Image: Giant Swallowtail butterfly
Julia Malakie  /  AP file
A Giant Swallowtail butterfly, a citrus feeder found in Florida, perches on a plant at The Butterfly Place in Westford, Mass., in this file photo.
updated 5/11/2007 1:29:43 PM ET 2007-05-11T17:29:43

First, she flinched. Then Caitlin Myers covered her face with her hands and squealed.

The 2-year-old didn’t know which way to turn. Butterflies with blue, orange, yellow and white wings fluttered and swooped around her.

“She loves them,” said her mom, Chris Myers. “They’re fine as long as they don’t come too close.”

It’s nearly impossible to avoid erratic movements of the monarchs, longwings and swallowtails skipping about the Butterfly House, an indoor garden filled with tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies.

“These guys travel around like drunken sailors on a 10-day binge,” said Gilbert Martinez, who visits the exhibit in suburban Toledo at least twice a month. “That’s part of their beauty.”

Whether it’s the butterflies’ spectacular colors or their close interaction with visitors, these walk-through exhibits have become big crowd pleasers. There are at least 100 nationwide, with many at zoos and museums where visitors are sometimes charged an extra fee – usually $2 to $3 - to walk among the winged insects, according to the International  Association of Butterfly Exhibitions.

“People love going to the zoo, but you can’t get in the cage with the lions,” said Mike Weissmann, a consultant who helps set up butterfly exhibits around the country.

Admissions at the Huntsville Botanical Garden in Alabama doubled last year after it opened a butterfly house and children’s garden. Some stand-alone exhibits are open year-round in popular tourist spots:

The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory in Canada is just 10 minutes from Niagara Falls and features more than 2,000 tropical butterflies.

The Butterfly Palace in Branson, Mo., offers an alternative to country music and shopping.

Florida is home to nearly a dozen butterfly exhibits, including The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy.

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There are even more outdoor butterfly gardens open in warm weather months. New York City’s Bronx Zoo along with zoos in Oklahoma City, Oakland, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn., are among a growing number with butterfly gardens.

The Smithsonian’s outdoor garden is just steps outside the National Museum of Natural History along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum also is building an enclosed butterfly exhibit that will open in November. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has an annual indoor exhibit that opens each October and this year closes May 28.

Indoor butterfly houses got their start in Europe during the 1970s. The first one came to the United States in 1988 when Butterfly World opened in Coconut Creek, Fla., north of Miami.

It has grown to include a butterfly breeding center along with hummingbird and lorikeet exhibits where visitors can feed a cup of nectar to the colorful lorikeet parrots. About 250,000 people visit each year, said the founder, Ron Boender. As many as 10,000 butterflies are on display each day. “We have an entire farm that breeds exotic species of butterflies,” Boender said.

Most butterflies on display at other exhibits come from farms in Costa Rica, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Boender doesn’t think the expanding number of butterfly attractions has been entirely positive. “Everybody sees it as a fast buck,” he said. “I don’t mind if they’re first-class exhibits. There are some good ones. There are a lot of poor ones.”

Weissmann, who is consulting on about a dozen new exhibits this year, said zoos are looking beyond the traditional crowd-pleasers -- such as elephants and polar bears -- to educate visitors about habitat and species conservation.

“A huge portion of animals are underrepresented in zoos,” he said. ”Butterflies are great ambassadors to teach about the rain forest. “You get more bug for the buck too,” Weissmann said.

Butterflies, he said, are less expensive to acquire and feed, although year-round exhibits do require heat to keep them around 80 degrees, or the butterflies won’t fly.

“I don’t think you get into this business thinking you’re going to make a windfall,” said Duke Wheeler, who seven years ago opened the Butterfly House near Toledo. Inside the glass-roof structure, the butterflies chase each other. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the flurry of activity.

A closer look reveals the intricate patterns on each pair of wings. Some are striped or spotted. Others are a jumbled mix of stripes, spots and squiggly lines. The colors and patterns give each insect its own personality. The bright ones appear cheerful and gentle while the dark ones look almost spooky.

Some visitors simply sit on benches, waiting for the butterflies to settle near them. Occasionally, butterflies will land on an outstretched arm or the top of someone’s head. The Butterfly House doesn’t allow visitors to reach out and touch the insects because they say it could shorten their life span, which lasts only about three or four weeks.

Employees also warn guests to watch where they step as the butterflies tend to land on the concrete floor.

As they flutter around it’s easy to forget about everything else. Butterflies, Wheeler said, have a spiritual quality. “They’re the perfect creature,” he said. “They’re frail. We’re all
frail.”

If You Go...
THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE:
Whitehouse, Ohio; http://www.butterfly-house.com or 419-877-2733. Open daily April-September, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Picnic tables available. Adults, $6; ages 4-12, $4.50; ages 65 and up, $5.

BUTTERFLY WORLD: Coconut Creek, Fla.; http://www.butterflyworld.com or 954-977-4400. Open year-round, Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Two outdoor cafes serve snacks and lunch. Picnic area available. Adults, $19.95; ages 3-11, $14.95. Admission includes lorikeet and hummingbird exhibits.

THE BUTTERFLY PLACE: Westford, Mass.; http://www.butterflyplace-ma.com/ or 978-392-0955. Glass atrium. Open daily, February-early October, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Picnic area available. Adults, $9; ages 3-12, $6; ages 65 and up, $7.

THE BUTTERFLY PALACE: Branson, Mo.; http://www.thebutterflypalace.com or 417-332-2231. Visitors walk through a garden with tropical plants and 1,000 tropical butterflies. Open daily, year-round, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $16.95; ages 4-12, $9.95.

NIAGARA PARKS BUTTERFLY CONSERVATORY: Niagara Falls, Ontario;
http://www.niagaraparks.com/garden/butterfly.php or 905-356-8554. Just north of Niagara Falls, the center has more than 2,000 tropical butterflies flying through a rain forest. Open daily, 9 a.m., closing hours vary by season. Adults, $11; children 6-12, $6.50.

CECIL B. DAY BUTTERFLY CENTER: Pine Mountain, Ga.; http://www.callawaygardens.com or 706-663-2281. The glass-enclosed conservatory near Atlanta features tropical butterflies. An outdoor garden attracts butterflies in the spring and summer. Open daily, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Adults, $13.91; ages 6-12, $6.96

COCKRELL BUTTERFLY CENTER: Houston; http://www.hmns.org/ or 713-639-4629. The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s butterfly center features a three-story conservatory with tropical plants and butterflies.Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $8; ages 3-11, $6.

PACIFIC SCIENCE CENTER TROPICAL BUTTERFLY HOUSE: Seattle; http://www.pacsci.org/ or 206-443-2001. Visitors can watch butterflies begin their flight in a chrysalis viewing window. New butterflies enter the exhibit each morning. Adults, $10; ages 3-12, $7. Open weekdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY BUTTERFLY CONSERVATORY:
http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/butterflies/?src=e_f or 212-769-5100. Open October through May 28, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Ticket includes admission to museum. Adults, $25, children, $16.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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