Stepping into a botanical garden can be an exhilarating experience. The temperature of the outside world vanishes, and suddenly you’re surrounded by giant plants and warm, wet air. But, in the last 40 or so years, some gardens have become more than just somewhere to admire perfectly cultivated flora. Butterfly houses offer visitors a chance to interact with the fluttering beauties, but their presence is about more than inspiring awe.
In a butterfly house—a walk-through greenhouse—the flying, colorful insects float above heads, balance gracefully on plants, and even sometimes land delicately on arms. The experience, some argue, is a means to ease the insect world’s icky-sticky PR problem, and help the public appreciate the essential ecological roles such critters play.
“I think our little butterfly house ventures have become ever more important in reminding people of the symbiosis between nature, between insects, between humans and the whole thing,” says Stephen Fried, who’s built the enclosures across Western Europe. Butterflies and other insects play a myriad of roles in our natural systems—from pollinating plants to knocking out harmful pests.
But, like most experiences with wildlife, butterfly houses have pros and cons. While they inspire and open doors to insect education, some conservationists are concerned about the impact of moving butterflies from all over the world to houses far from their original habitats.
The history of the butterfly house
The first version of the butterfly house was demonstrated in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, in 1976, when people were invited by businessman David Lowe to walk through a humid greenhouse filled with plants and exotic creatures. This idea was taken to the next level by lepidopterist (the term for a person who studies butterflies and moths) Clive Ferrel in 1980, when he set up the London Butterfly House, the first ever entertainment-focused installation which ran from 1981 to 2007. Ferrel went on to establish butterfly farming facilities in places like Costa Rica and Malaysia throughout the mid-1980s, which, according to a study in Conservation and Society, is what really got the attractions off the ground.
Nowadays, butterfly houses appear worldwide—from Missouri to Austria and even the Singapore airport—often attached to museums and botanical gardens. Some make their home old buildings; the Schmetterlinghaus in Vienna is part of a 200-year-old group of structures and gardens. While larger, newer facilities can house more space for even more butterflies; Stockholm’s Fjarilshuset, for instance, holds more than 700 kinds of butterflies in a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse.
Despite its size, the butterfly house industry hasn’t set a common goal for itself—the way many zoos now have reframed themselves as stewards of conservation and biodiversity research. Many sites are marketed for entertainment and fun, but some tout their educational value.
In a world where some species of butterflies are declining due to climate change and habitat destruction, teaching is all the more important. “I’m also very interested in educating people about how fantastic insects are and what they are able to do and all kinds of evolutionary adaptations and so on, and butterfly houses are a prime place to teach people,” says Micheal Boppré, a retired professor at the Forstzoologisches Institut in Freiburg, Germany, and author of the Conservation and Society paper. “But people usually don’t go to a butterfly house because they want to learn something.”
But simply having butterflies around might not be enough.
Where do the butterflies come from?
As the greenhouses have flourished, demand for butterflies has also steadily increased. As of 2010, for instance, two million pupae were imported into the European Union each year, largely from South and Central America, tropical parts of Asia, and several countries in Africa. And while farming can be done sustainably, Boppré says, ranching butterflies always starts with gathering pupae or specimens from the wild.
Early on, trading and farming (or “ranching”) had a set of standards set through the Insect Farming and Trading Agency (IFTA), which was founded in 1978 to “ranch exceptionally desirable and supposedly endangered butterflies for collectors to promote species and habitat conservation in a sustainable manner through local economic benefit,” writes Boppré. But practices have become muddied over the decades. In a sustainable model, a certain number of the butterflies must be rereleased back into the wild, whereas the others can then be exported. But, there are no real numbers on this. “No breeder tells you how many butterflies they are exporting to a rich country, and no breeder tells you how many insects they take from the field,” Boppré adds.
Still, small farms and families can make a decent living selling pupae either to places abroad or to larger butterfly farms. Costa Rica, the top butterfly breeding nation in the world, pulls in $2 million each year through farming various species, much of which goes to small farms. Around 100 of the country’s 1,500 native species are transported out.
Some scientists see an opportunity in the photogenic creatures crossing borders. “Butterflies have become universal vehicles in environmental education throughout the world. Through butterfly exhibits, awareness is raised about biodiversity in the tropics,” entomologist Ricardo Murillo told a University of Costa Rica newspaper back in 2019. “The butterfly is charismatic, it is a vehicle that connects nature with human beings around the world.”
Even seeing only the most common species—like Costa Rica’s Morpho butterflies and Ecuador’s Heliconius sapho—has clear benefits. It doesn’t take away from the experience of being in a butterfly house, but it does take away some of the concerns about shipping rare and endangered creatures around the globe. “It’s absolutely not my intention to have bloodsucking butterflies, Rare butterflies, Huge butterflies,” says Fried. “If you come to our place, we’ve just got ordinary run of the mill, everyday butterflies that you would see in tropical and subtropical environments.”
Naturally, there are still risks. Once butterflies arrive in their new homes, genetic problems can arise from inbreeding closely related insects over and over. Another potential problem, notes Boppré, is the risk of introducing an invasive species in transit. A tropical butterfly that escapes the greenhouse in northern Europe isn’t likely to cause an issue, but an accidental deposit of pupae or live butterflies in tropical regions where the trade is common can wreak havoc on the natural environment. The Pieris rapae, for example, was introduced from Europe to Canada and the US in the 1850’s and still is invading local habitats and munching up weedy mustards.
Why butterfly houses matter
At the end of the day, butterfly houses do give viewers something special: seeing nature in real life, even if you live very far from it. Certain butterfly houses, like the The Magic of Life Butterfly House in Wales tout their resources for butterfly lovers young and old, but others like Vienna’s Schmetterlinghaus are located just a quick walk away from a natural history museum. Taking a look at the resources nearest to you can help decide if a trip to the butterfly house is enough learning for one day, or if popping over to a museum as well can take the pretty experience and turn it into a chance for deeper understanding.