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Butterfly Farm Charms Locals And Visitors Alike

Dec. 27, 2008 — Happiness can be as simple as a Blue Morpho butterfly alighting on your shoulder, for just a few seconds. Though fleeting, witness the smile on the child who is lucky enough to have the experience. Or, for that matter, a grown-up.
"People love them — they're magic," says Carmen Arcelay, who has conducted tours at the Butterfly Farm on the Havensight Cruise Ship Dock since it opened last year. "It's not like work," she smiles. "I feel like I'm on vacation."
After several months of toil and tilling, the enterprise was opened in June 2007 by Tony and Lori Cox, who have similar farms on Aruba, Grand Cayman and St. Martin. They now run the Aruba location, while Sharon Tait manages St. Thomas with Arcelay and a small crew.
The spectacular 7,200 square-foot oasis is a truly magic space. It is closed in by a 15-foot-tall roof, filled with anywhere from 500 to 1,000 exotic creatures dancing in the air at any given time.
Part of the butterfly garden is a rain forest with palms and Ficus trees planted to form a natural canopy. Another part receives direct sunlight, depending on the plantings. The area abounds in flora — hibiscus, lantana, ixora, japropha — and two small pools are filled with water hyacinths
Right now, about 60 exotic Blue Morpho butterflies fill the air with fleeting beauty. They are from the tropical forests of Latin America and Mexico.. Their remarkable iridescent blue wings are created by microscopic scales on the backs of their wings, which reflect light, Arcelay says.
She points to a dull brown butterfly on a rock. "That's a Blue Morpho, too," she says. "When it lights, that's its camouflage, a defense against predators."
The beautiful creatures are apparently canny, too. "When they fly, the contrasting blue and brown colors flash, making it look like they're appearing and disappearing," Arcelay says.
The 25-minute tours start off with a look at the solar-heated lab at the back of the garden, in a small hexagonal building, The newly arrived pupae, shipped FedEx from a stateside supplier, start their island life there, where they await metamorphosis. The lab contains specimens from each stage in a butterfly's life — first an egg, then, after about five to 10 days, the eggs hatch and a tiny caterpillar (larvae) emerge
Arcelay stops to pick a spider web from a vine on an overhead trellis, as we stroll from the lab. "All creatures like to eat the butterflies," she says. "They are low on the food chain; birds, spiders, other insects feed on them. They are vulnerable to everything."
The butterflies have no natural ability to fight anything off: no teeth, no claws, so they have to protect themselves. For that reason, they are very selective in laying their eggs, Arcelay says.
She picks a small leaf from a milkweed plant. Pointing to a translucent dot about the size of a pinpoint, she says, "This is an egg." She stops at a series of three glass jars lined up, each containing the eggs of local butterflies, like the white variety, prevalent on St. Thomas.
Arcelay stops to pick up an Owl butterfly off the ground, handling it gently. "Old girl," she says, "how do you feel?" She indicates the creature's tattered wings. "You can see by the wings, she is about to end her life." She pauses, "It's real easy to be compassionate about these creatures."
The farm has a crematorium which they activate about every three weeks or so, Arcelay says. "We do say a prayer for them. They have a short, but happy life."
Indeed. The butterflies feed on nectar, getting their energy high from fermented fruit. Mostly, what they do is drink and reproduce, Arcelay says. There is, in fact, a sign in the lobby warning: "Please do not pull the butterflies apart."
"The butterfly is a genetic mystery," she says. "When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it disappears in a DNA soup. No trace of the caterpillar is left. None."
The farm is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Admission is $15 for adults, $9 for children, and half price for locals. Tait says locals make up about 20 percent of their business. The farm is available for school tours at a discounted admission of $4.50 per child, and free for teachers. "We do about four or five tours a month," Tait says. "The children love it."
Starting next month, Tait says each adult admission will include a $5 gift certificate redeemable in the farm's gift shop which features a line of jewelry made with real butterfly wings. For further information, call 715-3366.
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