Plan Your Trip to a Butterfly House

Tips for Observing and Photographing Butterflies

Girl with butterfly on her nose.
A butterfly sits on a girl's nose in the Natural History Museum's 'Sensational Butterflies' outdoor butterfly house in London, England. Getty Images/Oli Scarff/Staff

You've probably seen live butterfly exhibits offered in your local zoos or nature museum. Thes exhibits offer visitors the chance to observe butterflies up close. Most butterfly houses populate their exhibits with butterflies from around the world, allowing you to see a variety of colorful species you'd have to travel the globe to find in the wild. Bring a camera, because you'll definitely want to capture images of these "flying flowers." Here's a primer on what to expect when visiting, including tips for getting butterflies to land on you and photographing your favorites.

Things to Know Before You Visit a Butterfly House

Butterfly houses are hot, humid environments. In most cases, the exhibit is meant to mimic butterflies native tropical habitat. If you have health issues that may be exacerbated by high temperatures or humidity, you may want to keep your visit short.

A well-designed butterfly house usually has a double set of doors with a vestibule in between at both the entrance and exit. This is to help prevent butterflies from escaping and to help keep the temperature inside the exhibit constant.

Butterfly houses usually have misters placed throughout the exhibit to help maintain the humidity. Depending on where they are located, you might be sprayed with a gentle mist of water as you walk through the exhibit.

Butterflies sometimes rest on the ground, including on the pathways where you will be walking. Pay attention to where you are stepping to avoid crushing a resting butterfly.

Be sure to look up, too! I often spot resting moths way up high on the exhibit walls, or even on light fixtures.

Butterflies behave differently depending on the species, the time of day, and environmental variables like temperature and humidity. Some species on exhibit may seem to do nothing but rest.

These are often crepuscular butterflies, meaning they're active at dawn and dusk. Most will be most active during the warmest, sunniest part of the day, which is usually the afternoon.

Because butterflies are short-lived, some of the butterflies you observe may be nearing the end of their lives. You might see some butterflies that look tattered, with missing wing scales or even torn wings. This doesn't mean something is wrong with their care. Newly emerged butterflies, by contrast, will have bright, bold colors and clean wing edges.

Usually, the staff will release newly emerged butterflies and moths into the exhibit at a specific time each day, often in the afternoon. If you want to see this, you might want to call ahead to ask when do the daily release, so you can plan your visit accordingly.

Butterfly House Don'ts

You will usually find a set of rules posted where you enter the butterfly house. These may include:

  • Don't bring food or drinks into the exhibit.
  • Don't wander off the pathways in the exhibit.
  • Don't touch the plants or pick flowers.
  • Don't pick up or handle the butterflies, unless a staff member invites you to do so.
  • Don't remove butterflies from the exhibit area, even if they are dead.

    Butterfly House Dos:

    • Do take your time. Butterfly spotting takes patience!
    • Do ask questions. Most butterfly houses have knowledgeable staff or volunteers posted in the exhibit area, able and willing to teach you about the species you are seeing.
    • Do look for feeding stations and puddling areas, where you can get a closer view of the butterflies.
    • Do visit the emerging area, where you can watch new butterflies and moths break out of their pupal cases. You might have to wait for a while to see one emerge, but it is well worth it.
    • Do consider bringing a small pair of binoculars with you, to get a better view of butterflies perched high in the exhibit.
    • Do take lots of pictures! Where else will you have that many butterflies within reach of your camera lens?
    • Do check for hitchhikers before you exit the butterfly house. Ask a friend to make sure no butterflies have perched on your back.

      Butterfly Behaviors You Can Observe in the Butterfly House

      To the novice butterfly observer, it might look like the butterflies are only doing one of two things: flying or resting. But there's more to butterfly behavior than that.

      Some male butterflies will patrol a territory, looking for a mate. You'll see him flying back and forth, back and forth in one area of the exhibit.

      Other butterflies are more passive in defending their territory, preferring instead to perch. These butterflies sit quietly in one spot, usually high on a tree or other foliage, watching for females to flutter into their area. If a male competitor enters his territory, he may chase him away.

      Because butterflies are ectothermic, they will bask in the sun to warm their bodies and their flight muscles. Butterflies also engage in puddling, which is how they get the minerals they need. You may see butterflies mating, and you will definitely observe butterflies nectaring. See how many different behaviors you can observe!

      Tips for Getting a Butterfly to Land on You

      If you're lucky, a butterfly might land on you while you are in the exhibit. Though there's no guarantee this will work but, you can do a few things to increase your chances. The best rule of thumb is to act like a flower:

      • Wear brightly colored clothes. I have a bright yellow and orange tie-dyed shirt that always seems to lure butterflies to me.
      • Smell sweet. If you're wearing a skin lotion or perfume that smells a bit like flowers, that attract a hungry butterfly.
      • Stay still. Flowers don't move, so you won't fool a butterfly if you're walking around. Find a bench and stay put for a while.

      Tips for Taking Photos in a Butterfly House

      Butterfly houses afford photographers a unique opportunity to capture images of butterflies from all over the world, without the expense of traveling or the frustration of looking for them in the wild. Keep in mind that some butterfly houses do not allow photographers to bring tripods in, so call and ask before you visit. Here are a few tips for getting the good photographs on your next visit to a butterfly exhibit.

      • Plan your visit for early in the day. Butterflies will be most active from late morning until late afternoon. You have a better chance of photographing butterflies at rest if you visit the butterfly house as soon as it opens in the morning.
      • Give your camera time to adjust to the tropical environment. One thing that drives me nuts when I visit a butterfly house is my camera lens fogging up. If you move from a cooler, drier environment into the hot, humid climate of the butterfly exhibit, your camera is going to need a bit of time to acclimate before your lens will stay clear.
      • Photograph butterflies from the front, not the back. You will be tempted to photograph the easy targets, like the butterflies resting on foliage with their beautiful wings visible to you. Look for butterflies on feeding stations or flowers, where you might be able to get a good close-up of it uncoiling its proboscis to drink, or tasting a piece of fruit with its feet.

      Rules for Displaying Live Butterflies

      Organizations that operate live butterfly exhibits in the U.S. must follow very strict USDA regulations. In most cases, their permit does not allow them to breed the species on exhibit. Plants within the butterfly exhibit provide nectar only; no larval host plants will be provided. Instead, they must purchase butterflies as pupae, which are housed in a separate area until the adults emerge. Most butterfly houses receive new shipments of pupae on a weekly basis since adult butterflies are short-lived. Once they are ready to fly, the adults are released into the exhibit. All butterflies must be kept within the confines of the butterfly house, and careful measures must be taken to prevent escapes.