First butterflies released for exhibition

23 April 2009

The first live tropical butterflies have been released today in preparation for the Butterfly Jungle exhibition opening next week at the Natural History Museum.

Butterfly landing

Butterfly landing

Thirty butterflies have been flown in from South America and will settle into their new home in time for the opening on 1 May.

Once Butterfly Jungle opens, visitors will experience the magic and beauty of a rainforest with more than a thousand live butterflies in the butterfly house.

There will also be other rainforest animals and activities elsewhere in the exhibition.

'Although I have set up and been involved in many butterfly exhibits, there is still something magical about releasing the first butterfly into a new environment,' says Luke Brown, the Butterfly House Manager.

Luke Brown, Butterfly House Manager, releases the first butterflies

Luke Brown, Butterfly House Manager, releases the first butterflies

The new butterflies will start laying eggs within days of their arrival and the population will increase as others hatch from imported pupae.

Low light flying species

Two of the species being released today are the postman and the zebra. They belong to the Heliconius group and are species that like flying in low light, something that is handy for the not-so-bright UK summers.

The postman butterfly (Heliconius melpomone) gets its name from the fact it is one of the rare butterflies that follows the exact same route from flower to flower each day.

Preparing the butterfly house
The postman butterfly follows the same path flower to flower each day

The postman butterfly follows the same path flower to flower each day

The butterfly house replicates the environment of a rainforest so the heat, humidity and light are strictly controlled. 

The staff have been slowly increasing the temperature over the last few weeks to allow the plants, and staff, to get used to the hot conditions. Once open, visitors will feel the heat at about 29-32°C (85-90°F).

Higher ceiling

The ceiling is higher than the butterfly house in last summer’s Amazing Butterflies exhibition so the butterflies have more room to fly around.

Butterflies emerge from their pupa, or chrysalis

Butterflies emerge from their pupa, or chrysalis

'We are really looking forward to seeing how the butterflies use the higher flight space in this year’s house and hope this helps produce a more dramatic spectacle for all our visitors,’ says Paul Gallagher, exhibition project manager.

There is also a looping soundtrack, Rainforest Requiem, playing sounds of the forest to give visitors a multi-sensory experience.

Work still to do

There is still work to be done before the exhibition opens. This will mostly involve gardening and getting plants planted and established so that the site is an active growing habitat.

Butterfly trade
A tropical butterfly settles in in the butterfly house

A tropical butterfly settles in in the butterfly house

Butterflies from tropical regions are some of the most colourful and diverse in the world and there is a worldwide market for them. 

There are many butterfly farmers in these regions and the butterflies are exported as pupae.

Butterfly farming is often small-scale and brings benefits to the local community, for example by employing local people.

Additionally, it can help protect the forests that the butterflies live in as they need native plant species and prefer intact natural environments.

Butterflies of the world
The zebra butterfly is a species that likes to fly in low light

The zebra butterfly is a species that likes to fly in low light

There are about 20,000 species of butterfly worldwide and more than 6 times as many species of moth. An amazing 40% of these are found in South America.

However, there are many more species still undiscovered or not scientifically named yet. 

Museum scientists carry out the crucial job of identifying and classifying them (taxonomy) with the help of the 9 million butterfly and moth specimens in the collections.

Butterfly Jungle opens from 1 May – 27 September 2009 in the Museum’s east gardens. Tickets are on sale now.

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Further information

  • Find out more about Butterfly Jungle opening on 1 May