The butterfly effect - The Explorer: El Sol

The butterfly effect

At the botanical gardens, a butterfly alights, and you're entranced

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Posted: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 1:21 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Hundreds of butterflies take flight in the butterfly exhibit at Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Curator Elizabeth Willott is lifting off as well. Willott, entering her first full year completely overseeing Butterfly Magic, will be elbows-deep in butterflies and pupae through the end of April.

Last year, Willott was working part-time in the butterfly exhibit, and was brought on as an understudy to take over this year. She is in charge of ordering and caring for the hundreds of butterflies the garden receives over the coming months, using suppliers from Costa Rica, Kenya, Malaysia, Australia, Florida and a butterfly broker based out of Denver who supplies the garden's greatest diversity of butterflies.

The exhibit closes from April to October, but Willott remains busy. She works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, assuring the proper care and protection of the butterflies, while making sure the orders are in line for the coming year.

Willott receives the caterpillars while they are in the pupa stage, from which they emerge as butterflies within a carefully monitored and tight-meshed, secured enclosure. This helps eliminate the risks of parasite infection.

If the butterflies escape from the enclosure, they could mate, and the caterpillars could present a problem. At any given time, Willott keeps 300 to 400 butterflies from about 40 different species within the enclosure, while people old and young alike marvel at their different colors, sizes and behaviors.

Now, when the exhibit is open, guests marvel and their curiosity rises, is Willott's favorite time within the butterfly exhibit. Coming from a background teaching at the University of Arizona since 1997 and receiving her PhD in biochemistry, Willott knows a person learns best when they are curious.

"I have been teaching at the university for over a decade," Willott said. "In regular teaching, you look for those 'teaching moments' when people are receptive to learning. People go though the exhibit and they are receptive to learning about butterflies."

People are curious about butterfly habits, what they eat and what they feel like landing on them. "It's so easy to talk about all kinds of stuff in there," Willott added.

Once in their adult stage, butterflies live on average for about one to two weeks. Because there is a constant rotation of new butterflies in the exhibit, the Tucson Botanical Gardens offers visitors different butterflies about every month until April.

Through November, the butterfly exhibit will house Arizonan and tropical butterflies from the United States. In December, there will be butterflies from Australia; in January, Africa; in February, Asia; and in March and April, butterflies from all around the world.

"The mission of the garden is to provide a tranquil oasis as well as a place for education," Willott said. "I think it does both with or without the butterflies. Butterflies just make it easier to transition away from the stress from everyday life. People learn best when they are relaxed and curious, and that is part of the magic of butterflies, from an educator's point of view."

Even some of the docents at the Tucson Botanical Gardens marvel in the "magic" of the butterflies.

"I came to the exhibit and fell in love," said Libby Hughes, who became a docent last year. "They landed on me. I mean what can you say, when a butterfly lands on you, you're hooked."

Butterfly Magic

Tucson Botanical Gardens

2150 N Alvernon Way.

Exhibit hours: 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.;

Garden: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Admission: $12 for ages 13 and over; $6.50 for children 4-12; Free for children 3 and under.

Butterfly schedule:

November: Arizonan and U.S. tropical butterflies; December: Australia; January: Africa; February: Asia; March, April: Around the world.

326-9686 or www.tucsonbotanical.org

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