Walking with Butterflies

In the Summer months, just in time for the school holidays; the Natural History Museum in London opens its doors to a wonderful butterfly house.  Here is a place where dedicated staff make it their mission not only to tend to the butterflies in their care; but also to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with visitors of all ages.

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I arrived early before the crowds began to gather outside. Stepping out of the hubbub of South Kensington I was suddenly transported into a calm and tropical realm.  Almost instantly I was greeted by a pair of enormous fluttering blue iridescent wings – a beautiful  ‘Blue Morpho’ butterfly (Morpho peleides) from Central and South America. The cool breeze that rushed in through the open door had triggered a flurry of fluttering – and my eyes tried hard to keep up with them all.

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Gradually they settled down again, delicately folding their wings back behind them, often hiding their bright colours from view.  They balanced on leaves, on fruit… and on me!

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This one chose to rest on my leg for a while.  Even with its wings folded; it was as large as my hand (huge in comparison to our native British butterflies.)  According to one of the little plaques placed amongst the leaves, this was a ‘Pale Owl’ butterfly (Caligo memnon) from Central and South America.   With a beat of its wings it was airborne, and I followed it towards one of the many feeding stations.

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The feeding stations were filled with oranges and bananas that had been split in half – and these were covered in butterflies enjoying the sweet delights.  As well as ‘Pale Owl’ butterflies, here the ‘Blue Morpho’ butterflies were fluttering in a group, occasionally revealing a flash of their shimmering blue.  I nearly didn’t notice the camouflaged chrysalises attached to the branches in the diet coke bottle on the table…

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While some butterfly wings are dull, many are brilliantly coloured, some with ultraviolet patterns invisible to the human eye.  The wings are covered with tiny hairs and a multitude of colourful scales.  This black and turquoise butterfly is an ‘Emerald Swallowtail’ (Papilio palinurus) from South Asia.  Its wings were quivering as I tried to photograph it – like it was shaking off a recent dusting of glitter.
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I turned a corner and there, hanging resplendently in a tree, were giant Atlas Moths (Attacus atlas) from South Asia. Suspended motionless with their fabulous colour and dignified poise; it was as if they were deliberately ignoring the paparazzi-style tourists taking photos around them.

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Nearby a member of staff was holding an atlas moth for people to take a closer look at its beauty – and to appreciate its sheer size. She explained that the chrysalises on the feeding station were atlas moth caterpillars just beginning to enter into their pupa stage.  The Atlas moth may have been named after the Titan who held up the sky in Greek Mythology, or because its wings resemble map formations. However in Hong Kong, the Cantonese name for this moth is translated at ‘Snake’s head moth’ referring to the pattern on the extension of the forewing.

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But for me, the most memorable aspect of this visit to the butterfly house was a chance to see butterflies emerging for the first time.  In a dedicated ‘nursery’ behind a glass window, butterfly pupas were hanging in rows.  As I waited patiently, a couple of them started to shake slightly.  Within minutes, the first butterfly had emerged, followed shortly by a second.  I watched, mesmerised as they both slowly un-crinkled and their wings gradually dried.  It was a privilege to witness this remarkable wonder of the Natural World.

Written by Sarah Rees

Environmental Scientist, presenter and keen wildlife photographer; Sarah is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. With a background in television production, she launched her online Forestwatch videos to celebrate the diversity of woodland wildlife and ancient trees.

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