HMNS greenhouse teaches how to plant a butterfly oasis in your back yard

They float on the wind, decorate your back yard in the spring and summer, and inspire warm emotions with their delicate wings. They seem carefree, at home in any meadow, but butterflies have more specific needs than we might imagine.

monarch

Monarch butterflies don’t live just anywhere; they need habitat, too!

As urban sprawl continues to grow, reducing green space and native plant growth, natural butterfly habitats are shrinking. Butterflies require specific plants on which to feed and lay eggs. Caterpillars are finicky eaters.

Soni Holladay, Houston Museum of Natural Science Horticulturist and Greenhouse Manager, will lead a class Saturday, April 18, beginning at 9 a.m., to share information with the public about how best to plant a garden that will attract native butterfly species, creating a backyard butterfly nursery.

Holladay’s main concern is planting tropical milkweed to attract the famous migratory monarch butterfly. Though tropical milkweed is easier to grow, scientists have discovered it may play a part in declining monarch populations.

A parasitic species of protozoan called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or simply Oe, grows on the body of their monarch hosts. When infected monarchs land on milkweed to lay eggs, Oe spores slough off and are left behind. Caterpillars, which eat the milkweed, ingest the spores and become infected.

When the protozoans become too numerous, they can overwhelm and weaken individual butterflies, causing them to suffer. Several heavily infected monarch can take a toll on the local population. Oe can kill the insects in the larval or pupal stage, as well, before they can reach full adulthood.

Asclepias_curassavica_(Mexican_Butterfly_Weed)_W_IMG_1570

Tropical milkweed survives the Houston winters, making them a perennial plant and a possible danger to monarch butterfly populations.

Native milkweeds die off every year and grow back in the spring Oe-free as part of their cycle, but the evergreen tropical milkweed remains standing year-round, providing a vector for the protozoan to spread.

“We’re advising everyone who plants tropical milkweed to cut it back once a year or more,” Holladay said. Much like their native cousins, the tropical variety will return later, a healthy habitat for butterflies.

Holladay’s class will offer more details about this and other butterfly-raising issues. After the class, guests will tour HMNS greenhouses and our on-site butterfly-rearing operation. Tickets $23, all ages. Native milkweed plants and other seeds will be available to get you started.

Behind the Scenes: HMNS Greenhouses [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Eighth Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

For most people, the beauty of the Cockrell Butterfly Center is, well – the butterflies. Thousands flit and flutter around each visitor to this butterfly conservatory – and they are stunning. But have you ever wondered about the exotic plants they land on?

The botanists and volunteers at the Butterfly Center spend much of their time nurturing the plants that the butterflies eat and live on – and much care is taken to ensure that their habitat is both healthy and representative of the rainforest environment to which the butterflies are native.

If you’ve visited the Butterfly Center, you know the plants there are healthy, hearty – and adult. So, where do they grow up? I am so glad you asked. In the video below, you can see for yourself – as Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig takes you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Museum’s greenhouses!

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge
The Seventh Day of HMNS – Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org Happy Holidays!

Luxurious Longwings

Zebra Longwing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the butterfly rearing greenhouseslocated on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage? Today, I’m going to give you a peek at one of the precious little butterflies we raise there – the Zebra longwing, Heliconius charitonius.

Located within the screened insectaries inside the greenhouse are male and female pairs of Heliconius longwing butterflies. Within the confines of each Insectary, the longwing butterflies are provided a smorgasbord of goodies.

Their main food source is nectar, which is provided to them by way of fresh blooming red and pink Pentas; “New Gold” Lantana; pink Jatropha; blue Duranata; red, purple, and blue Porter Weed; and a blooming vine of Psiguria. These plants provide a food source (nectar and pollen) to the mating pairs. Our volunteers also place two bowls of artificial nectar daily as a supplement to the plants. [We supplement the food with artificial nectar made out of sugar and water because these little butterflies are housed in an artificial environment, so we want to be sure that they don’t ever run out of food (nectar from flowers).]

Passion Flower (aka Clock Flower)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber

We have pipes within the enclosure on which baskets of the Zebra longwings host plant – The Passionflower – hang. Each week the Passionflower host plants are removed from the Insectary and placed into the pupation area. Within 3-5 days, tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs the female longwings have laid at the end tips of the passionflower vine. These tiny, soft, supple leaves are the tiny caterpillars’ first food source.

Within 17 to 21 days (depending on the time of the year), the caterpillar is ready to pupate. After the caterpillar pupates, the pupae are removed from the screen pupation cages in which they are housed and taken to our entomologists for gluing. They are then displayed in our Butterfly Center until the butterflies emerge. The entomologist then removes them from the emergence case and releases them to flutter around the rainforest.

There are hundred of school children and adults that tour the greenhouses every year and they are always excited to walk into the Insectaries and be surrounded by butterflies. Then, we take them to the pupation area to see the caterpillars in their different stages of growth. Finally, they see the pupation cages where the larger caterpillars are pupating. They hold the pupae, touch the butterflies and look at their scales under a magnifying glass. Visitors are always amazed to see the butterfly life cycle up close, and we are so glad we can give them the opportunity to do so.

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Attract Black Swallowtails to your garden.
Find out what to feed your Monarch butterflies.
Flutter after Giant Swallowtails.

My Summer at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Laura Adian, an intern in our Cockrell Butterfly Center, is a guest blogger for us today.  Join us as she writes about her summer internship and what tasks she does for the museum, maintaining the butterfly center and the greenhouses.

Howdy!  My name is Laura Adian and I am one of the horticultural summer interns at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  I am a senior Horticulture major, minoring in Business, at Texas A&M University. Although I am interested in all areas of horticultute, my specialization is fruit and vegetable production.  I wanted to give you a quick insight into my daily job here, as well as the day to day happenings in our butterfly center, so here it goes.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, I work in the main conservatory.  One of the most important things I do on these days is what we call “open” the Butterfly Center.  This involves sweeping the leaf debris from all of the pathways and stairs, watering and raking the plant beds, putting out the amino solution and rotten fruit for the butterflies, feeding the iguana, and turning on the waterfall.  Basically we just want to make the place look great for the public. 

After opening, there is always deadheading (pulling the dying blossoms off of a flower) and pruning to be done.  This has to be done every week to encourage more flowering and to keep the plants looking their best.  Fertilizing some of the flowering plants and orchids is another task that must be done on a regular basis in order to ensure maximum healthy growth. 

Passion Flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Just chaos

For the rest of the week, I work in the greenhouses and in the Demonstration garden.  Up in the greenhouses, we raise butterflies and plants. 

Greenhouse #1 is where we do most of the propagating and repotting of the plants.  Greenhouse #2 is filled with 800 plants, mostly Passiflora, that we use as host plants for the butterflies.  This is also where we do recovery of the plants, after the caterpillars munch all the leaves off them. 

Greenhouse #3 contains the insectaries and pupation cages full of butterflies and caterpillars.  Every week, the host plants in the insectaries that are full of eggs are transferred to the pupation area.  Then, we put fresh host plants and nectar sources (from Greenhouse #2) into the insectaries.  In the pupation area, the hungry caterpillars must always be fed, which means transferring them from the already eaten, leafless plants to fresh plants that we bring from Greenhouse #2.  Afterwards, we take the eaten plants to the recovery table in Greenhouse #2.  This is the never-ending cycle of raising all the beautiful butterflies. 

One of the bigger projects we had to do this summer was to re-tie and re-moss all of the orchids in the conservatory.  The orchids are scattered throughout the conservatory on trees and poles and they must be rewrapped every year in order to keep their roots from drying out and to keep them looking nice.  That was quite a task because there are dozens of orchids and every time you think you’re done, another one seems to pop up.

Tattered Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: B~

In the next week or so, we will be putting half a semi-truck load of soil into all of the beds in the conservatory.  We will also be planting 100 red and pink Pentas to ensure fresh nectar sources for the butterflies.  This is obviously a big undertaking but it must be done every summer and I can’t wait to see how good the conservatory looks after we’re done.

We also have to water in the greenhouses every day and fertilize all the plants regularly.  Then, of course, there is the general maintenance of the greenhouses, which seems to be an ongoing project.

Me in the demonstration garden

In the Demonstration garden, we are planting many new nectar sources and host plants for the butterflies to come check out.  Since I’ve been here we’ve planted Pentas, Pink Turk’s Cap, Asters, Milkweed, Lantana, Celosia, Passion vines, Dutchmans’ Pipevine, and many more.  Right now, we are in the process of planting Dwarf Mondo grass in between the cracks of all the stones.  We have already planted 7 flats and will plant 10 more in the weeks to come.  In the next few weeks, we will also add a bench and some other focal areas.  Again, watering and fertilizing must be done on a regular basis.  The Demonstration garden is one of my favorite projects and it looks fantastic.

We also maintain the plant cart in the Grand Hall of the museum.  We price plants from the greenhouse and bring them down to the plant cart to sell.  We sell nectar sources and host plants such as Salvia, Pentas, Lantana, Passion vines, and Durantas.  We have to sweep the plant cart, water the plants, switch out plants, and fill the brochure holder on a daily basis.  For the Fourth of July weekend we even did a red, white, and blue theme.

I have even been fortunate enough to get to go on fieldtrips to some great nurseries this summer.  We have been to Treesearch Farms, Hines Nursery, Nelson Water Gardens, and Cornelius Nurseries.  We are also planning on going to Mercer Arboretum later this summer.  None of this would be possible if not for the great staff at the Butterfly Center and their desire for us to have an awesome experience this summer and to see all that we can in our 10 week stay.

That is basically my summer in a nutshell.  I really couldn’t have asked for a better internship or better people to work with this summer.  I have learned so much about butterfly rearing and all that it takes to run a huge operation like the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  More importantly, I have met some amazing people who are top in their fields, always willing to lend a hand, and really passionate about their work.  My experience this summer would not be nearly the same without them.