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The butterfly effect

Flourish 07 Jan 2017

Man-made enclosures provide a close encounter with nature that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

The steamy humidity, the soothing green of warm-climate plants, the soft whirr of hundreds of tiny wings – there’s something about being in a butterfly enclosure that’s both magical and mood-lifting.

Ian Bryant, who owns Coffs Harbour Butterfly House in New South Wales with his wife Ros, says that regardless of how people feel when they enter the space, no one leaves a butterfly house unhappy.

“I think it just has that effect on you – whether you like it or not, you’re going to smile,” Ian says.

Coffs Harbour Butterfly House was built in 1995, and Ian and Ros took it over in 2012. Species are all Australian, with a mix of tropical and subtropical varieties.

Spend time with these colourful critters and you’ll see it all – courting, mating, drinking, basking and egg laying. Butterfly enclosures often feature seats, inviting you to pause for a moment and watch.

Melbourne Zoo’s Butterfly House is a favourite for many visitors.

Zookeeper Jess Sinclair says people lose awareness of others as they gaze upward and around.

“There’s so much butterfly movement and it’s amazing because there’s no screen between you and the animal. You are immersed in their habitat, in their space,” Jess says.

Pioneering zookeeper Alfred Dunbavin Butcher came up with the idea for the Butterfly House 31 years ago. He wanted to extend the zoo’s range of creatures on display and encourage people to understand the importance of the world’s diverse eco systems.

Melbourne Zoo has continued to be innovative: its most recent development is an enclosure for Lord Howe Island stick insects. These insects were believed to be extinct for more than 80 years and the new enclosure has attracted noted scientists including Jane Goodall and David Attenborough.

To remain at the forefront of environmentally conscious technology, the Butterfly House has faced many challenges. Gas heaters and evaporative coolers are used to regulate the temperature inside the house, but automatic shades help to minimise their use. A new double-glazed roof also helps to minimise heat loss, while energy-efficient LED lighting has been installed to replace halogen globes.

Breeding presents another challenge, as each butterfly needs to lay its eggs on a specific species of host plant. A huge effort is put into the plant nursery at the Melbourne Zoo, which supplies host plants for the different species of butterflies. There are some plants in the Butterfly House that supply nectar, but the keepers also prepare nectar and put it on special feeders.

Jess and the other keepers split their time between working in the front-of-house butterfly enclosure and back-of-house, where caterpillars are reared.

“We’re completely sustainable with plant growth and with maintaining our own stocks of butterflies. We don’t have to bring any in, we can actually breed them all here,” Jess says.

Information within the Butterfly House will help you identify different species and friendly keepers are on hand to make sure you get the most out of your visit.

“It’s a profound experience and such a pleasure to work to help conserve and to educate the public about butterflies and invertebrates in general,” Jess says.

The Butterfly House at Melbourne Zoo is included in your zoo entry fee and is completely accessible. At Coffs Harbour Butterfly House there is also a maze (wheelchair and pram-accessible) and a café.

words Lachean Humphreys

images Alamy; courtesy Coffs Harbour Butterfly House, Melbourne Zoo, Rohan Cleave

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Coffs Harbour Butterfly House
5 Strouds Road, Bonville, NSW
(02) 6653 4766
Open 9am – 4pm daily, except Monday

Melbourne Zoo Butterfly House
Elliot Avenue, Parkville, VIC
(03) 9285 9300
Open 9am – 5pm daily

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