Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Sensational Butterflies

There is something equally soothing and awe-inspiring about the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of butterflies in technicolour flight. Adults still stand in wonder when a passing butterfly takes a fancy to their colourful attire and settles. Toddlers dance and gaze with infectious joy. In recent years we have visited a number of butterfly houses, and been treated to Damien Hirst's live butterfly artwork at the Tate Modern. It is particularly convenient to have one available at the heart of London's Museumland - hosted by the Natural History Museum - each summer. 
A week or so ago Culturetot and I popped into Sensational Butterflies on our way back from a wonderful CBeebies Prom at the Albert Hall. Sourced ethically from around the world (Africa, South America, North America and Asia) there is a wide variety of colours and shapes of butterfly and moth. As you become accustomed to the surroundings you also gradually start to spot all the eggs clustered on leaves, and the weird and wonderfully formed caterpillars munching in the vegetation. The marquee is peppered with facts (apparently some butterflies hear through their wings) and houses a room with hanging and hatching chrysalises. I spoke to a woman who had been there for hours!

A couple of years ago we grew our own butterflies, which was a really interesting experience. The process lasts around a month. In the true form of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the little nippers, who arrive in the post, rapidly increase in size over the first week. After a few days the chubby chaps begin to move their way to the top of their habitat and (if you are lucky) before your eyes they start to hang from their ceiling and (I did not know this!) emerge from the skin of the caterpillar to form a chrysalis. After all the caterpillars are attached, you move them into a hatching net. Again, it came as a slightly unnerving surprise, that the chrysalises shook and twisted when they were disturbed.They were not hatching early as we initially thought, but do this as a defence mechanism to ward off predators. How clever. On hatching we fed the butterflies fruit and after a couple of days we set them free. One of the five had an under formed wing and couldn't fly, so we also ended up with an unexpected pet for rather longer than we anticipated...

Other than the well loved classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we have a couple of other books that are particularly good to accompany a butterfly-watching occasion.

The American Museum of Natural History, which has its own summer Butterfly Vivarium, has produced in recent months some brilliantly simple and engaging board books on science for the very young. One of these is a gorgeously designed Caterpillar to Butterfly, which features real photographs, basic facts and creatively graduated flaps detailing the progress of a butterfly's life cycle. We learn that butterflies taste with their feet and a butterfly's body needs to be warm to fly, and can see the rather astounding process of transformation in a series of simple steps.

I also rather like the Life Cycles series for the slightly older reader. Containing great photographs, diagrams and facts, they certainly provide an excellent guide for a parent to talk through with a child that is full of Whys?



Disclaimer: We received a copy of Melissa Stewart's excellent Caterpillar to Butterfly for review purposes. All other costs and materials were our own. Sensational Butterflies this year is open until 11th September at the Natural History Museum, London.

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