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Butterfly house at Paul Smith’s College celebrates 20 years

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PAUL SMITHS — Beautiful, delicate wings flutter about, filling a screened tent at Paul Smith’s College every summer between June and September.

The Breck Chapin Memorial Adirondack Native Species Butterfly House, the only butterfly house in its area, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

With more than 30 species of moths and butterflies throughout the year, the Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center’s butterfly house attracts many nature enthusiasts and butterfly lovers.

“Everybody turns into a kid when they’re learning about the natural world,” said Lauren E. Richard, staff member at VIC. “To see them be so excited and engaged, you know that they’re going to take that home with them and notice the next time they see a butterfly and wonder what kind it is or what it eats. They’ll be more curious about the natural world and take better care of it, I hope.”

Ms. Richard is from Vermont but attended college at Paul Smith’s as a double major in general biology and wildlife management and now works full time at VIC.

“These are all native butterfly species,” she said. “You could walk outside around here and see the same species you’re seeing in here and that way people know something about them.”

The house was started in 1993 by Breck Chapin, who, at the time, was the volunteer services coordinator of VIC.

“Breck Chapin was a staff member here, way back when, and he was instrumental in getting this thing built,” said Brian McAllister, naturalist at the Visitor Interpretive Center. “It got into his head that he wanted a butterfly house here, and he worked with the Adirondack Park Agency and they got it built.”

Mr. McAllister said in 2010, the state left the butterfly house for Paul Smith’s College to run, but a majority of the funding comes from donations and friend groups.

The butterflies are collected in the area by the house director Sue Grimm-Hanley, Paul Smith’s College intern Ashley Kumbris and other VIC staff members.

One interesting visitor in the house is the giant swallowtail butterfly from the Mid-Atlantic states that has made its way up north three years in a row.

“What’s it doing here? We really don’t know,” Mr. McAllister said. “It could be a result of global warming, but for the past three years their population is increasing in the Northeast.”

The single black and yellow swallowtail was the biggest butterfly in the house with forewing span of about 5.5 inches.

One butterfly that they used to see more often is the monarch. Ms. Richard said that some reports she’s seen said this year suffered about a 90 percent decrease of monarchs - an orange butterfly with black markings - in the area.

“When they migrate back north from Mexico in the springtime, they do so in multiple generations, and they cannot reproduce if milkweed is not present,” Ms. Richard said. “So if there’s a drought or anything that detriment the milkweed population, then it’s also going to affect the monarchs. So, sometimes they just don’t get this far north.”

The butterfly house only has one monarch this season.

“You can plant as many nectar plants as you want with pretty flowers for them to drink from as adults, but if they don’t have the specific plants they need for their caterpillars to eat, then the population is never going to be very high,” Ms. Richard said.

An increased amount of springtime storms may have also played a role in changing the migration pattern of the monarchs, Ms. Richard said.

The netting of the butterfly house will get rolled back Sept. 1, allowing the butterflies to leave at the end of the season if they choose, Ms. Richard said.

“They get released, but most of our moths and butterflies have a very short life-span, so they just die anyway at the end of the summer,” Mr. McAllister said.

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