By Richard Levine
The McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity at the University of Florida in Gainesville is huge, with more than 10 million specimens of moths and butterflies. I had the opportunity to visit the Center two years ago and got to see some really amazing things, including below-ground storage rooms that are climate-controlled to preserve the insect specimens, some of which are hundreds of years old. Scientists at the Center often discover previously unknown species right there in the collection.
Visitors to the Center can also watch scientists as they pin moths and butterflies, and they can watch as moths and butterflies emerge from their cocoons and chrysalises. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to to visit the most popular part of the Center — the Butterfly Rainforest, a 6,400-square-foot area containing tropical plants, butterflies, fish, turtles, and birds.
However, I recently got a chance to see it during a visit to the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology. Dr. Akito Kawahara gave me a guided tour after hours, and he explained the incredible amount of work that it takes to maintain it.
At any given time there are 60-80 species of butterflies flying around, many of which are non-native species from South America or other areas of the world. Since they are not native to the U.S., the Center has to ensure that none of them escape into the wild, and they have to be sure that they do not reproduce viable offspring. Instead, new adult butterflies are constantly released into the enclosure as the older ones die off.
“But how do you keep them from mating, laying eggs, and reproducing?” I asked Dr. Kawahara.
The trick, he explained, is to make sure that there are no suitable host plants. When butterfly eggs hatch, the caterpillars of some species are “host-specific,” meaning they can ONLY survive by eating one type of plant. Caterpillars of the monarch butterfly, for example, will only eat milkweed.
That means that, in addition to caring for the butterflies and other animals, the Butterfly Rainforest staff also need to carefully select the hundreds of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants in the enclosure to make sure that none of them are suitable food sources for the caterpillars. Visitors will also notice air blowing on them when they enter the rainforest. That is an “air curtain,” which blows air when the door is open to ensure that no butterflies escape.
If you are planning to attend the 2016 International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, Florida next year, be sure to visit the McGuire Center and the UFL Department of Entomology and Nematology. Gainesville is only a two-hour drive from Orlando, and there are many other things worth seeing, including state parks and nature preserves.
Richard Levine is Communications Program Manager at the Entomological Society of America and editor of the Entomology Today Blog.