It’s hot in the butterfly pavilion.
A thermometer in the Brookside Gardens’ “Wings of Fancy” exhibit reads 87 degrees, 88 percent humidity.
The fans are off this morning, keeping things still for the photographers at Brookside’s event, “Focus on Butterflies,” which takes place in the pavilion in Wheaton one Sunday per month from May to September.
Everyone is focused. The near-silence in the pavilion is broken only by the shuffling of tripods over the stone floor, and by the instructor’s voice.
“Get parallel to the face of the butterfly,” she tells first-timers. “Find new angles.”
Just being here is a new angle for many of these photographers. Most never have photographed butterflies, but took advantage of the opportunity to bring tripods into the pavilion — which normally are prohibited — at 8 a.m., two hours before the exhibit, which features butterflies from around the world, opens to the public for the day.
A few here are regulars: Ken Briefel, 57, of Silver Spring has been at “Focus on Butterflies” 20 to 30 times by his count; he was one of the visitors who originally proposed the idea of the event. But it’s not easy for him to explain why he keeps coming to the event.
Even his wife doesn’t understand it, he said.
“I like them for their colors — they’re delicate,” he said of the butterflies.
He shrugs, then points to the image on his camera’s viewfinder. He’s captured a brilliant purple butterfly perched, now permanently, on a macaroni-yellow flower.
“I like finding things like that,” he said.
A loving relationship
Dan Bobbit, director of the insect zoo and butterfly pavilion at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, believes the human attraction to butterflies is a cultural bias.
“Butterflies evolved for attraction, and they’re an approachable animal,” he said. “People don't see butterflies as insects, a lot of the time. A lot of people see them as flying flowers."
He also points to the mythology of metamorphosis surrounding the insects.
“You've got an animal that goes into a sleepy state with not much going on and it emerges as something completely different,” he said. “It's kind of like a phoenix rising from the ashes to become, well, a beautiful butterfly. People like to think about that, if you're going through a tough time."
Dryas Julia, Cethosia Cyane, Magnificent Owl — the names, listed on a bulletin board in the exhibit for identification, are poetic, as delicate and intricate as the patterns on the butterflies’ wings.
Within the pavilion, small, seemingly nondescript butterflies fly into the sunlight, revealing the deep color that was hidden when their wings were folded. With an experienced eye, one can pick out the small differences in appearance that indicate the sheer number of species in the exhibit, many of which are native to other continents, said exhibit volunteer Nancy Lieby, 58.
That sense of discovery is what inspired Bob Robbins, a curator of butterflies and moths at the Smithsonian, to devote his life to studying butterflies.
“Most entomologists start by studying butterflies and later move on to another insect,” he said. “I just never moved on.”
Robbins recalls a saying from an ancient Amazonian tribe: “Unfriendly people have the spirit of the jaguar. Kind people have the spirit of the butterfly.”
He references the ancient Greeks, whose word for “butterfly” was “psyche,” the same as their word for “soul.”
“Even they saw a connection,” he said.
Short but sweetThe butterflies in “Wings of Fancy” are confident. They land on heads, hands, cameras, lingering long enough to show off the vibrant color of their wings, but no longer.
Most only have a three-week lifespan. A docent wearing a “Know Yer Bugs” T-shirt and a camera around his neck points out the older ones, whose wings are frayed at the edges, their colors faded.
“Those are damaged,” he said.
Butterfly populations are declining statewide due to global warming and human population growth, said Dick Smith, the secretary of the Maryland Entomological Society. They’re sensitive to changes in environment, he said.
That delicacy, and the quickness that accompanies it, has contributed to the “positive connotation” of butterflies, said Wayne Wehling, a USDA entomologist in charge of regulating imported butterflies.
“There’s a sense of levity, gaiety, an indication of summer and sunny days,” he said. “You won’t see a butterfly if the weather’s foul.”
“Focus on Butterflies” events require a reservation and are booked through the rest of the summer. Visitors can visit “Wings of Fancy” daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Sept. 16. Tickets are $6 for adults, $4 for children 3-12. Children 2 and younger are admitted free, but strollers are not permitted in the exhibit.