Butterflies fly in the Berkshire Museum's summer show


Photo Gallery | Butterflies at the Berkshire Museum

PITTSFIELD -- Caterpillars come in parrot green, strawberry red, turquoise and amber. They come with horns and ridges and markings like giant eyes.

How would soft feet feel against a fingertip, or a butterfly landing on a sleeve, almost too light know it's there?

Sam Jaffe, now working toward his master's in envorinmental education at Antioch University in Keene, N.H., grew up sloshing through the mud and looking under leaves. Now he has developed his own caterpillar lab. He has collected as many as 50 to 80 different kinds of caterpillars.

"He feels caterpillars are short-changed," said Berkshire Museum Direcor of Interpretation Maria Mingalone, and he likes to introduce people to them, alive or in brilliantly colorful photographs.

Jaffe will also work with Mingalone to provide artwork and living exhibits for the museum's summer exhibit: Butterflies.

This summer, the museum will open a butterfly pavilion.

Lesley Beck, communications director at the Berkshire Museum, described an indoor greenhouse filled with host plants and native and exotic butterflies -- 20 species, 10 local and 10 from as far away as the Amazon and the Malay peninsula.

The Atlas moth, the largest in the word, has a 10-inch wingspan in amber scrolled and feathered with cream. The irridescent Blue Morpho has a slow wingbeat. The orange Question Mark can make itself tipsy on fermenting fruit juice.

The museum has worked with Magic Wings in Deerfield to set up its indoor butterfly habitat, a lush tropical place, bright and humid and warm and full of nectar plants -- and fruit for the butterflies that like juice. Warm, wet soil will give the butterflies room to "puddle," to cluster and suck up minerals and salts.

The show will also have a crysalis station, a walk through a butterfly or moth's life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to cuccoon or chrysalis to flying insect.

Riker boxes from the museum's collection show butterflies preserved along with their food plants. Instead of a row of specimens, these show a system: a butterfly's life cycle and the living things that sustain it.


Around them butterflies make their way into photography from the Massachusetts Butterfly Association, historic objects and contemporary artworks -- a butterfly Kachina, a silk Kimono bright with butterflies. Beside the science, Mingalone has set objects that show the butterfly as a sacred being, a symbol of the afterlife, harvest, initiation.

"In Asian cultures," Mingalone said, "butterflies can symbolize the human soul" or a human ancestor.

Binh Danh, a contemporary Vietnamese-American artist, sets a single butterfly above a leaf imprinted with the image of a child who died by violence in Vietnam or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In a frame like a Riker box he has made a life-cycle connection between a wing-spread butterfly and a soul that is gone.

He has invented a chlorophyll printing technique, Beck explained, which transfers a photographic image from a film negative to a leaf -- he will put the negative on top of the leaf and leave them in the sun, and the chlorophyll will make the print for him.

Contemporary artists celebrate the butterfly on film, in scrap-book-style collage and in intricately cut aluminum cans.

Lorenzo M. Duran, a Spanish artist, cuts leaves into silhouettes as many artists cut paper. Caterpillars have inspired him, he said, in the way they shape leaves as they eat.

Caterpillars eat prodigiously and often selectively. They may eat only one host plant, and their need may make them vulnerable. Monarch butterflies are facing a challenge to future generations.

Monarchs cannot overwinter here, Mingalone explained, because the cold would kill them. Every spring, Monarchs follow the milkweed -- the only plant their caterpillars eat -- north through Texas and through the midwest. They will lay eggs here, and the next generation will continue north into New England and Canada. The movement north may take three or four generations of butterflies.

But from the north, one generation of butterflies will travel 2,500 miles in one flight to one place in the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter here, thousands of them clustering for warmth to hibernate in fir trees. That area is designated a World Heritage Site.

But in 2013, Mingalone said, fewer Monarchs reached Mexico than in any year since scientists began keeping records.

They butterflies face many challenges, she said, and one of the newest and hardest comes from patented seeds. Midwestern farmers can plant genetically modified corn and soybeans and spray the fields, killing all other lants -- including the milkweed that feeds the Monarch caterpillars. Activists across the midwest have mobilized, she said, to keep the "milkweed highway" alive.

If you go ...

What: 'Butterflies' exhibition with butterfly pavilion

Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St.

When: Saturday, May 31, with a preview party
from 5:30 to 7:30 Friday

Admission: $5 for the party

Information: (413) 443-7171 berkshiremuseum.org


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