variety of beautiful orchids. 

Before and after! All the plants in the CBC are real with the exception of the large central tree.

Before and after the completion of CBC construction. All the plants in the CBC are real with the exception of the large central tree.

Q. How many butterflies are there in here?

A. We keep a collection of more than 1,500 live butterflies in the CBC rainforest at all times. It may seem like more or less, depending on how active the butterflies are. The butterflies are most likely to be actively flying and feeding when there is bright sunlight and warm weather. During these times, the whole rainforest feels like it’s fluttering around you. Early in the morning, or in cooler, overcast weather, many of the butterflies will be quietly roosting underneath leaves. During these times, a sharp eye will allow you to spot the sleeping butterflies all around  you. Take this time to enjoy the variety of colors and patterns that are more easily discernible on butterfly wings that aren’t flying. Owl butterflies, however, are active at dusk. You can watch hundreds of them swirling in our rainforest during our limited-availability event An Evening With Owls, coming in September.

roosting

Shhhhhhhhhh! They’re sleeping! Look for roosting butterflies hanging from leaves next time you visit the CBC.

Q. Where do the butterflies come from?

A. We receive the butterflies in their pupal form (chrysalis) through the mail. Each week, we import up to 1,000 live chrysalids from butterfly farms in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. We also raise a small portion of the butterflies in the greenhouses on the top level of the parking garage. We receive up to 150 different species of butterflies throughout the year. Use the butterfly identification guides as you enter the rainforest to help you identify some of our most common species!

shipment

Our butterflies are shipped from farms all over the world!

Q. What do the butterflies eat?

A. The CBC rainforest is always full of a variety of flowering plants. Most butterflies feed on nectar. Watch the butterflies visiting the blooms and you will notice them extending their proboscis into the center of the flower. They use this mouth part like a straw to draw up the nectar. Supplementary food is provided for the nectar-feeders in feeding stations filled with artificial nectar. Artificial nectar is made from a mixture of water, sugar and amino acids. It is soaked into sponges that the butterflies can visit to get an extra snack. But not all butterflies feed on nectar. Some prefer the juices from rotten fruit or tree sap. For the fruit-feeders we provide banana brew (fermenting bananas, sugar and beer mixture) as well as slices of over-ripe fruit. Butterflies are also known to feed on some less savory substances such and dead animals and feces.

GF on Eupatorium 2

A butterfly uses its proboscis to sip nectar from a flower.

butterflies eat gross things

Fun fact: butterflies also get essential nutrients by feeding on feces and carrion!

Q. How long do the butterflies live?

A. It depends. Most butterflies are not long-lived. The average life span for the butterflies in the CBC rainforest is about two weeks. Some, like the Atlas moth, only live a few days. Atlas moths don’t even have mouth parts as adults, so they don’t feed at all! They live off of the fat stores they accumulated as a caterpillar. Several of the long-wing species of butterflies may live up to a couple of months. Perhaps the most well-known species of butterfly, the Monarch, is known for  its amazing migration from Canada to Mexico. The migratory generation of Monarchs can live between 6 and 9 months!

monarch and chrysalis

The Monarch butterfly has a long-lived generation that allows it to migrate from Canada to Mexico.

We hope you enjoyed our quick Q&A session! Drop by the CBC any time to satisfy your curiosity further. We’re always around to answer questions.

A Staple for Butterfly Exhibits: The Rice Paper

One of the most distinctive and easily recognizable insects in the Cockrell Butterfly Center is the rice paper butterfly (Idea leuconoe), also known as the paper kite and the large tree nymph. All these common names allude to the rice paper’s characteristic slow, graceful, and sometimes floppy flight. These butterflies make great, showy additions to butterfly exhibits and are therefore a widespread staple, found in most live butterfly displays. Rice papers are native to the forested regions of Southeast Asia.

idea leuconoe dorsal

Rice papers make great additions to butterfly exhibits.

Rice papers are related to the well-known monarch, both belonging to the subfamily Danainae and known to be distasteful to most avian predators by sequestering chemicals in their bodies from their larval food plants. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed to become unpalatable. Similarly, rice paper caterpillars feed on the milkweed relative, Parsonsia, to become distasteful. The monarch’s striking black-on-white and yellow coloring serves as a warning to potential predators. Rice paper larvae have a similar flashy coloration: black and white stripes with red spots.

Contrasting colors on the caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

Contrasting colors on rice paper caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

The rice paper life cycle begins with the female butterflies laying eggs on their host plant, Parsonsia. The eggs are small and cream-colored, usually laid on the underside of leaves. The eggs take about five days to hatch into tiny black-and-white striped caterpillars. The caterpillars first feed on their eggshell before directing their appetite to the Parsonsia leaves. The newly hatched larvae are too small to chew all the way through the thick leaves, so they create a circular trench as they eat the leaf epidermis. As they are eating they will extend their bodies and regurgitate yellowish foam distal to the chewed area. They continue this behavior until they have completely surrounded themselves in a ring of foam. This foam has been found to act as an effective ant repellent; ants will not cross the barrier. As the caterpillar grows, it “molts” five times in stages called instars. First through third instar caterpillars will exhibit this foaming behavior. Fourth and fifth instar caterpillars do not use regurgitated foam to repel ants.

Stages of caterpillar development.

Stages of caterpillar development. The top-right image shows a caterpillar inside its ring of ant-repelling foam.

It takes the caterpillars about two weeks of munching on leaves to reach pupation size. At this point, the caterpillars will find a safe spot to hang and form a “J” shape. They will then molt to reveal chrysalids that take about two days to completely dry. The chrysalids are a beautiful, shiny, metallic gold with black spots and swirls. Approximately 10 days later, the chrysalids pop open to reveal a brand new butterfly. The wet butterfly allows its crumpled wings to unfurl. A couple of hours later, the butterfly uses its newly dry wings to take flight and awe and educate museum visitors. 

The Butterfly Center beat: Everything you ever wanted to know about raising Atlas moths

Image

The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) is a large moth belonging to the Saturniidae family. Saturniids, familiarly called giant silk moths, include some of the largest species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Two local species that may be familiar to readers are the polyphemus and luna moths.

Atlas moths are considered the largest moths in the world in terms of total wing surface area. Their wingspans are also among the largest, often reaching over 10 inches. They are strikingly beautiful, with tawny wings punctuated with translucent “windows” bordered by black. Their most distinguishing feature (other than their size) is an extension of their forewings that resembles a snake’s head, thought to be a means of scaring off potential predators.

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

These spectacular moths make superb additions to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. During the day, they spend most of their time motionless, clinging to the side of a tree or other surface. Visitors can thus get up close to intimately study these creatures, and can clearly observe their fat, furry bodies, fuzzy antennae, and teddy bear like expressions.

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Once night falls, the male Atlas moths take flight in search of a female. The search has a sense of urgency, as adult Atlas moths typically live only about one week. This is because the adults do not have fully formed mouth parts and therefore cannot eat; they are sustained only by the fat reserves they built up as a caterpillar. The moths will quickly mate, lay eggs, and die soon after.

One day at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a male and female emerged from their cocoons around the same time. We took the opportunity to breed and raise this species of moth. The newly emerged male and female were placed in a flight cage in the greenhouses on the top level of the museum parking garage. They paired the very first night they were together. During mating, the moths remained coupled for several hours. Then, over the next three days, the female laid approximately 150 crimson eggs, placing them indiscriminately along the walls and edges of the flight cage.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the sides of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the side of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

Atlas moth larvae are generalists, meaning they will feed on a wide variety of host plants (but not all plants). Hoping to determine which of several possibilities would be the best food for our caterpillars, we searched the literature for recorded host plants.

We chose four that we had available, including Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora), Vitex (Vitex trifolia purpurea), Mahogany Tree (Swietenia mahoganii) and Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas). Gathering the eggs, we divided them among four plastic containers lined with moist paper towels and ventilated with tiny holes poked in the lid, each containing a different kind of leaves.

The eggs took 10 days to hatch. The hatchling larvae were covered in pale protuberances and had black heads. After eating their eggshell, the tiny caterpillars began eating the provided foliage. Once the caterpillars were feeding reliably, they were moved to netted cages containing potted plants, so the leaves would be constantly fresh.

The caterpillars hatched on a Friday in September. To track their weekly growth and development, we took a photograph of them each Friday thereafter. It quickly became obvious that the caterpillars on Camphor were thriving: they grew bigger and faster than their siblings on the other plants (the pictures shown below are of larvae fed on Camphor). In each photograph, larvae were placed next to a standard sized Popsicle stick, fondly known as “Size Reference Ralph,” to track their relative growth.

The caterpillars took six weeks from hatching to pupation. They ate voraciously, becoming soft and fleshy to the touch, and were a pale blue-green color. Their backs were covered in a Mohawk of tubercles with a thick, waxy, flaky coating. After six weeks, the caterpillars were almost as long as Size Reference Ralph and were quite pudgy.

The sequential pictures show the dramatic changes in the larvae, followed by the start of silk spinning, and finally a complete cocoon. Once they finished their cocoons, the larvae pupated inside. We then gently moved the dried cocoons to the emergence chamber inside the entomology hall of the Butterfly Center.

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. ( Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. (Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Then we waited. Atlas moths may eclose from their cocoon in as little as three weeks, but can sometimes take several months. To escape from their silken enclosures, they must excrete a substance that dissolves a hole in the silk, allowing them to crawl out. They then cling to their cocoons while their wings expand and dry.

The first Atlas moth of our batch of cocoons emerged on Dec. 17, almost 3 months after hatching from the egg. It was a large female, with a wingspan of just over 10 inches. As you can see, Size Reference Ralph was dwarfed by her!

Our first Atlas Moth to emerge on Dec. 17th 2013. (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Our first Atlas moth to emerge on Dec. 17, 2013 (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson).

Know a girl who’s interested in math and science? Come to GEMS (Girls Exploring Math & Science) on Sat., Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Museum will be filled with hands-on science and math for everyone to experience. Local professionals will be at the Museum to answer questions about their careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. Click here for $7 admission to all permanent exhibit halls on Sat., Feb. 8.