Career, Fun Stuff, Q+A — April 28, 2011 9:36 am

Weird Career: The Butterfly Queen

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Ever wonder what it takes to curate a butterfly show? Ask butterfly wrangler Michele Stanton.

At the Annual Butterfly Show at the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, visitors can have hands-on interactions with butterflies from around the world. Photo by Pat Strang.

Call her what you want—butterfly momma, butterfly queen, butterfly wrangler. Michele Stanton has heard it all. It’s her second season with the Annual Butterfly Show at Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory, and for eight months these past two years, her life has been all about butterflies. She manages the butterflies throughout the entire show, from their arrival at the conservatory from distributors all over the world to their departures from Cincinnati, when she carefully packs up each live creature in a tiny envelope to be shipped off to the next butterfly show.

Q: How did you get into butterfly wrangling?
A: My training is in horticulture. I kind of fell into this. As a horticulturalist, I appreciate nature in all its forms. Butterflies are part of that, and people love attracting them to their gardens, so it’s a nice mix.

Q: What’s your position at the Krohn Conservatory during the Butterfly Show?
A:
I work here from March before the show starts until part of July, after the show is over. I’m the one that’s in charge of the show, making sure the butterflies emerge like they’re supposed to. We have to have a USDA permit for every insect in the show; that’s part of the planning that goes on the year before the show. We also have to make sure that none of the plants in the show are the larval hosts for these butterflies.

Michele Stanton, the butterfly queen, behind the scenes at the 2011 Butterfly Show. Photo by Pat Strang.

Q: Why can’t you have larval hosts? Wouldn’t that save you time if butterflies were reproducing naturally?
A:
We can’t have them mating and laying eggs on the plants out there. Caterpillars eat like crazy! If you think about it, they’d be eating their way through the showroom and making a mess of everything. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Q: Where are some of the places from which you import butterflies?
A:
We use brokers, so we’re not direct importers. Since the show this year [2011] is called “The Butterflies of Brazil,” these butterflies are from all over South America.

Q: What do you do with the unhatched butterflies when they arrive at the Krohn?
A:
We keep the chrysalids [the pupa of a butterfly—the stage between larvae and adult] in aquariums, and then we pin them or use a tiny drop of glue from a glue gun and attach the chrysalid to the top of the aquarium. Each chrysalid is different. Some of them look absolutely like works of art. Some of them look like little jewels. It’s amazing. Some look like you could make earrings out of them.

Stanton tracks the progress of all the chrysalids in the show. Photo by Pat Strang.

Q: How do you handle a live butterfly?
A:
When you touch their wings–which are made of tiny scales–some of it rubs off. They’re very fragile. If I can touch them by having the insect crawl on my finger as opposed to picking it up, that’s better.

Q: How many species of butterflies are in the show? How many in the exhibit?
A:
Right now the show carries about 70 species of butterflies. Over the course of the show, there are 15,000 butterflies in the exhibit. We bring out 1,000 new butterflies each week. Whatever is alive at the end of the exhibit, we send on to the San Antonio Zoo—they use them at their butterfly show.

Q: How do you send live butterflies?
A:
This is funny: Each live butterfly gets folded up and we put it in a breathable envelope. We close their wings, which is their natural resting, sleeping position. The envelope gets overnighted to San Antonio, and since it’s dark and their wings are closed, they’re not uncomfortable. And then when they arrive, [the next wrangler will] open up the envelopes and unload the butterflies one by one.

Photo by Pat Strang.

Q: Can butterflies see colors?
A:
Yes, butterflies can see colors. They smell and taste with their feet. That’s how they know what plants are going to be good.

Q: What’s in the butterfly diet?
A:
We have lots of flowers that provide nectar—that’s the natural thing. Then we have orange Gatorade and we also have overripe fruit, like bananas and oranges.

A view of the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati. Photo by Pat Strang.

Q: Why do you keep it so warm in the show rooms?
A:
For the butterflies. If it were just for us, we’d have the air conditioning cranked up. We have to keep it in the high 70s or low 80s. And we keep it between 55 and 80 percent humidity. It gets really hot.

Q: Think you’ll come back for a few more shows?
A:
I think it’s fun. I like being able to show people that insects are not scary; they’re wonderful creatures. They have a real purpose besides just looking pretty. I like being a part of that.

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