Sunday, June 9, 2013

Adventures in Butterfly Wonderland

Sometimes, in the course of exploring Arizona with my son, I set out to try something totally foreign -- something I’m not even sure we’ll enjoy.

I'm sure you already know where this is going.

This was not one of those trips.

Kid + me + insects + cameras = heaven, pretty much.

Anyone who knows our family knows that we -- and especially my son and I -- are huge nature nerds. The more informative, the more nature-friendly; the better. So the question on our trip to the grand opening of Butterfly Wonderland wasn't if we were going to enjoy it. It was how much.

Taken by David. He's gunning for my job, I think.

The answer: A whole lot.

Butterfly Wonderland just opened May 25 in Scottsdale on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community land, and is now the largest butterfly pavilion in America. We’re already looking forward to our next visit and to the growth of this new destination.

Plus, the residents looked so eager to see us!

It’s actually the first stage of “Odysea in the Desert,” a 522,000-square-foot entertainment complex that is planned to include the largest aquarium in the southwest, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, and more. For now, it’s all about insects, and that suits us just fine, because Butterfly Wonderland makes an immersive encounter out of the experience.

Immersive to the senses, and immersed in butterflies! Here, a twin pack.

The first stop after checking in is the 3-D film Flight of the Butterflies, which follows a monarch family over multiple generations. I won’t spoil it for you except to say that it’s so well done, I almost got choked up over the insects’ fates.

Then again, we might be just a little more attached than usual to insects.

If kids are old enough to understand the information and story, they (and you) will be enthralled like we were -- and even if they’re not, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film, making use of 3-D effects to surround visitors in a swarm of monarchs taking flight, or to glide just over the “shoulder” of a single butterfly.

I know, butterflies don't really have shoulders. But didn't you ever daydream about riding those upper wings like big, fluttery shoulders when you were a kid? No? Just me?

The first stop after the movie is the Butterfly Emergence Gallery, a stage where visitors watch through a window as hundreds of butterfly chrysalises mature.

The actual moment of emergence -- a rare sight anywhere else -- is commonplace here, as butterflies enter their adult stage before our eyes.

A scarlet Mormon butterfly (Papilio deiphobus rumanzovia). 

More than once I heard a chorus of excited voices calling out: “Ooh! This one is shaking! I think it's ready to come out!” (OK. One of those voices was probably mine.)


A freshly emerged blue morpho butterfly (Morpho peleides), before its wings had fully hardened and straightened.

A Malay lacewing butterfly (Cethosia hypsea hypsina) pushing out of its chrysalid shell as we watch. Very cool.

Special highlights included watching a blue morpho butterfly flex its newly unfurled wings, inspecting the huge fibrous cocoons of atlas moths, and witnessing the release of “excess metabolic fluid” (kind of like butterfly pee; always a kid favorite) as the insects emerge.

After it pooled, my son repeatedly compared it to Diet Coke. Guess I'm drinking water from now on.

And now, because I have no self control, some more shots from the Emergence Gallery:

Another blue morpho, ready to move to the Conservatory.

The opaque chrysalises still have a little while to go, but when they turn transparent and you can see wing patterns and colors, it's almost time. Keep your eyes on those.

One of many giant owl butterflies to emerge as we watched.

Blue morphos again -- one just emerged, and one just a few minutes later, with wings straight and strong.

Even more impressive than the huge, fibrous Atlas moth cocoons? The huge, striking moths themselves! Also, have you ever heard a species name cooler than Attacus atlas?

I forgot this species! Someone tell me! But hey, how pretty is that?!

More newly hatched giant owl butterflies. We're being watched.

A blue morpho butts in on a giant owl conference.

Blue morpho says hey!

When we managed to tear ourselves away from the Emergence Gallery, we went through an “airlock” of sorts to ensure that no butterflies get in or out of the next stage, and then we entered the Conservatory, the centerpiece of Butterfly Wonderland.

Seriously, it'd be gorgeous even with no butterflies.

The Conservatory is a glass atrium, a greenhouse covering over 10,000 square feet and planted with tropical trees and bushes. It housed about 1,000 butterflies when we visited. They added another 3,000 for the full opening June 1, to coincide with National Butterfly Awareness Day. A small waterfall, large koi pond, benches, and sloping walkways complete the area.

I want that bench.

The atrium is a veritable showcase of the quirky wonders of biology; from knobby or feathery antennae, to eye spots on butterfly wings, to moth wingtips that look for all the world like snake heads.

Seriously, I'm waiting for a forked tongue.

Workers circulate to point out sights both bizarre and beautiful, and to teach visitors about the insects. You and your kids can learn about mimicry, metamorphosis, evolution, predators, and more. Get a close look at a butterfly’s curlicue proboscis, or the dainty feet, or its rainbow of shingle-like scales.

Yellow-edged giant-owl butterfly (Caligo atreus). They have striped eyes!

Look at that proboscis!

Or you can just lounge and watch the pretty butterflies with your loved ones. There are certainly much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

And it'll be a whole afternoon, if you have a partner in crime like mine.

Some of the resident insects are shy, but many seem to be -- dare I say it -- social butterflies. They may even land on you, as I discovered when one hitched a ride on my hair, or as my son learned when two blue morpho butterflies decided his fingers were a prime spot to, as he delicately put it, “make more butterflies!” He sat down with the pair for several minutes, and became temporarily known as the mating-morphos host, a designation he relished.

Probably the only context in which repeatedly announcing "LOOK EVERYONE! THEY'RE MATING!" is considered endearing.

Later, after we’d gently ushered the pair into a shady spot, a yellow-edged giant owl butterfly perched on his nose. I’ve never seen him so happy about an itchy nose.

Momentary silence of the kid.

[You can check off exotic butterflies and practicing identifying them here] Here (because I really do have no self control at all), just a few more of the Conservatory's residents:

Blue morphos, mating, again. They did this a lot.


A great eggfly butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina), perching on the ground. Make sure to watch where you step!

Blue morpho, wings open! 

Same species, wings closed. It's like a different butterfly. 

Check carefully through the foliage. No one but me spotted this butterfly. (Until it landed on the rear end of a fellow patron. I spared you and her that photo.)

Forgot this species too! I need a bigger field guide if I'm coming back here.

A clipper butterfly, another that went largely unseen in the bushes.

Seriously, these guys are massive. Can you imagine them flapping around at night? 

A lone blue morpho, probably about to hook up.

This was one well-photographed butterfly. This is a great place to practice your photography!

Blue morpho, showing off both sides of the wings!

Owl butterflies like to perch on hands as well as noses! (Make sure not to pick them up. They'll come.)

Aliens have landed! And they're beautiful.

I know a lot of wildlife advocates, enthusiasts, scientists, photographers, and just general nature lovers. And yes, the general consensus is that we prefer our wildlife, well, wild. Still, Butterfly Wonderland, from what I've seen so far, does a great job keeping these insects in as an environment as close to their native habitat as possible.

A lacewing butterfly, as close as it gets to Southeast Asian rainforest habitat in Arizona.

The butterflies are likely to live out their full lifespans (only a few weeks in many cases; these beauties are fleeting), as long as they don't get too overcrowded and as long as patrons are careful where they step. (While we were there, everyone was. It was actually pretty heartening to see kids and adults alike counseling one another to be gentle to insects.) So yes, the "real" wild is best, but I'm not likely to get free time and a budget to go trekking to Costa Rica and the Philippines any time soon, so this is the next best way to see these exotic insects.

You just knew I took a thousand photos of this moment.

The atrium is hot and muggy -- they keep it tropical for the butterflies -- so you will get sweaty. Wear cool, comfortable clothes and get something to drink beforehand. (Also, take family photos right away, before everyone's dripping.) It lets out into the Butterfly Café, which is a nice cool rest stop even if you’re not planning to buy refreshments.

Assuming you don't get your refreshments through a proboscis.

Next, we explored the other resident insects -- a beehive where we could watch the queen lay eggs and workers fill honeycomb with honey; and a large see-through ant colony.

Honeybee with honeycomb. And actual honey!

Look near the upper right for the queen, with a green dot.

The last exhibit is the Rivers of the Amazon area, with a wide variety of colorful fish.

Also available in every other color of the rainbow.

The area also included a pool with spotted freshwater rays, which visitors were invited to touch gently (after having their hands sanitized). The half-dozen rays, juvenile and still small, mostly stayed at the bottom of their pool, only coming up now and then to investigate visitors, but we liked it, as it seemed the rays had plenty of room and weren't stressed.

I'm happy because I don't have to hang out in a bathtub with 50 other rays!

The tour ends, of course, in a gift shop. Still, the Butterfly Treasures Gift Shop has some great (if pricey) souvenirs, and even if you're not inclined to buy (we weren't), the only thing your kids will probably pester you about upon leaving is your next visit.

Last one like this. Promise.

Butterfly Wonderland is located at 9500 E. Via de Ventura, Scottsdale
Admission: Adults: $18.95, Children ages 3-11: $9.95, Students: $16.95
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
For more information, call (480) 800-3000 or visit

Come now!


jo(e) said... Best Blogger Tips

Wow. Thanks for all the incredible photographs. It makes me want to go out and find some butterflies to look at.

craztla said... Best Blogger Tips

Beautiful work, Kimberly! Check the flickr link to your blog. Keep on clickin'!

Carole DeAngeli said... Best Blogger Tips

Just wonderful photos of some of nature's most amazing creatures. Thanks for this tour!

bobeager said... Best Blogger Tips

Incredible images. All the different colors are just mesemerizing. Beautifully shown these pictures should be in a museum of natural history or is there a museum for insects.

Anonymous said... Best Blogger Tips

Absolutely awesome journal of your experience at "Butterfly World"!!!

Jon Lindsay Natalie Tyler said... Best Blogger Tips

Do you have a post on your camera rig you use to capture these little buggers? Great work!


Jon Lindsay Natalie Tyler said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks for the great posts. The Black Widow one made me laugh out loud when I saw your walmart bag in the last illustration, great stuff!

let me know about your lighting and camera rig set up when you can