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Sensational Butterflies

15 April 2015 | Laura Stevens

London Calling gawp in amazement at the transformational journey from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly at the Natural History Museum's Sensational Butterflies.

There’s something magical happening on the lawn of the Natural History Museum. Under a white awning and through a frosted door you can glimpse a verdant landscape with brilliant flashes of colour, and if you stand close enough you can feel a tropical, humid heat radiating out. Entering you may just have a delicate, beautiful creature settle on your clothes before taking off again.

This foreign environment to South Kensington is, of course, the result of the butterfly house that has taken resident in West London for the seventh year. Currently there are 40 different species fluttering around, but over the summer months this will increase to 80-90 from the tropical corners of the world.

Dr Blanca Huertas, curator of butterflies and moths at the Natural History Museum said: “It is a chance to see these beautiful creatures in flight and to contemplate their delicate balance with their environment here in the city.

“It is a rare chance to see butterflies and moths usually seen in Africa, Asia and South America.”

But, not only is this a chance to see butterflies shimmering around the tent or gorging themselves on rotting fruit, Sensational Butterflies depicts their whole life cycle. Through the hatchery window you can watch butterflies emerge from their jewel-like chrysalises, dry their wings and prepare to flutter into their specially created home.

For House Manager, Luke Brown, this transformational journey of one of nature’s most incredible life cycles still has the power to amaze after a lifetime working with butterflies:

“To see a butterfly emerging from a pupae, which I’ve seen a million times, but I still find it absolutely incredible.”

These pupae are flown in from all over the world, and can be at Heathrow on Monday and on the Natural History Museum’s lawn by Wednesday. With the whole life cycle on display in this humid tent you can also find caterpillars munching on the imported vegetation, and clusters of eggs on banana leaves.

For Brown the importance of a butterfly house is a personal one: “When I was six years old I was taken to a butterfly house on my birthday and that day forged my entire career.” He then comments wryly, “you can imagine how that went at the career office at 16 years old!”

Educating children is a huge part of this evolving exhibition with metamorphosis being a key topic in KS1 and KS2 at primary schools. “It sounds awfully clichéd but from next week I will see kids walking that door, and their faces completely light up”, says Brown. “Kids who have never seen a lemon growing on a tree – for them lemons come from ASDA.”

The education process is not only for children however. Kerry Calloway from Sensational Butterflies points out how butterflies can be used as a gateway creature to more unpopular insects. The ephemeral beauty of the butterfly generates interest in the subterranean and smaller creatures of the Kingdom. The plight of these less photogenic insects often goes unheard, so it is critical for butterfly houses such as this to raise the profile of insects.

The humid greenery of the tropical butterfly house ensures the Natural History Museum comes alive this summer, and with a growing and changing landscape of foliage and creatures inside you can visit again and again. Witnessing the incredible morphing from caterpillar to chrysalis to stunning butterfly is a perfect escape from the city, and at least inside the tropical butterfly house you will be guaranteed some heat in England’s wet summer!

Sensational Butterflies is at the Natural History Museum from 2 April to 13 September. For more information and tickets go to this website.

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