BY CALLIE WRIGGLESWORTH
It is hard to say what hits you first, the scents or the heat. The two seem to go hand in hand. Stunning hints of jasmine and the perfume of flowers hang in the moist air. You can taste the humidity and feel it seeping through your clothes and into your skin. A hint of rotting fruit is also in the air but it is not distasteful and the constant humming of a small rushing waterfall calms your mind. It is not particularly quiet but the orchestra of tweeting birds and spraying mist play together in unison like a beautiful song and it feels relaxing. Green is everywhere and random splashes of bright colour peek through. Beautiful reds and purples and pinks.
Then there is one, then two, then three, and suddenly you begin to notice them all. It is like they came out of hiding to welcome you to their tropical home. Thousands of beautiful butterflies. They are high above you, fluttering in the foliage and dancing in front of you. One comes so close, you could reach out and touch it. Some are tiny and some are as big as your hand. They come in a multitude of colours, patterns and shapes. And they are yours to explore.
The Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory, located at 2500 Kossuth Rd., in Cambridge offers a great experience for all ages. The 10,000-square- foot conservatory features free flying butterflies in a tropical environment. It has been open since 2009 and can be visited year-round.
“Butterflies have a short lifespan so we don’t always know exactly how many there are but based on how long they live and how often we are bringing them in, we know we have anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 butterflies that are flying in the exhibit at any given time,” said Adrienne Brewster, the executive director and curator for the conservatory.
The butterflies are imported from breeding farms in Costa Rica and the Philippines. Shipments come in once a week and are alternated between the two locations.
“We have the ability to exhibit exotic insects in Canada so that is what makes us special. Not everyone can just bring in butterflies like these and have an opportunity to see them. This is considered a type of quarantine facility so that people can actually see exotic animals here in Cambridge,” Brewster said.
They arrive as chrysalides which are hung up. The butterflies will emerge and when their wings are dry, they will fly into the conservatory seeking shelter and food. Some chrysalides are hung in an observation window and visitors can sometimes watch the emerging process.
“It is quite a unique opportunity here to see the chrysalis stage and also even more unique to see that moment when the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. In nature they are quite well camouflaged so it is very rare to see that,” Brewster said.
The average lifespan of a butterfly is two to three weeks. Ground feeding birds will come around after a butterfly has died to eat the carcass. They will usually leave the wings, which are then cleaned up by volunteers and used for projects. Visitors are also able to purchase wings from the gift shop.
The butterflies eat nectar from the flowers and artificial nectar bowls that are placed around the exhibit. They also enjoy the juice from rotting fruits which conservatory staff lay out for them.
The environment of the exhibit is maintained so it is as close to the butterflies’ natural habitat as possible.
“Usually the conservatory is about 25 C and about 65 to 75 per cent humidity so we heat the conservatory in the winter and we also make use of a misting system to help us maintain the humidity,” Brewster said.
There are also exotic bird and insect collections and two observation galleries where visitors can observe dried mounted specimens.
“It is truly an oasis. I mean you can’t get this anywhere else. It is like a vacation in a day … it is invigorating and rejuvenating and beautiful every single day because it is just such a lovely experience for your senses and to feel the heat on your skin and smell the floral fragrances and see the butterflies. That is my favourite part, just being able to have a space like this that we can access especially on cold, bleak dismal winter days,” Brewster said.
The Paradise Garden Cafe, located on site offers a healthy and fresh menu for guests. Local ingredients are used as much as possible, including vegetables grown in the conservatory’s own garden. Produce is also purchased from the farm next door.
The conservatory hosts weddings and runs multiple events throughout the year. It is open Tuesday to Sunday during the fall and winter months and tickets are $13 for adults. For more information about the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory and upcoming events, visit www.cambridgebutterfly.com