Jessica Morgan McAtee
DIY Butterfly Houses: Eight Tips for Success
If you have ever visited a commercial or professionally orchestrated butterfly house, you know how amazing the experience can be. The room is large and enclosed with glass or screen. The temperatures are humid and regulated. Contained within are oodles of dancing butterflies. There is usually a small fee $15 or less for entry and it makes you want to create a similar phenomenon in your own backyard. How hard is it to maintain such a heavenly exhibit? Is this something we can easily re-create at home? It seems as easy as catching a few butterflies outside and bringing them in to a room with flowers, wouldn't a lanai work just the same?
It's not so simple.
For years I have encouraged folks to plant butterfly habitats in their landscape. This is a natural way to attract butterflies and keep local populations thriving. Butterfly houses, the exhibition ones that are enclosed, are operated much differently than a native or natural habitat. It is not impossible to create this utopia for yourself, but it is takes a tremendous amount of work.
For one, the butterflies on exhibit are typically exotic species. This means that they are not local to your area. Typically these butterflies are from rainforests around the world. They are big and showy and colorful. The United States Department of Agriculture regulates the importation of live butterflies to the U.S. Permits are required for each kind of butterfly you intend to bring in.
If you are trying to re-create a butterfly wonderland filled with exotic species from the Amazon, you will need to work with the USDA. Butterfly houses in the U.S. that have exotics on display include Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FL), Butterfly Wonderland (AZ), Butterfly Pavillion (CO), The Smithsonian Butterfly Garden (DC), Florida Museum of Natural History (FL), The Key West Conservatory (FL), Calloway Gardens (GA), The Indianapolis Zoo (IN), Magic Wings (MA), Reiman Gardens (IA), Missouri Botanical Garden (MO) and many more. The big blue butterfly family, generically called "Blue Morphos" are favored by visitors and since these showy flyers are not native, you would need permits to have them and other species. Also, it is imperative that they stay contained so as not to release exotics into the wild.
When I worked at a tropical butterfly house with exotic species, people would often ask, "what's the harm in releasing an exotic?" Releasing exotic butterflies into an ecosystem causes all sorts of problems. They could compete with local butterflies for host plants. They may not have natural predators at first, so their numbers could increase quickly and they could become pests (as caterpillars) for local plants or agricultural food crops. They may bring exotic pathogens or vector new diseases to local populations. There are other issues as well, but these are the important ones. The short answer is the damage is as yet unknown, but all sorts of ecological catastrophes could ensue.
So, if you were to create a butterfly enclosure of your own, you would most likely begin by using native species. These are the butterflies that naturally visit your garden, they live in your area and they are part of your local ecosystem. Some people are bummed at this prospect, but it is the most realistic one for a first timer.
This brings up another point. If you will only be containing local species, it seems to me to be much easier to simply plant a native butterfly garden and let nature do her own work. The link connects to my free course on the topic. It would save you hours of labor. You simply plant the hosts and some nectar and from there on it's on autopilot. But, if you still insist on your own enclosure, read on.
Maintaining your own enclosure filled with butterflies will require some planning.
If you live in a warm climate, like southern Florida, you can easily use a screened enclosure and your habitat could be lively 12 months of the year. However, if you live north of Orlando, FL, your flight months will be seasonal.
You may have visited a seasonal, native (American) butterfly exhibit. These operations are usually smaller than the exotic ones. You can visit one of this kind at Elkton (OR), The Desert Botanical Garden (AZ), The Natural History Museum in LA (CA), Butterfly Farms (CA), The Ashland Nature Center (DE), The Lincoln Zoo (NE), The Butterfly Estates (FL) and others.
When operating your new enclosure, here are eight things to consider...
1 Temperature. For butterflies to be active and to develop in optimum conditions, you will need warm ambient temperatures. Some of the houses, like the Missouri Botanical Garden, are enclosed in a large glass greenhouse. There are climate control systems that you can install to keep temperatures hot and humidity high. If you are using a screened enclosure, you will be subject to nature's temperatures.
2 Sunlight. Butterflies need sun. The more, the better. So, orienting your enclosure to have a southern exposure will be ideal. I have a covered screened enclosure on the north side of my house, but it never gets sun, so I have not been able to keep butterflies in it. It will not be good if your enclosure is shaded most of the day. At least some parts of it should be sunny from sun up to sun down for maximum flight. Butterflies don't fly as well in shade.
3 Host Plants. If you plan on breeding your own butterflies, you will need lots of host plants. You will need host plants for each species you plan to contain. If you keep host plants inside of your enclosure, and if they are in a sunny place, the butterflies may lay eggs on them. However, with lower numbers of predators in your enclosure than there are in the wild, you will need to replenish the host plants regularly. I recommend potted plants rather than in-ground plantings because you will need to give the plants time to regenerate between broods of caterpillars by putting them outside, where they won't get more eggs deposited on them. Of course, wild butterflies may still lay on them, and that is good too because it will bring new genetic material into your experiment.
The following video was taken at Butterfly Estates in Fort Myers, FL where they display and raise native butterflies in their enclosure. You can see that they have many plants in pots and a Queen is flying around her Milkweed host plant.
4 Nectar. Your butterflies need large amounts of fresh nectar. It would be best to have dozens of nectar plants (also in pots) that you can bring in and out of your enclosure. They must be watered regularly, at least twice a week, to stay healthy and nectar producing. Different plants produce nectar at different times of day, so a variety of plant species will be best to ensure that something is always available. Also, not every butterfly species prefers the same nectar types. So, for example, if you are aiming to have 3 species of butterflies inside, you need to make sure each kind has a constant (hourly, daily and seasonal) nectar that they prefer.
5 Diversity. There must be some genetic diversity in your mix. Otherwise, continuous inbreeding will eventually cause issues. By placing potted host plants outside occasionally, you can get some fresh genetics to work with.
6 Predators. Your enclosure will not be 100% predator free. For example, in Florida, lizards will almost always get in. Plus, there are smaller pathogens, diseases and parasites that will eventually make their way in. Depending on what the predator is, you may have to occasionally start over with new stock. For instance, if you get a disease, it may spread to all of your butterflies. Everything will have to be sanitized and you will start over.
7 Raising Young. Most butterflies only live a week or two as flying adults. To keep your enclosure stocked, you will have to continually rear young. You may or may not opt to raise them in containers, but that brings in a whole new project which is too lengthy for this post. Most of the exhibits that contain butterflies have full time staff working to keep the next generation coming healthy and steadily. You can let them pupate where they will, but if you choose this option, be aware that chrysalises will be throughout your enclosure. Caterpillars will be wandering around. You will need to use caution not to step on them or injure them as they disperse and pupate throughout your space.
8 Behavior. Some species do better than others in captivity. Zebra Longwings are known for flying as usual in an enclosure. Not all butterflies will readily mate in captivity. Monarchs will often cling to the ceiling or sides and not fly. Not all will happily fly in an enclosure. Be prepared for odd behaviors and if you spot any, keep in mind that your artificial environment may be part of the problem.
There will be lots of trial and error, but that is true for any endeavor. It will certainly be memorable, no matter the outcome.
For me, I will continue to do it the natural way with host plants open to the sky. This brings me great joy.