Have you ever wondered where the live butterflies in the museum’s popular Butterflies in Flight exhibit come from and how they get here?

Our butterflies are imported from sustainable, fair trade exporters in Costa Rica—the world’s largest butterfly exporter. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s butterfly and plant suppliers there and it was reassuring to meet people so committed to the wellbeing of butterflies! I was able to see how they inspect, sort, and package the pupae and do all the documentation required for legal exportation.


An image of a butterfly with black and green wings sitting on a leaf.
The Malachite (Siproeta stelenes) butterfly is one of about three hundred thousand species of Lepidoptera globally. Moths make up the vast majority (95%) of this group, but butterflies are most visible, best known and appreciated. Image: Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature


One exporter works with more than a hundred different families rearing butterflies sustainably. Smaller family farms specialize in only a couple species of butterflies; others raise many. All Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) undergo complete metamorphosis, beginning with an egg, then a larva (a caterpillar), a pupa (also known as a chrysalis) and then the adult. The butterflies are shipped as pupae, which are carefully inspected for damage and disease during every step of the processing. The pupae are carefully placed into specialized foam pads; the order is assembled, the pupae checked again.


An image of a butterfly with black, red and yellow wings sitting on a leaf.
A Postman (Heliconius melpomene) butterfly, one of the many species of Costa Rican butterflies in the museum’s Butterflies in Flight exhibit. Image: Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature


The pupae are boxed for the destination with all the required paperwork. Costa Rica requires export permits and the museum is required to have import documentation and meet Canadian Food Inspection Agency containment standards. Working together the exporter and farm families ensure the exportation of healthy pupae to museums, zoos and butterfly houses all around the world—the exporter even insulates the shipping box to protect the pupae from the cold during transport.


rows of small tubular butterfly pupae
Pupae are carefully sorted by species. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature


When the pupae arrive at the museum, we carefully hang them until they are ready to emerge and then release them into the exhibit, where they fly freely.

In the wild, butterflies feed on more than just flower nectar, often feeding on overripe fruit.  At times, they also feed on dung, urine, blood, and carrion. These unusual foods provide valuable nutrients such as amino acids, salts and other minerals.


two workers are packing the pupae in white foam
Pupae are carefully packed for shipment to museums and other centers around the world. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature


To mimic these wild foods in the Butterflies in Flight exhibit, there are several options for feeding. The butterflies can collect nectar from flowering plants or dine at feeding stations which consist of various types of fruit and hanging tubes of red jelly, which provide minerals and sugars to round out a healthy diet.

But even with an ideal diet, adult butterflies have a short lifespan, ranging from a week to a month. Surprisingly, some males can also be fatally aggressive.  And so, from time to time, like the lifecycle of the butterflies, we make another order from our great fair trade, sustainable butterfly suppliers in Costa Rica.