A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

My boys and I have come to Durham’s Museum of Life and Science to find treasure. From a science lover’s perspective, this place boasts a trove of riches. Bears! Leafcutter

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

My boys and I have come to Durham’s Museum of Life and Science to find treasure. From a science lover’s perspective, this place boasts a trove of riches. Bears! Leafcutter

Durham’s Own Butterfly House

Butterflies seen through a magnifying glass at the Magic Wings Butterfly House

My boys and I have come to Durham’s Museum of Life and Science to find treasure. From a science lover’s perspective, this place boasts a trove of riches. Bears! Leafcutter ants! Dinosaurs! And right behind the farmyard animals is the bounty of jewels we came to see: the Magic Wings Butterfly House.

Settling into its 26th year, Magic Wings is a 35-foot-tall, glass-ceilinged, glass-walled conservatory filled with more than 200 species of tropical plants. Inside, the air is warm and moist and smells of loamy earth. A royal court of crested wood partridges scuttles officiously through the undergrowth. The sound of water filters through the vines, and tall, green plants fill the spaces between floor and ceiling.

The author with her two sons in the Magic Wings Butterfly House in Durham

The author and her sons, Pete (left) and Thompson, pause to observe the conservatory’s residents. photograph by Joshua Steadman

But these sounds and scents and plants are only window dressing. The jewels we seek are the butterflies, up to 50 species and 1,000 insects at any given time, flittering and floating through the house. Each year, close to half a million people come to see them — just like my 9-year-old, Pete, and 7-year-old, Thompson, and I have.

Blue morphos open their dull brown outer wings to reveal a dazzling, iridescent blue that flickers like an electric shock with every wingbeat. Paper kites, the kaleidoscopic black-and-cream cousin to monarchs, seem to prance across the foliage with their long legs. Clippers, which look like their wings are painted with dusty eye shadow, perform aerial acrobatics right next to our heads.

“Hold out your finger,” Magic Wings Director Ulrich “Uli” Hartmond says to my sons on a tour of the conservatory. “You can let them walk on you.” They do. And astonishment turns to glee.

• • •

Each butterfly begins its life as an egg. Delicious to predators and unable to move, eggs are a dangerous way to start any life. Butterfly mothers do what they can, usually finding plants that their babies will eat once they hatch, and hiding their eggs as best as they can under those leaves. Inside each egg, they give nourishment to form caterpillars and their cells, called imaginal discs. Those last cells are the cells of dreams, of imagination.

Most of the butterflies at the Magic Wings house came from faraway eggs. Hartmond works with families in villages in five countries around the world. These families are the butterfly keepers. They find eggs, harvest host plants, and nurture the growing caterpillars until the insects shed their final grubby skins to reveal the chrysalises beneath. The practice keeps safe the land as well as the butterflies that need the land to thrive.

“These farmers are our outreach conservationists,” Hartmond says. “They don’t take the forest down and don’t spray pesticides in their yards.” Instead, they work to keep their world a better place.

The butterflies help the people thrive, too. Tending young butterflies, feeding caterpillars, and sharing them with the world helps sustain entire villages of families.

Under the care of these international farmers, caterpillars grow exponentially. From the size of a pinhead to the size of a pen, from the size of a period to the size of a run-on sentence. The caterpillars chew almost blindly through anything green. They look nothing like their parents — they are wingless, wormlike, often hairy, with mouths made for cutting leaves, not sipping nectar. Still, they carry their mothers’ gifts from the egg, those imaginal discs, the seeds of imagination.

Cocoons of various colors at the Magic Wings Butterfly House

Among his other duties, Dr. Uli Hartmond is tasked with caring for the chrysalises that butterfly keepers from around the world send to Magic Wings. photograph by Joshua Steadman

When they shed the final skins of their youth to reveal chrysalises — or, in the case of moths, spin a cocoon — their caretakers collect them and mail them to Magic Wings. When he receives them, Hartmond glues these chrysalises to twine, hanging them like trophies along a wall. He keeps them safe behind glass, giving them the warmth and moisture they need. Some look like golden baubles, others like living green leaves sprinkled with silver dewdrops. Some look like lichen-crusted twigs. Some look like rolled-up dead leaves.

We watch these chrysalises, moving our eyes from jewel to jewel, hopeful that one will break and a butterfly will flip out with rumpled wings.

“She’s coming out!” Thomp exclaims as one begins to emerge. A black blob tumbles from a leafy green chrysalis, and spindly legs tap until they gain purchase on her former skin. She hangs upside down, revealing her long body and wings like a rumpled cape. We can see her wings pulse as she pumps them with fluid from her body. They expand a tiny amount with each pulse, and we begin to see more shape, bits of yellow and blue, spots and straight lines. She’s a clipper. She’ll become a strong flyer soon, capable of twirls and flips 30 feet in the air.

A butterfly lands on Thompson Rice at the Magic Wings Butterfly House in Durham

And sometimes, as Thompson Rice can attest, butterflies like blue clippers find them. photograph by Joshua Steadman

“How do they fit in there?” asks Pete, who’s holding an atlas moth as big as a salad plate while looking at the brown silken cocoon from which it emerged, itself the size of a couple of walnuts.

We look beyond, at the thousands of wings floating between the green, at the spindly legs picking around orange slices at feeders. Those clippers and paper kites. Those morphos and glasswings, with wings clear as windowpanes, delicately rimmed with vibrant colors. It’s hard to reconcile the caterpillar and the chrysalis. Harder still the chrysalis and the winged marvel that is a butterfly.

One thing people love about butterflies is that these insects seem miraculous. Too fragile to survive in this complicated world. Too amazing in their transformation. Too beautiful to be members of the writhing mass of insect society. It’s magic. It’s a miracle.

• • •

The real secret to butterflies can be found in what they carried with them when they were in their eggs: those imaginal discs.

When a caterpillar sheds her grubby skin to reveal her chrysalis, inside she digests herself fully. She turns her recognizable form into a mass of pulp. Gone are the legs and bristles, gone are the chomping jaws and capsule-like head. What remains is the pulp and her imaginal discs. These are the signposts. The discs know where to go without knowing.

Each disc moves to its predestined place and uses the pulp to form the parts of an adult butterfly: wings, eyes, antennae. Slender bodies, mouths like rolled party horns. The imaginal discs that the insect carried as caterpillars, hidden, make real the dream of flight.

Dr. Uli Hartmond

By working with farmers in villages around the world, Dr. Uli Hartmond is able to  protect and source butterfly species to fill Magic Wings. photograph by Joshua Steadman

Magic Wings, under Hartmond’s care, fills our senses with these flight dreams. Smell the damp air. Hold out fingers to receive six filamentous legs tapping confidently on our hands. Watch the atlas moth heave its hulking body across our paths. The zebra stripes, the candy apple reds. The owl’s eyes painted along the undersides of wings.

Watching my boys poke and wander between the vines, I wonder what parts of them they will carry, like the caterpillars with their imaginal discs, and what parts they will leave behind. And what about the rest of us? Which imaginal pieces formed us? What did we shed with the junk of history? The caterpillars have no idea. We don’t either. Nothing in life is guaranteed for caterpillars, nor for us. But if we all hang in there long enough, a metamorphosis could come.

Magic Wings holds these fever dreams of nature like a big, domed cradle. It unfolds the implausibility of our ordinary world, coasting on paper-thin wings.

Museum of Life and Science
433 West Murray Avenue
Durham, NC 27704
(919) 220-5429

This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Eleanor Spicer Rice

Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.