Soaring but Not Free: Smithsonian's Butterfly Habitat

By Marissa Newhall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Inside the milky white dome of the Smithsonian's new butterfly habitat, an Asian swallowtail alights on what looks like scouring-sponge netting, soaking in a tray of bluish liquid. It sips delicately from the fabric, surely imbibing some scientifically calibrated mix of nectars and nutrients.

"Blue Gatorade," clarifies Dan Babbitt, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History, who works on the exhibit. Much like humans, it turns out, butterflies need a balance of salt and sugar to achieve peak performance.

"Butterflies and Plants: Partners in Evolution," 18 months in the making, opens to the public tomorrow. The $3 million structure-within-a-structure is the only year-round, indoor butterfly pavilion in Washington, home to 300 to 400 of the flying insects at a time.

Inside, season-defying 80-degree warmth bathes marble walls and sleek stainless steel food dishes of sliced grapefruit. In one corner, a dazzling blue morpho lolls on a halved banana, luxuriating in the humidity -- maintained by sensors at 80 percent. Nearby, a trio of cream-and-black paper kite butterflies flutter briskly around a blinding overhead lamp. Sixteen 1,000-watt bulbs approximate "a bright, sunny summer day," Babbitt says. The lights gradually dawn to full brightness at 7:30 a.m. and slowly revert to darkness 12 hours later.

The luxe habitat is also controversial, being the first and only permanent Smithsonian exhibit in Washington to charge admission fees: $6 for adults, $5 for children ages 2 to 12, and $5.50 for senior citizens 60 and older. (Tuesdays are free.) Yesterday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced a bill that would bar the Smithsonian from charging an admission fee to any permanent exhibit, a direct response to the butterfly exhibit.

"The Smithsonian has long prided itself on 'free access,' " she said. "Fees are not the answer for American taxpayers, who already have paid through the 70 percent that the federal government contributes to this public institution."

The museum says the fees are necessary because butterflies live only two to four weeks. Replenishing the pavilion's supply requires new shipments of chrysalises twice a week, from as far as Africa, Malaysia, South and Central America, and eventually Australia. The exhibit's annual operating budget is $800,000 to $1 million.

The design, in concept and execution, is both whimsical and futuristic. From outside, the semi-transparent curved acrylic panels seem to glow, yet are held together by a utilitarian steel frame. Lining the walls outside the pavilion are signs telling the story of plants' and insects' intertwined evolution.

Exhibit developer Sally Love Connell says the pavilion's lush plant life was carefully chosen to make sure no host plants -- plants that provide a hospitable environment to any caterpillars that may hatch from eggs -- are introduced. To comply with USDA regulations, the Smithsonian curtails reproduction by the insects and removes any eggs that are laid on the plants.

Inside, the ebullient flora contrasts with a clinical glass-and-steel box, where new arrivals -- in chrysalis form -- spend a few days hanging from pins and small drops of carefully applied hot glue before emerging. Yesterday, visitors could observe only the still, green orbs; patrons will soon be able to see new butterflies wresting themselves free.

Free, of course, into captivity. After their wings dry, the paper-thin creatures are released into the humid chamber, their first and last winged destination.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company