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Butterflies descend onto Carleton campus

By Alejandro Bustos on October 10, 2012

The little boy in front of me is stunned as he stares at the beautiful butterfly that is mere inches from his face.

Perched on an orange in the boy’s hand, the colourful insect eagerly sucks the nectar from the citrus fruit, as the shouts of other excited children ricochet off the greenhouse walls.

The boy’s fear, however, quickly turns to curiosity and then amazement, as he observes the butterfly’s proboscis dig deeper into the orange.

Photo by Alejandro Bustos.

For ten days, countless scenes like this one were repeated in the Nesbitt Biology Building at Carleton University, as thousands of Ottawa residents flocked to Carleton’s greenhouse for the annual butterfly show that first started in 1999.

By the end of the exhibit – which began on September 29 and finished on October 8 – an estimated 13,000 to 14,000 people were expected to have seen the show, according to Ed Bruggink, Carleton’s greenhouse manager.

“We have a two hour wait to get in, so we will have to cut the line at 3 pm to get people in (before closing),” Bruggink tells me during the last Saturday of the exhibit.

While free, the exhibit is funded by visitor donations. Fortunately, the upbeat, family-friendly mood means the crowd is not complaining about waiting and the donations are generous.

“People are fine with it,” replies Bruggink when I ask about the wait. “People tell me, ‘It’s free, it’s educational, we don’t mind waiting. They kids are playing (in line).”

He also adds that people are more than willing to make a donation. “If you don’t charge people to come they are more generous,” he says.

Photo by Alejandro Bustos.

Judging by the scene inside the greenhouse, which is filled with parents, children and other interested onlookers, the wait is well worth it.

With 41 butterfly species flying through the air, sucking on oranges or perched on the greenhouse’s thriving plants, local residents could see these wonderful creatures up close.

For those who don’t know, the life-cycle of a butterfly has four stages. The first step is the egg, followed by the caterpillar hatched from the egg, then the change from caterpillar to pupa, and finally the transformation into the beautiful flying butterfly.

Throughout these four stages amazing things happen. For instance, caterpillars communicate with each other by tapping in a rhythm that is analogous to Morse code.

“You will let (another caterpillar) know that you are consuming this area,” explains Bruggink, when asked what caterpillars say to each other. “They are ravenous.”

Caterpillars must constantly eat day and night to survive. As a result, their communication is focussed on telling other caterpillars to back away from any leaves that they are eating, says Bruggink.

By the time they become butterflies, other incredible things occur, such as the development of two ears with one on each side of their head.

Butterfly hearing is still not fully understood, but thanks to the work of Dr. Jayne Yack, an associate professor of biology at Carleton, researchers are studying if hearing in diurnal butterflies exists for communication purposes and predator detection.

Meanwhile, for the children at the show, observing butterflies up close is an incredible educational opportunity.

“They are so excited to be here,” says Bruggink.  “But once they see the butterflies and they fly onto them they are very gentle. They don’t want to damage them.”

Photo by Alejandro Bustos.