Alajuela's Butterfly Farm
There's something about a butterfly that brings to mind words like "enchanting" and "ethereal" -- butterflies are beautiful, and many cultures see them as more than just a colorful animal. With this in mind, Alajuela's Butterfly Farm, the Finca de Mariposas, explores both the scientific and mythical aspects of these beautiful insects, affording its visitors a rare look into the culture and biology of the butterfly.
After pickup at the international airport, it took less than 20 minutes to drive to the Butterfly Farm, located in La Guacima de Alajuela. Along the way, I saw gorgeous murals hand-painted on homes, buildings, and concrete walls. Each depicted the artist's interpretation of the butterfly -- some were impressionist, others were vividly real, but all were lovely. Fanny, who accompanied me in the van, explained that the Butterfly Farm had run a contest from 2004 to 2008 for local artists; the 42 winners had painted decorative murals throughout La Guacima. In addition to providing beautiful decoration, the murals also lead guests to the Butterfly Farm -- follow the murals, and you'll find your way.
The murals continued throughout the grounds at the Butterfly Farm where colorful flowers are planted to attract butterflies. When I was ready, my guide, Wendy, and I walked through a heavy door and into the butterfly garden. The walls and ceiling are made of fine, netted mesh to allow water and sun entrance while keeping the butterflies contained.
We began in the nectar plant section -- butterflies either feed on nectar and/or fruits. Wendy showed me the day's first butterfly eggs: about the size of a ball on the end of a pin, the eggs had a black dot in the center, which indicated that they were fertilized. As it emerges, a caterpillar's first food is the egg sack. For the next three to four weeks, the larvae, or caterpillars, are called "eating machines," chowing down on almost everything in sight. As they grow, they shed their skin -- similar to when snakes molt -- until they are plump enough to undergo metamorphosis.
There are two kinds of plants in relation to butterflies: host plants and food plants. Host plants are where eggs are laid and caterpillars are born; food plants supply the hungry larvae's food until they are ready to spin the chrysalis. In some cases, a plant -- ginger is the ideal example -- is both a host and food plant, but most of the time, plants are either one or the other.
Every time I walk into a butterfly garden, it evokes in me feelings of awe and wonder -- these small, flighty pops of color seem like fairies come to life. It's impossible not to stare at the orange, blue, black, red, yellow and purple beings flitting around you, and the mesh ceiling is an undulating rainbow that hums with the soft sound of flapping wings. Everything about a butterfly garden is enchanting, especially when a butterfly lands on your head or face, which is called a butterfly kiss. It may sound silly in print, but when it happens in person, it's a momentous occasion.
Sitting on a leaf just feet away, a blue wave butterfly (Myscelia cyaniris) sunned her wings. On a pedestal in the background, ten owl butterflies (Caligo atreus and Caligo telamonius) were enjoying a slice of banana. Wendy pointed out the difference in their brown wings -- the giant owl butterfly has a white stripe on the brown side of her wings (seen when she has her wings closed, such as when eating or resting) and inside, she is a stunning blue and yellow.
A few minutes later, Wendy spotted two mating owl butterflies. Gently plucking them from their perch, she turned them over and began to explain the butterfly mating process, which can last anywhere from 20 minutes to ten hours. Since females are born with all the eggs they will ever have, they are slightly larger than male butterflies and their abdomens are noticeably round. When they are mating, if the couple needs to fly away from danger, the female will fly while the male tucks his wings in and remains unmoving. Most males search for a virgin butterfly, since she has more eggs to fertilize, but it is ultimately the female that chooses her mate. In fact, females can mate with more than one male before laying their eggs -- they choose whether to use both males' sperm or, if the second male is superior to the first, a female may also dump the first's sperm before it fertilizes her eggs.
Most butterflies prefer to be out in the sun during the day, and settle into a warm, moist shelter around dusk. At the butterfly farm, a shaded water feature serves this purpose, and we walked by on our way to the chrysalis, or cocoon, room. Butterflies spend an average of three to four weeks as a caterpillar followed by two to six weeks as a chrysalis; after they emerge a butterfly, they live from one day to one month. Moths, on the other hand, spend a long nine months in a cocoon before emerging to live only three to four days.
We observed several owl butterfly larvae preparing to spin their chrysalis -- these caterpillars, like many in the animal kingdom, employ camouflage to hide from predators. Their corpulent bodies have a false head and several false legs -- the real head and legs are buried beneath the exterior, invisible unless you know what to look for. After letting a caterpillar crawl around on my hand -- it tickled -- Wendy and I walked upstairs to the "birthing room."
Here, several butterflies were in the process of emerging from their chrysalises. The small, hard cocoon shells were brightly colored -- some were green or black, while others were shiny gold, resembling an earring. Most butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in just minutes, but afterward, they must dry their wings for up the five hours. I watched a monarch butterfly emerge with wings dripping liquid, while its neighbor, several hours older, took its first flight.
For our final stop, we stepped into the Gallery for Human Transformation. Throughout the years, many cultures have associated the butterfly's transformation with the metamorphosis of the human soul. Pre-Columbian cultures, such as those in Costa Rica, believed the butterfly to be a symbol of change and rebirth. In Greek, "psyche" -- a word that now means "the human soul" or "the human mind" -- means "butterfly," illustrating the butterfly's metamorphosis as a metaphor for the human condition. Instead of physically changing from an egg to a caterpillar to a butterfly, humans take a spiritual journey through awakening, transformation, and finally liberation.
After I said goodbye to Wendy, I reentered the butterfly garden. It was still early morning, and I was the only one there. Wandering along the rock trails, I observed monarchs, owls, blue morphos, malachites, and other colorful specimens fly around above. Just moments before it was time to leave, I felt a butterfly land on my head -- a goodbye kiss from Costa Rica's emblematic butterfly, the blue morpho.