Butterflies aren't free.

409 Bulgarmarsh Road, Tiverton
www.butterflyzoo.com

Do you believe a flower can fly?

For most people, the sighting of a butterfly is a rare event. Even if you're the sort of person who spends a great deal of time outdoors, you might be lucky to spot a handful in a day. But there's a spot in Tiverton where anyone, whether city dweller or farmer, can lay their eyes on 800 to 1000 of the winged works of art in a matter of moments.

Originally opened in 1992, the Butterfly Zoo is the most visible part of the Newport Butterfly Farm, the premiere butterfly breeding facility in Rhode Island. During the warmer months of the year, zoo owner Marc Schenck invites visitors to view the fluttery insects inside his spacious screened greenhouse.

A sort of double-door, airlock-type arrangement allows entry into the zoo. This is to help ensure that no butterflies escape. Before visitors cross the threshold of the inner door, Schenck first treats them to a mini-crash course on government wildlife regulations and a short history of the releases of invasive exotic insects on the East Coast. Believe it or not, federal law provides for a $100,000 fine for those who are found to have aided and/or abetted in the escape of foreign species of butterflies from containment. Schenck takes his regulatory catechism very seriously: "I don't want to go into the history books as being the one who starts the next gypsy moth invasion."

His legal disclosure completed, Schenck, a former high school biology and general science teacher, isn't done yet—he'll also acquaint you with the RULES: "You're not allowed to touch the butterflies, grab them, or chase them. If I see you touching one, you will be asked to leave." This may seem a little harsh, but there are good reasons, the first and foremost of which is that the insects are very delicate. Not only can your grabby hands crush and bend, but the fragile scales that make up butterfly wings can even be damaged by the natural oils on your skin. If their wings are injured, they're done. But no one will yell at you if a butterfly happens to take a shine to you. "The government has yet to figure out how to keep the butterflies from landing on you," says Schenck. If that happens, "it's your lucky day—you let it stay there as long as you want. And buy a lottery ticket on your way out."

Schenck explains that if there were a lot of daily butterfly carnage, the insects would learn to see humans as dangerous, and they would hide from visitors. Of course another reason you should try to avoid butterfly violence is that the insects cost four to six dollars each, on average, and keeping the greenhouse stocked is a major weekly investment.

With the serious stuff out of the way, you're free to explore the interior of the greenhouse in the company of a guide, or on your own and at your leisure. (If you've never been before, it's in your interest to start off with a guide). Tours last about fifteen minutes, a guide points out all the species of butterflies that are in the greenhouse that day (new shipments arrive every week and stocks vary). The guides can also show you butterfly eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalides, and identify specific plants that are favored by each species. Between 10am and 1pm is usually the best time to see butterflies emerging from their pupae.

You can expect to see as many as thirty different species inside the greenhouse, including many from Africa, Malaysia, South America, Thailand, New Guinea, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. Butterflies are most active on warm and sunny days with little wind, because they require the heat of the sun to aid in their digestion. When it rains, they tend to hide in the foliage, but on warm days, you might find yourself surrounded by a squadron of 300 to 400 of the winged arthropods.

The vibrant colors and patterns on the wings of the insects have earned them the fanciful nickname, "flying flowers."

Hopefully you remembered to bring your camera, and to wear bright colored clothing. Butterflies will be attracted to your Hawaiian print shirt for the same reason they are attracted to flowers—the colors mean food to them. Schenck says that red is an especially attractive color and will increase your chances of becoming a butterfly landing pad. A delicate floral perfume doesn't hurt either.

Adult butterflies live only one to two weeks, on average, just enough time to stock up on nectar, flit around looking pretty, and get busy with other butterflies to produce a new generation. If you're lucky you'll see a pair shamelessly rutting right out in the open. Some species, like the familiar Monarch butterfly, can live as long as six months in the wild.

Schenck's happy to instruct you in the ways of the monarch:

"Summer monarchs live for a week, [but] the ones that hatch out in September and October do not mate. They fly to Mexico and literally live on ice... in the mountains until January or February, at which time they wake up, mate, and then their clock starts to tick. They have a week to ten days to live. In that week to ten days they lay eggs and the eggs eventually become adults which travel north [toward] the United States and... Canada."

"Monarchs have a tiny little chip of ferric oxide in their brain—a biological computer chip." They use the ferric oxide to keep track of the magnetic poles and that, along with the position of the sun, helps them to chart the path of their migration. "It takes like four or five generations for the monarchs to start getting up to New England. They start their migration in February, [but] we don't see monarchs arrive here until June."

On July 4, 1997, the Butterfly Zoo (then located on Aquidneck Avenue in Middletown) was the site of a glorious Independence Day tribute. Three hundred lucky visitors were given a white letter-sized envelope containing a carefully inserted Monarch, Red Admiral, or Painted Lady butterfly. In two separate releases during the afternoon, the envelopes were opened and the butterflies leapt up into the sky. "Most of them did a circle over the crowd and then flew off to greener pastures," Schenck told a Providence Journal reporter. "Some stuck around, but a lot disappeared. They're out laying eggs on milkweed now."

Here's a random fun fact: butterflies have no mouths. Instead, they have a proboscis—a long, thin tube that uncurls from the front of their head—that they use to sip nectar from flowers or the fluid from rotting fruit. Their taste buds are in their feet. When you visit, your guide will be sure to point out the Owl Butterflies, drunk off their little butterfly asses from too much fermented banana.

Another fun fact: many cultures eat butterfly or moth caterpillars, either as a treat or as a staple of their diet. In some parts of Africa, plump five-inch Mopani caterpillars are eaten fresh, stewed in tomatoes, or dried like Frito Corn Chips (Schenck reports that they are "crunchy, tasty, and high in protein").

Schenck, who lived in the Middletown area for a period while growing up, has been raising and collecting butterflies since he was a child. "When I was in second grade, I was walking to school and I found a female Cecropia moth... on the side of a building, and I said, 'Ooh, how cool.' I took it to school, [and my] teacher put it in a paper bag. The teacher didn't know but it was the correct thing to do. It laid eggs all over the paper bag and I spent that summer raising her babies." A lifelong interest was born. His collection of dried specimens now numbers over 6,000, and includes an example of the extremely rare Meridionalis Birdwing and a couple of Goliath Birdwings—butterflies the size of a dinner plate.

In addition to running the farm and the zoo, Schenck also holds three United States patents on butterfly-related inventions, including: a butterfly feeder designed to feed many different species of butterflies at once; a special butterfly nectar made from a secret recipe of eleven sugars and spices; and a butterfly house to shelter Red Admiral, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, and Tortoiseshell butterflies during the winter.

From the Newport Butterfly Farm, at a separate location, butterflies are bred and raised for release at weddings and dried for mounted specimens. Some of these mounted specimens can be seen on your way out through the zoo airlock, if you stop and ask nicely. While there is no formal gift shop, some dried specimens are available for purchase, as are domestic larvae that budding lepidopterists can raise in their own homes. Through the farm, Schenck also sells special plants and gardening supplies, and occasionally visits schools to teach children about their butterfly friends. Live butterflies can be ordered a year ahead of time for weddings and other special events (Rhode Island only) by contacting Schenck at butterflyzoo@webtv.net or by calling (401) 849-9519.

So if you find yourself in Tiverton on some sunny summer day, drop by the Butterfly Zoo and you will believe flowers can fly!

Information

Tours: guided and self-guided tours during business hours

Cost: $6 adults; $4 children; children under 3 are free, but must be in a stroller.

Time required: allow at least 30 minutes

Hours: Memorial Day-Labor Day, Monday-Saturday, 11am to 4pm; Sunday, 12-4pm.

Finding it: from Route 195 in Massachusetts, take exit 8 to Route 24; go about 4.2 miles and take exit 6 (Fish Road); head East at the bottom of the ramp; pass the police station on your immediate left; drive two miles to the end of Fish Road, then take a right at the stop sign; the zoo is 1500 feet up on the left side of the road (look for the giant white daisy flower).

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to bridges or despondent phlegm. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited November 23, 2004

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