Friday 5: 5 Native Butterflies at the Marshall Butterfly Pavillion

It’s time for another Friday 5!  Last week I said I would highlight some of the butterflies I saw on one of my recent insect zoo visits.  The butterflies at the Marshall Butterfly Pavillion at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix is a little unusual for a butterfly house because it features butterflies native to the United States rather than the tropical species most butterfly houses favor. We have some really spectacular butterflies in the US though! Case in point, the following 5 butterflies I photographed in the Marshall exhibit:

Zebra Heliconian


Zebra longwing butterfly, Heliconius charithonia

The longwing butterflies have fascinated scientists and collectors for ages.  They tend to be brightly colored and have a lot of intricate markings that scientists use to study genetics, mimicry, and other big biological problems.  The longwings are mostly tropical and we don’t have all that many species in the US, but we do have a few.  The zebra longwing butterfly (also known as a zebra heliconian) shown here is pretty darned impressive!  This particular individual is a little worn and a little ragged, but he (or she) is still very beautiful.  I love the little hints of red!  I think what makes the longwings so lovely is their elegant wing shape.  As their common name suggests, they do have long, narrow wings and these make them stand out against their bulkier-winged butterfly relatives.  I wish we had these in Arizona (we might get an occasional individual that took a wrong turn somewhere in Mexico!), but they are sadly not native to my state.  However, because they are featured in a butterfly exhibit only 2 hours away, I can go see live ones whenever Marshall is open during the cooler months.  Score!

Painted Lady

painted lady

Painted lady, Vanessa cardui

Painted ladies are super common in Arizona.  Actually, they are super common in most of the US and many other parts of the world.  That doesn’t make them any less gorgeous though!  I think there’s something so perfect about the combination of orange and black in butterflies.  The underside of the wings in this species are stunning!  They’re reasonably docile too, so they are commonly sold as butterflies for releases at weddings and other events and are often found in live insect exhibits.  When I was working with Insect Discovery in the spring, we had a cage of painted ladies in which our little second graders could sit and make observations about the butterflies.  They loved it, and I loved the bigger, more impressive painted lady enclosure that was the Marshall Butterfly Pavillion.  It doesn’t matter if I could walk outside the enclosure and see the exact same species on a flower in the gardens – they still made me smile.

Julia Heliconian


Julias (Dryas julia) sucking on an orange

Another of our North American longwing butterflies, the julias are a less ornate than their relatives the zebra longwings.  But look at that stunning orange color!  I took so many photos of these, mostly because the flaming safety orange coloration stood out so well against absolutely everything in the exhibit: the blue glass in the photo, the green plants, the white mesh that made up the walls of the enclosure.  They have the same elegant long wings as the zebras too, and the same range that doesn’t include Arizona.  Sigh…  I’d love to see one of these in the wild!  Maybe someday I’ll make a trip to Texas or Florida to see all the rare and unusual butterflies and dragonflies that you can find there, and nowhere else in the US.

Pipevine Swallowtail


Pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor

This is a swallowtail.  Ignore the lack of tails in the image!  This particular individual had lived a long life by the time I saw it.  Pipevines are common in Arizona, most of the eastern half of the US, and the lower half of the western US.  They are large, 3-5 inches across, so these really stand out.  They might not look quite as showy as some of the other large swallowtails, but the underside of their wings have lovely yellow, orange, and red spots on dark black.  If you get them positioned just right, the upper surface of the wings takes on this amazing blue iridescence too!  I’m not always the biggest fan of butterflies (is it wrong to hate a type of insect because they’re too popular?), but when a pipevine flies by, I stop a moment and appreciate how amazing nature is.  Gorgeous!



White, Pieris sp.

Another somewhat battered individual.  Apparently I wanted to document the poor, downtrodden butterflies while photographing within the Marshall exhibit…  In any case, many of the whites are very common butterflies – and the scourge of gardeners across the US!  Their caterpillars eat brassicas, the sulfur-rich vegetables you love to hate like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower and can cause considerable damage to these food crops.  (Incidentally, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are technically all the same species!)  I like the whites because they’re not quite so gaudy and ostentatious as most butterflies and have a much more subdued elegance to them.  This is the only white I saw in the entire exhibit, a sort of disheveled looking individual cramming itself between flower petals to get at the nectar.  It looked so awkward in this position that I fell instantly in love with it.  I imagine this is the butterfly equivalent of a sticky 3-year-old stoned out of his mind on pixie sticks, reaching for another stick because he just can’t help himself.  :)

See!  We’ve got great butterflies in the US!  We might not have morphos flitting through forests or the spectacular birdwing butterflies, but our butterflies are still awfully nice.  It was rather refreshing to see an American exhibit that actually celebrated our local butterflies rather than looking to the tropics for specimens.  That’s rare, but it made my trip to Marshall seem extra special as a result.

Anyone care to share their favorite North American butterfly?  Leave a comment below!


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My Entomological Wedding

Sunglow Ranch

Sunglow Ranch, our wedding venue.

Everyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I am a die-hard insect fan.  Insects pervade every part of my life including my clothing, my home decor, and my creative style.  I am SO much of a bug fan that I even had an insect-themed wedding!  Terribly geeky, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.  I thought it was a lot of fun, so indulge me as I share some of the details.

Me and Monkey

Me and my dog Monkey (his nickname is Bug). I carried a handmade bouquet of feather butterflies with me down the aisle!

The hardest part of being an entomologist for me is knowing that the vast majority of people I meet think that I am completely insane for liking insects as much as I do.  This unfortunately extends to many of my family members, regardless of how much they love me and how often I try to change their minds.  They’re quite happy that I am following my dream and all, but when they come face to face with an insect, many of them fall into the “insect stomping” category of humanity rather than the “insect loving” category like me.  I wanted to have an insect-themed wedding, but how does one do that without scaring off all of your guests, and more importantly, your insect phobic fiancée?  Simple!  Just call your theme something other than “entomology” or “insect:”

“My wedding theme isn’t entomology!  Who would be that silly?  Ho ho ho!  No, the theme is woodland glade.

Officially, my theme was woodland glade, which was a fancy name for “insects with a few other things tossed in for looks.”  :)


Our wedding "cake." Notice the butterfly vase that we used as a cake topper!

So here I was, dead set on having a wedding with an entomological theme and a bunch of guests and a fiancée who don’t like insects.  I had to figure out a way to keep it from being blatantly apparent that there were insects everywhere so that people wouldn’t be too scared to come.  Live insects were out, though if you read my Friday 5 on Arizona’s beetles you know that this wasn’t for lack of interest on my part.  I don’t particularly relish being the center of attention, not even on my wedding day, and I was more than happy to give up my jars of live aquatic beetles to make sure my relatives were at the wedding.   I was throwing a big party and I wanted to make everyone happy, so live insects were out.*


My bridesmaids were decked out in butterfly stuff! They all wore butterfly headbands and glass lockets with real butterfly wings inside. These and the shawls were their gifts for being the best bridesmaids ever!

I also focused on insects that most people like.  Butterflies were an obvious choice.  I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of butterflies.  I like big scary insects!  I like the bad a** insects.  Butterflies simply aren’t bad a**.  But, butterflies are well-loved by nearly everyone while the bad a** insects are not.  That makes butterflies a little more acceptable to people who generally don’t like insects.  In fact, people use them in their weddings all the time – even on edible things like cakes!  When someone like Martha Stewart promotes butterflies for wedding cakes, you know they’re okay.


Our table decor. The vases held a dozen handmade parchment paper flowers along with a feather butterfly. Two of my friends stamped the wine bottle labels with butterflies and plants. The table runners were stamped with butterflies, bees, plants, and birds. The potted plants and felt birds were given to guests as favors.

If you’re me and ecstatic about the crafting and do-it-yourself opportunities that a wedding affords, the wider availability of things like butterfly rubber stamps and paper punches compared to dragonflies or any other insects also needs to be taken into account.  Have you ever tried to find a decent dragonfly paper punch that’s bigger than an inch across?  They don’t exist!  So, I incorporated a lot of butterflies into my decor.  This should be abundantly obvious from looking at the photos.  I spent months making paper flowers and potting plants and stamping table runners and making invitations entirely by hand.  I used dragonflies, bumblebees, and plants too.  To keep it from becoming completely obvious that I was having a bug wedding, I tossed in some birds to throw people off the scent.   The little stuffed felt birds served as our wedding favors and made “woodland glade” a believable theme.  :)

guest book

Our guest "book" consisted of a bunch of paper butterflies, dragonflies, and birds. Guests chose a shape, wrote a note on them, and hung them from the tree.

My husband and I were married just over a year ago.  I found the most amazing venue in the foothills of the western slope of the Chiricahua Mountains 2 1/2 hours east of Tucson.  It was the perfect combination of stunningly beautiful, out-of-town, and cheap.  We took a chance having an outdoor wedding at a higher elevation in March and it ended up being a sunny, cool, perfect day.  Nearly everyone we invited came.  I was able to get married by water, under a huge tree by a beautiful lake.  Our officiant was an entomologist, as was our photographer.  Our food was amazing.  Our cake was amazing.  Lots and lots of things went wrong at the last second (e.g. did you see my dog in the photo?  He wasn’t supposed to be there!), but I didn’t care.  I didn’t have any live insects at my wedding, but I didn’t care.  I thought it was perfect.  I would change a thing!

But the best part: even my husband enjoyed it.  That’s right – my husband, who screamed like a little girl one night when a roach crawled on him, liked our bug themed wedding.  I drove home that night with my new husband and our two dogs, the happiest person on the planet.

Just married

Moments after we were married. I made the butterfly clips for my dress by gluing feather monarchs onto clip-on earring posts and clipped them to the corset strings of my dress.


Photos by Alex Yellich.  You can view photos of the invitations and our altar by clicking on the links.

* You might wonder why I didn’t consider having a butterfly release at my insect-themed wedding.  Partly it was because it usually costs over $5 a piece to have butterflies shipped to you, which is a lot of money to spend on something that is going to freeze to death the night after your wedding, especially when you only have $5000 to spend altogether.  Also, I read a fabulous Dave Barry column about weddings when I was in high school that made them seem less than appealing.  I decided right then and there that I was never going to do it.  Well worth a read!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

A Visit to the Marshall Butterfly Pavilion

cactus flower

Cactus flower

My husband and I celebrated our first anniversary a few weekends ago.  Because we both had to go back to work the day after our wedding, we never went on a honeymoon.  So we went all out on a three-day trip to Phoenix to celebrate our anniversary as a sort of belated honeymoon.  We stayed at one of the swanky resorts, ate a lot of great food, and mostly just relaxed.  Each day we ventured away from the resort for 3-4 hours to visit some of the sights in Phoenix.  On the last day of our trip, we went to the phenomenal Desert Botanical Garden.  I’ve been there before, but I wanted to go again because it was the first time I’d been to the Garden while they had their butterfly exhibit open.


One of the landscaped gardens at the Desert Botanical Garden

I LOVE the Desert Botanical Garden!  Although I adore flowers, I am not much of a plant person (just ask my poor rosebush!) and botanical gardens don’t hold my interest the way going to a zoo or a really spectacular art or science museum does.  Staring down at the ground at plants is simply less exciting to me than watching animals.  But the Desert Botanical Garden is different.  It is stunningly beautiful.  It’s laid out perfectly.  It’s huge and has a fantastic combination of landscaped gardens and native Sonoran Desert land.  It’s got desert plants, the ones I love the best.  And, for a few months each spring, they’ve got a butterfly exhibit.


Butterfly exhibit

I’ve been to a lot of butterfly exhibits over the past 15 years.  I enjoy them immensely.  There’s definitely something magical about sitting in a room with butterflies flitting around you, watching them feed like little gluttons on orange slices and flowers.  The vast majority of the butterfly exhibits I’ve been to so far have featured tropical butterflies and moths, so you usually get a mixture of giant blue morphos, any number of butterflies in the genus Heliconius, some atlas moths, and other flashy and/or big lepidopterans.  It’s always nice to see these guys because I’ve never been anywhere tropical to see them in the wild.  Tucson has a botanical garden with a great little tropical butterfly exhibit, so I go there when I want to get my tropical butterfly fix.

butterfly tree

Lots of butterflies in the trees!

The Marshall Butterfly Pavilion was a bit different.  You wander inside and are greeted not by tropical beauties, but by several hundred native butterflies.  Most of the butterflies in the exhibit are native to the Sonoran Desert and all of them can be found flying free in southern states of the U.S.  I thought it was fabulous!  While it’s fun to see tropical butterflies, it’s great that people at the Desert Botanical Garden can learn about some of the amazing butterflies they will find visiting their own yards.  If they take their guide to the butterflies in the exhibit home with them, they’ve got a head start on identifying their backyard butterflies.  Brilliant!

And our native butterflies are spectacular too!  Check out this giant swallowtail:


Giant swallowtail (Papilio cresophontes)

These butterflies are native to the Sonoran Desert.  In fact, if you read my blog last fall, you’ve already seen the caterpillar of this butterfly!  It looks like bird poop and then turns into this gorgeous animal.  Fantastic butterfly.  And look at this julia butterfly:

Julia butterfly
A julia butterfly (Dryas julia)

You probably won’t find this one in Phoenix, but it’s found in Texas and occasionally wanders as far north as Nebraska.  They’re a lovely orange color so I ended up with a WHOLE lot of photos of these!  Or what about the elegant luna moth:

luna moth

A rather shabby luna moth (Actias luna)

I’m pretty sure these don’t make it quite as far west as I live, but my mom sees them all the time in Missouri and sends me specimens now and again.  They’re so, so gorgeous!  Someday I’ll get to see one in the wild, but I was thrilled beyond belief that they had them in the butterfly exhibit in Phoenix.  This was the only one I saw and was rather worn, but it was still exciting to see a live one.

butterfly bowl

Butterflies sucked on orange juice in one of several of these glass bowls.

The butterflies were fantastic, but I was very impressed with the exhibit itself.  The space was large and open.  There was enough room for 50-100 people to share the space at one time, which was about how many people were in the exhibit when I was there.  They had a lot of docents wandering around answering questions – and getting them right.  (Entomological Pet Peeve #1: people who don’t know the answer to a bug question making something up that’s totally wrong…)  The exhibit space included a lovely garden full of butterfly plants that you can plant in your own yard, so it was part live butterfly exhibit and part butterfly plant demonstration garden.  There was a little pond in one corner, though the docents had to rescue several butterflies from the water while I was there.  The best part of the exhibit: the space was enclosed, but it was enclosed by a fine mesh.  There was lots of fresh air in the space and because it was a wonderfully cool and overcast the day we went, it was cool and overcast in the exhibit.  A lot of butterfly exhibits I’ve been to, especially those with the tropical butterflies, have been stiflingly hot inside, so this was a lovely change of pace.

Once outside the exhibit, there were educational displays about butterflies where you could touch dead butterflies (awesome) and learn more about them.  There were also some of those painted wooden boards with the holes for the heads cut out.  They amuse me greatly.  I got the best picture ever of my husband as the butterfly, but he refuses to let me put it online.  Sigh…

blooming palo verde

Blooming palo verde tree with honeybee

The trip to the butterfly exhibit was a great way to spend the last few hours of our vacation before going back home!  It was so peaceful and the people in the exhibit were so happy to be there.  I was really blown over by the whole experience.  If you ever visit Phoenix in the spring, I highly recommend a stop at the Desert Botanical Gardens.  Wander the beautiful gardens while everything is in bloom and spend some time with butterflies.  What could be better?


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011