Caterpillars shine at Butterflies Go Free

The Botanical Garden is welcoming caterpillars into the fold at this year's butterfly exhibit

For 19 years, the Botanical Garden has been welcoming hundreds of majestic butterflies from tropical climates into its fold, but this year, the caterpillars are stealing the spotlight.

The Butterflies Go Free exhibit at the museum is an annual event at the Space for Life, the collection of museums including the Insectarium and Botanical Garden in Montreal’s east end.  This year, the focus is on caterpillars, which are the child form of butterflies, so to speak.

A bright yellow caterpillar-shaped tunnel has been set up right in the middle of the Main Exhibition Greenhouse, where the exhibit is housed. As you walk through the tunnel, there are potted plants on either side. Ask for a magnifying glass and get up close – you’ll see caterpillars of different colours and patterns munching on the leaves of the plants, which are brought in from tropical countries especially for them. If you look carefully, you can spot the tiny, coloured eggs laid by the butterflies and cocoons spun by the caterpillars.

Every hour, animators from the museum give a five- to 10-minute bilingual presentation on the caterpillars, presented in game-show format. Someone gets to spin the “Bug Bite” wheel, and each category comes with a visual presentation where spectators learn about caterpillars. For example, one game has you try to spot the caterpillar in a photo – the insects are masters of camouflage and adapt their behaviour and breathing so well that predators find them hard to spot.

But while the focus may be on caterpillars, it’s impossible to forget about the butterflies. As soon as you step into the greenhouse, it’s clear you’re in their world. They glide around paying no mind to the humans, so don’t be surprised if they fly right in front of you or land on the ground just under your foot – watch your step!

The greenhouse has to be kept at a temperature between 24C and 29C (25C to 36C with the humidity) to mimic the butterflies’ natural habitat. It’s a gorgeous environment filled with brightly coloured flowers and butterflies showing off their vibrant wings.

The blue morpho is a particularly stunning sight – its wings are an unremarkable shade of brown when closed but open to reveal a piercing shade of electric blue. In the dead of winter, the greenhouse ambience (including the sticky humidity) is a nice treat.

The butterflies and eggs that hatch into caterpillars come from butterfly farms in 10 countries, including Costa Rica, Malaysia and Tanzania. When they come to Montreal, the butterflies are in their chrysalis, or pupa form. The farms sell the pupae to zoos and museums around the world, and this creates fair-trade, sustainable businesses in their home countries. Some of the farmers even buy land with their profits to help protect the butterflies’ natural environment.

There are no barriers between the butterflies and the public, which means getting up close to marvel at the vivid tapestries woven into their wings is easy and encouraged. Only the staff can actually touch the butterflies, but be prepared – the butterflies will touch you. They’ll land on your hair or your body, and wearing bright colours will draw them right to you.

Every day the staff releases 100 new butterflies into the exhibit, but there’s no set schedule as to when. Each butterfly lives for about a month on average. The museum advises that butterflies are generally more active in the morning and on sunny days.

Useful information and tips

  • The exhibit is open until April 24 at the Montreal Botanical Garden, 4101 Sherbrooke St. E.
  • Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • A regular admission ticket to the Botanical Garden for Quebec residents costs $15.50 for adults, $14.50 for those 65+, $11.75 for students 18+ (with I.D.) and $7.75 for children ages 5 to 17, free for kids under 5. There is also a family rate: $43.50 for two adults and up to three children. The general ticket is good for admission into all the outdoor gardens, greenhouses (including the one where Butterflies Go Free is held) and the Insectarium. Avoid the lines by buying tickets online: espacepourlavie.ca/en/ticket-office
  • There’s a pay parking lot ($12 for the day) right out front or take the metro and get off at Pie-IX station.

For more information, call 514-868-3000 or visit calendrier.espace pourlavie.ca/butterfliesgo-free.