From Pupa to a Blue Morpheus
The Butterfly Garden opens Doors to Educate and Amaze

March 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]

Antonio Matias inside the butterfly house. Today, the butterflies are supplemented by a presence of birds. From eight birds living in their house in 2004, the Matiass have grown their bird population to 12 species and 62 birds.

Antonio Matias inside the butterfly house. Today, the butterflies are supplemented by a presence of birds. From eight birds living in their house in 2004, the Matiass have grown their bird population to 12 species and 62 birds.

For Janet Matias, her Roatan Butterfly Garden stemmed from a childhood fascination with butterflies which grew into both a reality and a business niche in a competitive Roatan tourist market. When the Butterfly Garden opened its doors in 2000, the idea was to create a unique destination for tourists. “It’s quality tourism. A place where people want to learn about the local environment,” says Antonio Matias, Janet’s husband who manages the Garden.

Most visitors come to the garden during cruise ship days–50 to 500 cruisers a week, tended by three guides. Every year around four private and public schools bring their students on a field trip to the Butterfly house. “Students pay better attention if their teachers require them to write something about the nature encounter,” says Janet.

Mangrove Bight Creek, a gully running through the garden, provides a microclimate for the entire West End property. It is a bit more humid, less windy, and the smells of blooming plants and flowers fill the air. The Matiases maintain the right variety of host plants, which is crucial as butterflies only lay their eggs on specific types of plants. If they can’t find them, the insects will not reproduce. “Many plants that we cut down as weeds are in fact butterfly host plants,” says Janet.

The Butterfly Garden has six butterfly species that breed inside the garden: Giant Owl, Common Owl, Orange Dog, the Queen Long Wing and Sunset Long Wing. Other butterfly species, in fact most of them, have to be brought in from the butterfly farms in La Ceiba and Copan Ruinas, as they have a different climate and host plants than are found on Roatan. Butterflies are sent to the Roatan garden every four to six weeks. The butterflies, transported on a cargo plane parcel in their pupa form, cost anywhere between $1.50 and five dollars depending on the species.

To protect the butterflies from predators the butterfly house is enclosed in a plastic mesh. Fire ants, lizards, little possum and tarantulas are not welcome in the four meter high structure. “Everybody wants a piece of the little butterfly,” says Antonio, who walks the perimeter of the fence looking for the smallest openings where butterfly killers could get in. Two entrance trap areas serve as quarantines and lower the chance of any butterflies escaping.

Not all dangers to butterflies walk or crawl. Smoke, pesticides and insecticides affect air quality, which is critical to the survival and wellbeing of butterflies. “I’ve recently lost 50 butterflies in 10 minutes,” says Antonio about a January grass burning that filled the air with smoke and caused mayhem in the butterfly house.

Most butterflies lay between two and 20 eggs, though some only lay one egg in their lifetime. After a week or two, the eggs hatch into a caterpillar that eats leaves and evolves into a pupa. Then, through a mesmerizing process of metamorphosis, the pupa transforms itself into a butterfly. After this final transformation their days are numbered. Some butterflies, like the Orange Dog, live for only five days; others like the Gulf Flittcherie live even shorter–for only a day or two. Their life and beauty are a fleeing event. [/private]

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