D.I.Y. Butterfly House Feasibility
Can I make a butterfly aviary out of my screened in area?
Since I spend lots of time helping Floridians create butterfly habitats, this is something that people often ask. They envision their own personal butterfly world similar to the professional ones people visit. They want to walk among their butterflies and enjoy a private and contained butterfly sanctuary.
Is it possible? Yes.
Is it probable? No.
The first thing to know is that maintenance will be very time-consuming.
Keeping a thriving personal butterfly aviary is a ton of work. It requires significantly more work than simply keeping a natural outdoor butterfly garden because you must constantly ensure that there is adequate sun exposure, fresh nectar daily, sufficient host plants, and a varied enough population to prevent weird problems with inbreeding.
I work in my un-contained butterfly garden almost every day, except when I am away or it's raining. I opt for a natural outdoor garden because the benefits to the environment and to my sanity outweigh the novel benefits of a private house.
For starters, the most practical aviary should have southern exposure (assuming you live in the northern hemisphere). Butterflies and their plants need lots of sun. If you are working with a shady area, it won't do well. The aviary should receive a minimum of six hours of sun a day, but that won't likely thrive. Nine hours or more is best. The more the better. A roofed or covered one will not work well because sun must come in from above for best results.
In some climates, like south Florida, this can be a year-round endeavor. In other places it can be seasonal.
Different plants and butterflies have unique requirements. This means that you will have to research the exact types of butterflies you hope to contain.
Butterfly well-being is contingent on plants. Since butterflies need plants to survive, this will require you to keep a specific combination of a variety of healthy plants inside of the enclosure. It will be more efficient if they are in containers so that they can be swapped out and replaced as necessary. Obviously, this means you must also maintain potted plants outside of your aviary that serve as back-ups. One could also use plants that are in the ground (inside the screen), but it is more complicated that way because if they become insufficient to feed butterflies (in any stage), they will not do. Regular irrigation will also be required.
Butterflies only live for a couple of weeks at best, depending on species. You will have to replenish your adults regularly either by catching new ones and releasing them in your screened in area or by cultivating new ones. At professional houses, they replenish as often as daily. They either raise them, which is a full-time job, or they ship them in consistently.
To keep this post brief, I will not go into the systems required to raise butterflies (I have whole classes and books on that). So, for those of you who are already familiar with raising butterflies on host plants, the question is whether or not you wish to have the butterflies reproduce inside of the aviary. That will determine whether or not you include host plants. But beware, if you don't provide host plants (which is the case in most professional aviaries that you visit) the butterflies will still mate and she will be fertilized, but she will never be able to lay those eggs. It is a moral consideration.
If you don't want caterpillars in your aviary, you simply provide nectar sources to feed your adults. This requires knowing which kinds of flowers each flying species you contain prefers. Plants provide nectar at different times of day. It will be necessary that you provide plenty of options to your butterflies. One kind of nectar plant is not sufficient. In this case, you will have to add new adults consistently because they previous ones will die off. This means that the ones you contain will not be able to reproduce as they would in the wild.
If you opt for host plants, you may want to keep the host plants in pots so you can regularly bring them in and out of the enclosure for egg gathering purposes. You could bring the pots out until a wild female lays eggs, then bring them back in to watch the cycle. But, when the new adults emerge, they will have a limited amount of mates to chose from in containment, and not a very large gene pool. This is a recipe for disease, so you will have to be mindful to avoid it.
If you shelter your caterpillars from regular predators, you will need lots and lots of host plants to feed them. The numbers won't be as tempered as they are on the outside. Some predators will inevitably get in. Viruses and bacteria may also be present.
Wild butterflies will come to the outside of the screen (attracted by the host plants), but not be able to get to the plants inside. An enclosure is not the most ecologically friendly solution for butterflies, but there could be reasons for preferring this method such as research, observation or a temporary experiment.
Similar to when other wild animals are crammed in cages, this is not their natural environment and there will be challenges associated with that. Often times native butterflies (you can't do non-native without permits) may simply cling to the screen rather than fly around happily in your enclosure. In a synthetic environment, you will get altered behavior patterns. Some will not mate. Some may not fly. Some will not lay eggs. Yet, some species are known to do better in captivity than others.
Zebra Longwings (and related kinds) do comparatively well.
In a wild butterfly-habitat, there are plenty of song-birds. This is how the natural systems work. Birds eat some caterpillars and others survive to adult-hood. Butterflies serve the ecosystems by being the bottom of the food chain. This effect will be lessened if yours are in captivity.
Most people don’t realize that it is a lot of work to maintain a screened in butterfly aviary. It sounds lovely, but it's complicated.
The process needs constant renewal and supervision. As with any pets, someone must maintain the system if you go away.
Enclosures don’t make much sense to me when you can simply watch wild butterflies flourish in your back yard. It's automatic. You can watch the whole cycle from egg to adult-hood in its natural setting. The butterflies are abundant, happy and free. It's so easy and beautiful.
Nature knows best.