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From the Pupa to the Grave

Lewis Ginter's new exhibit shows us how beautiful butterflies can be — and how much the government fears them.

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Not everybody will tell you this, but the butterfly is like a flying marshmallow. The big, tropical species that swerve drunkenly around the north wing of the conservatory at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden pretty much run the spectrum of aggression. The giant owl and banded owl have big eyespots on their wings so that predators think they're staring at a bird of prey. The subtle colors on the underside of the malachite's bright wings act as camouflage. Some of them taste bad. Otherwise they're a slow-moving treat for the animal kingdom.

“Butterflies don't have much in the way of defenses,” says Tom Brinda, Lewis Ginter's assistant executive director of horticulture and education and overseer of the garden's new exhibit, Butterflies Live!

The stars are mostly harmless, yet the garden has had to fortify itself to ensure that none of these non-natives gets loose.

The first Butterflies Live! was in 2004; those were North American species. This year's batch — two dozen species, about a hundred chrysalides shipped in each week — are all tropical, mostly from Costa Rica (with special guests from India and the ever-popular North American monarch). Importing these butterflies was tricky — the U. S. Department of Agriculture wanted to make sure everyone's travel papers were in order.

The garden has created a rain forest in the north wing of the conservatory. It's kept at 80 degrees with 90-percent humidity, stocked with nectarific plants and scattered with plates of rotting fruit — staples for the tropical species. Off the main hall, in a small emergence room, chrysalides in plastic tubs — the newly arrived pupae that will soon burst out of their casings, air out their wings and prepare to mingle — a multispecies mixer.

While we can all visit this steamy tropical paradise, the USDA sees it sort of like Guantanamo Bay. These little flying visitors can enjoy the amenities all they want, but their detainment is permanent. They must never leave the glass-enclosed rain forest; hence the emphasis on keeping doors closed, checking for stowaways under shirt collars, and the subtle but firm image of butterfly nets hanging near exits.

What can nature's marshmallow really do to our great nation? Recall the late 1920s, when that dread fungus Ophiostoma came ashore in the United States and began wreaking havoc on our elm trees, spread by Dutch elm beetles. Years later, Dutch elm disease is still a menace. The USDA takes no chances with butterflies either. For the protectors of the land's milk and honey, escape will not be tolerated.

But oh, they are well cared for. The north wing will be a site of the most decadent hedonism — the flashing iridescent scales, nectar flowing like cheap wine, lavish spreads of rotting fruit — a tableau straight from Rome's latter days.

Still, there is control. These foreign butterflies cannot be allowed to spawn on American soil, another of the USDA's edicts. While in, say, a modern high school, attempts at reproduction are difficult to restrict, in the exhibit it's just a matter of omission. Butterflies will lay eggs only on their host plant, the one plant that the caterpillars feed on before they pupate. (Monarch butterfly caterpillars only eat milkweed, for example, which is what makes them taste bad.) So of all the delightful plants in Butterflies Live! none of them is a host plant for the tropical butterflies. Thus, no eggs and no worries about dual citizenship.

“Now, that said, that doesn't mean there isn't sex happening,” Brinda says. The tropical butterflies may not go through the full life cycle — egg, caterpillar, pupa, butterfly — but they still gotta live and love.

“Some of their puddling behavior is managed,” says Jay Forehand, a Virginia Commonwealth University biology student and the lead butterfly wrangler in this operation. Forehand says butterflies exchange nutrient salts with potential mates, a courting strategy that began in the rain forest and has evolved, over the years, into the Jell-O shooter. Buy a pupa a drink?

So though they are foreign, they really are just like us. S

Butterflies Live! runs through Oct. 11 at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Admission to the garden is $6-$10. Call 262-9887 or visit www.lewisginter.org.

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