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On the Job

At museum, a space where butterflies can thrive

Lea Morgan says the Museum of Science’s butterflies come from butterfly farmers who breed them in greenhouses.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Lea Morgan says the Museum of Science’s butterflies come from butterfly farmers who breed them in greenhouses.

Lea Morgan first became interested in butterflies growing up on a farm in southern New Hampshire, following the insects as they flitted from plant to plant. Today, after earning a degree in plant biology from the University of New Hampshire, she watches over 400 butterflies and insects — accounting for more than 30 species — as curator of the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science in Boston.

One little-known fact about butterflies is that they have a long tongue like a straw that can sip off beads of sweat when they land on humans. “They like sweet and salty, and can also take in amino acids for nutrients,” said Morgan, 34. “Some people find this a little yucky, but butterflies don’t bite or sting.”

Where do your butterflies come from?

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Since butterflies have a short life space — they only live for a couple of weeks — we restock with weekly shipments. We receive about 400-500 chrysalids (butterfly pupae) a week from Ecuador and Costa Rica and other regions. The butterflies are not taken from the rainforest and plucked off trees. They come from butterfly farmers and brokers who breed them in greenhouses.

Do butterflies have personalities?

After working with the butterflies for over eight years, I definitely think that butterflies have different recognizable patterns. Some are more playful while others hide or even play dead.

What does it take to maintain a conservatory?

The Butterfly Garden needs to have 60 percent humidity, warm temperatures, and lots of nectar plants. There’s always plant work to do — trimming, cleaning, and pest removal — as well as managing the new shipments of chrysalids. These are hung in containers in a temperature-controlled incubator until they emerge. Once they’re ready to fly, they are released into the garden.

Do butterflies poop?

Because butterflies only drink nectar and other fluids, they release liquids, usually little drops every once in a while. Large owl butterflies can expel a large stream, so when handling them, we know to point the abdomen away unless we want to get squirted.

Are you working on butterfly conservation?

Butterflies are an indicator species for how the environment is doing. Some species, like roadside butterflies are doing better, but as habitat diminishes for many, they are disappearing. In New Hampshire, we are working to preserve the native Karner blue butterfly by promoting sunny and sandy openings for native vegetation to grow for this little butterfly.

Have any butterfly questions from the visitors stumped you?

One child asked, “How do butterflies hear?” I went, “Huh. That’s something I never thought about.” I had to do a little research. I found they sense vibration with little nodes.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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