Here in Colorado, January is a time of muted shades—tan grasses, soft yellow willows, maroon sedges, gray seedheads—and erratic weather. Highs in the 50s are immediately followed by snow or a sub-zero wind-chill. I was craving green leaves, bright colors, tropical humidity against my chapped skin. In the midst of suspended existence, I needed a fix of fecundity. So last Saturday, my husband and I paid a visit to the tropics. We drove to Broomfield, just west of Denver, home of the Butterfly Pavilion.
I love this place. Not only do they have butterflies, but all sorts of tropical plants, fascinating insects, and huge, hairy arachnids. More invertebrates include tube worms, starfish, anemones and jellyfish, and fiddler crabs. Plus there are a few vertebrates, such as a tortoise, some turtles, a tank of tropical fish, and a Ring-necked Dove. For a small facility, the diversity is impressive.
While touching the butterflies shortens their already brief lifespans, there are opportunities to pet or hold a horseshoe crab or starfish. There was some nervous giggling as many of the visitors agreed to hold “Rosie,” the Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula. (Pete was brave; I took photos.)
You can also get up close and personal with some other very hefty (and scary) tarantulas. Until you count the legs, it’s hard to believe that the Goliath Birdeater, the world’s largest spider species, isn’t a mammal. (Whether or not it actually eats birds is still up for discussion.)
Then you enter the conservatory, where the warm, wet air envelopes you like a cocoon, while over 1,200 butterflies flutter among the tropical foliage. I spent several hours taking photos and listening to the guides answer questions about the life surrounding us.
Several Atlas Moths impressed me with their huge wingspan. I learned that they must do all their feeding as larvae. Adults have no mouth. Instead, their entire focus is on mating and perpetuating their species. In two weeks, they’ve starved to death. (On the other hand, most adult butterflies and moths drink nectar, or sip the juices of overripe fruit.)
I’d always been taught that resting butterflies kept their wings together, while moths spread theirs flat. Yet, as I observed the butterflies around me, I realized that many of them had their wings outstretched. A Pavilion volunteer explained that while I had been taught correctly, butterflies often “bask” in an attempt to warm themselves in the sunshine.
There are other differences between butterflies and moths. Moths are most active at night, with thick bodies that conserve heat. Butterflies are mostly active during the day, with thin bodies. Moths tend to be colored to blend in with their surroundings, while butterflies are more likely to be brightly colored. But there are exceptions to these rules.
A more reliable way to tell them apart is to examine their antennae. Butterflies have club-shaped antennae, while moths have comb- or feather-like structures. Also, moths’ wings are linked together on each side with a hook-like structure called a frenula, while butterflies can move all four wings independently. Granted, you’ve got to get pretty close to see these distinctions!
All the butterflies and moths we were enjoying arrived in Colorado as cocoons, shipped by “butterfly farms” around the world. As they emerge, the butterflies are released into the conservatory twice a day. You can watch the whole process. I was amazed at the variety and beauty of the various cocoons. Some resembled leaves, which makes sense, but others gleamed in bright metallic gold. It was hard to believe they were alive, and made by an insect.
We may still have months of cold weather ahead, but it’s nice to know there’s a place to go where we can escape winter, at least for an afternoon.