By Executive Director Brooks Paternotte
A few years ago a very generous donor approached Irvine about building a butterfly enclosure. We gladly accepted the donation and started the planning process. After considering a few designs and weighing the expense of construction, we decided upon retrofitting an existing yet underutilized space.
With a limited budget and virtually no experience raising and caring for caterpillars and butterflies, we embarked on what would become an amazing learning experience for many of us here at Irvine. We quickly found that there were many, many details to consider. Fortunately, we were able to stretch our resources through donations of construction materials and labor from our good friends at WPM.
Once we had our enclosed space nearly complete this spring, we had to fill it with native, pollinator-friendly plants as well as eggs, caterpillars and adult butterflies. The introduction of live insects quickly pointed out our problems – poor lighting, predatory spiders, not enough food, the wrong food, design issues with chrysalis box, dead butterflies etc. We quickly grew frustrated.
About that time we visited our friends at Ladew Topiary Gardens just northeast of Irvine. They had recently constructed a much larger enclosure and we wanted to learn from their experience. It was the best thing that could have happened to us.
They explained that they had had many similar challenges in addition to ones unique to their structure. They suggested that well trained and knowledgeable docents could make all the difference, helping visitors to manage expectations and focus on the smallest of details like learning to spot the eggs, chrysalises and caterpillars of various species. They encouraged us and even offered to share their surplus of caterpillars, and we have since taken advantage of that and relocated several monarchs from their enclosure to ours.
When our visitors go into our Butterfly House now, we know to have them slow down and look for the less obvious; we can learn so much by observing, taking in the educational signage and speaking with the docents. With our newly trained eyes everyone can better enjoy the surrounding gardens and meadows at Irvine and understand the importance of these special pollinators.