The cold winds of February are blowing through downtown Schenectady. But if you head over to Nott Terrace, you’ll find a slice of paradise, a summer garden blooming amid the winter’s snow.
That’s because dozens of live butterflies, the kind you might find in your own backyard, are winging around inside a new indoor butterfly house, which opened Saturday at miSci.
You’ll see orange-and-black monarchs, probably our best-known butterfly; black swallowtails, insects with a three- to four-inch wing span; and painted ladies, deep orange with black and white spots. In a few weeks, red admirals, with their striking bands of bright red-orange, are due to join the other North American species.
Built on site at the museum, in the same spot where the model railroad is set up every year, the butterfly house measures 16-by-21 feet and has clear glass walls, like a greenhouse.
Visitors walk through a door and are surrounded by butterflies, as the insects flit and rest and eat in a habitat of flowers and trees.
You can’t touch them, but you can see them up close. And sometimes, for a moment, they will land on your head, arm or shoulder.
WHAT: Indoor exhibit of live butterflies
WHERE: Museum of Inovation and Science (miSci), 15 Nott Terrace Heights, Schenectady
WHEN: Through Sunday, April 7. Regular hours: noon to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Sunday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. School vacation hours (today through Feb. 24 and March 30-April 7): 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed March 31, Easter.
HOW MUCH: Free with miSci admission. $9.50; $8 for seniors; $6.50, ages 3 to 12.
MORE INFO: The butterfly house is wheelchair accessible; no baby strollers. 382-7890, www.miSci.org
“It’s amazing how complex yet fragile they are,” says Chris Hunter, curator of collections and exhibitions.
MiSci’s exhibit is the first indoor winter butterfly house in the Capital Region, and one of a handful in New York state. The Joseph C. Popp Jr. Butterfly Conservatory in Oneonta and the National Museum of Play in Rochester both have year-round indoor facilities. In western Massachusetts, there’s the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens.
“It’s going to be an annual thing. We’ll put it up every February,” says William “Mac” Sudduth, the new executive director of miSci, which was formerly known as the Schenectady Museum.
And someday, when the museum expands, Sudduth says, the butterfly house will become a year-round feature.
During the seven weeks that the “Butterflies” exhibit is running, a crew of staff educators and volunteers, some of them gardeners and butterfly fanciers, will answer questions and assist visitors.
Outside the enclosure, there will be an education area where you can see butterflies emerging from a chrysalis chamber, learn about how to create a butterfly-friendly environment outside your home and pick up information about the Albany Pine Bush, home of the endangered Karner blue butterfly.
During February, preschoolers in the museum’s “Spark!” program will study butterflies and during April school break, there will be butterfly classes for children.
This summer, the museum also is hoping to plant a butterfly garden around the outdoor patio.
The idea for a butterfly house came from Sudduth, who was once the director of a North Carolina science center that had one.
Hunter was eager to take on the project because he has been watching butterflies for the past few years with his 7-year-old nephew, Noah Hunter of Schenectady.
Chris and Noah have traveled to butterfly houses all over the Northeast. At Hunter’s house in Schenectady, they created a small butterfly garden and hatched monarchs from caterpillars.
Hunter talked to The Gazette on Feb. 6, before the butterfly house opened.
Q: How many butterflies?
A: We’re looking to have 180 at a time. I found that the general rule of thumb is two to one, one butterfly per two square feet.
Q: Where do they come from?
A: Nobody grows butterflies in New York state this time of year, so we’re getting our butterflies for the most part from Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. They come through the mail. There’s actually a growing business of butterfly breeders who sell butterflies for release at weddings, funerals, special events.
Q: So they arrive alive in a box?
A: If you lower the temperature on the butterflies, that slows their metabolism, and they can travel safely that way. They pack them with cold packs. They get shipped FedEx overnight.
Q: What will the visitor experience be like?
A: Because of the size of the greenhouse, we’re going to have to limit the number of people that are in there at one time. It’s probably about 20. On busier days, they will be greeted by a staff person, and the staffer will tell them about the house, and about some of the rules associated with the house, about some of the butterflies and plants that you’ll find in there. Then, on the busier days, we’ll take people through in half-hour increments. They’ll go into the house, they’ll get brief orientation by staff person inside the house, and a reminder not to touch the butterflies.
Q: You can’t touch them, but they might land on you?
A: Yes, they could definitely land on you.
Q: Are they more likely to land on you if wear a certain color?
A: A lot of times it will be bright green or red or yellow, colors somewhat similar to what you find for flowers.
Q: What will the habitat look like?
A: We’ve got 60 plants coming. They are coming from South Carolina and Ohio. The core plants are going to be asters and buddlejas. The buddlejas is the butterfly bush. Those are two of the nectar plants that the monarchs and painted ladies really like. They’ll have that for food. And we’re getting some trees for them to get some elevation and hide out from people if they are shy. And then we’re going to have bird baths, some with water, some with rotting bananas and oranges.
Q: What do the butterflies need to survive at the museum?
A: Mostly the feeding. The nectar, the fruit and water. They also need minerals. If you dampen some sand, they’ll suck out some of the minerals that absorb into the water.
Q: What about temperature?
A: For the first year, one of the reasons we wanted to go with the local butterflies was not only because we wanted people to learn more about them, but because they are also room-temperature butterflies.
Q: Will visitors be able to sit down inside the greenhouse?
A: We’re going to have some benches and chairs. Some people will want to move through relatively quickly. But, a lot of time in the butterfly houses, people want to sit and linger for a little while.
Q: Are some children afraid of the butterflies?
A: My 5-year-old niece, at first she didn’t like the butterflies landing on her. With the glass greenhouse, you can actually see them from the outside, and that will be nice for people who are afraid of insects. You can see them, observe them and get acclimated to them.
Q: How did you and your nephew study butterflies?
A: We talked to people who were doing butterfly houses and butterfly farmers, and just visiting over a dozen butterfly houses in the past couple of years. My parents go to a campground in the Adirondacks, and before tropical storm Irene, they noticed some milkweed plants. They basically grabbed all the caterpillars they could find, and we ended up with 15 monarch butterflies out of those caterpillars. They were hatched at my house. We kept them for about a day to make sure the wings hardened, to make sure they were OK. We fed them some watermelon, oranges, bananas. We learned through the science of observation. And then we released them.
Q: As a curator, did you ever think you’d be doing an exhibit like this?
A: My background is history and archives. It’s nice to bring a hobby into the museum.