13
July
2016
|
11:07 PM
America/New_York

Inside Look at the New Butterfly Atrium at Hershey Gardens with Dan Babbitt

Within minutes of meeting Dan Babbitt you can feel his passion for butterflies, and really all bugs, and it is infectious. His face just lights up when he talks about them and he is so eager to share with you WHY they are so fascinating. It is endearing and makes you want to learn more.

When I met with Dan in the lab of the new Butterfly Atrium for this story, he was casually holding a tarantula in his hand. Yes, seriously. For at least 15 minutes of the interview Dan was casually holding a hairy tarantula about the size of his palm in his hand that they use for educational sessions. He even flipped it over to show me the fangs and told me how this specific kind of tarantula doesn’t sting.

I was fascinated and somehow because of the enthusiastic way that Dan communicates, I wasn’t scared. I was actually interested.

"I have always liked creepy crawly things"
Dan Babbitt, Associate Director at Hershey Gardens

Core Purpose Is Education

Educational programming has always been a focus of Hershey Gardens but in his role Dan will look to expand that. He wants guests of all ages who come through the Butterfly Atrium to ask more than just this series of statements: What is that? How long do they live? Oh that’s sad.

(Butterflies only live 2 weeks or so, and people usually think that is sad. But as Dan pointed out, it’s actually not sad for the butterfly.)

Dan wants people who visit the Butterfly Atrium to be interested in learning more 363 days a year.

Tropical Setting Year Round

The Butterfly Atrium at Hershey Gardens is a unique space. Not just unique for our area, but it is one of only 25 year-round tropical butterfly atriums in the United States.

When you visit you can walk among 500-600 butterflies flying freely around you. The sign on the door with instructions before you come in points out to please watch your step as butterflies might be on the path in front of you.

What has been most surprising to Dan since the opening of the Butterfly Atrium is the amount of time that people spend in the space. Before opening the estimate for length of stay for each guests inside the atrium was 10-15 minutes but in just the first week of being open he has noticed that people are staying for approximately 20 minutes. That's a good sign.

These butterflies drink Gatorade and eat fresh fruit

As you would expect, butterflies need to eat and hydrate throughout the day but what they eat and drink surprised me. Gatorade (this week’s flavors are blue and orange) from dishes with mesh on them so that they can land and fresh fruit like pineapple, cantaloupe and watermelon.

FedEx Delivers, Butterflies 

Importing and recreating a tropical environment for the butterflies and plants can be tricky.

"We're buying and bringing in 99 percent of our butterflies, mostly from small family farms that raise butterflies in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America," says Babbitt. "We'll be getting about 200 to 300 chrysalids a week by FedEx."

Hershey Gardens requires USDA approvals to bring butterflies from across the world to Hershey and when the butterflies are shipped they have to come through customs. After the butterflies are delivered to Hershey Gardens, they have to be contained in a carefully controlled climate to mimic their natural habitat. Additionally, each visitor must be checked before leaving the Atrium to make sure no butterflies try to escape.

"We're buying and bringing in 99 percent of our butterflies, mostly from small family farms that raise butterflies in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America," says Babbitt. "We'll be getting about 200 to 300 chrysalids a week by FedEx."
Dan Babbitt, Associate Director at Hershey Gardens

What's Next

Educational signage will be added to the Butterfly Atrium in the near future in order to spark more questions from guests. And Dan has applied for a permit (yes you need one) to import other bug species to Hershey Gardens from around the world including cockroaches, tarantula, bugs that play dead.

“These are all bugs you see in the movies and they are great to start a conversation about how and why these species are different.”

After meeting Dan and seeing this beautiful new Butterfly Atrium I cannot wait to go back with my kids and learn more about the butterflies & whatever new insects and bugs are added. Maybe next time I will be brave enough to hold to a tarantula.

These are all bugs you see in the movies and they are great to start a conversation about how and why these species are different.
Dan Babbitt, Associate Director at Hershey Gardens

The Butterfly Atrium is open daily 9 am – 6 pm. Tickets can be purchased on The Hershey Gardens website or at the Conservatory. Adults are $12.50 and kids 3-12 are $9.

Are you local? Hershey Gardens is looking for volunteers. Apply here