The Art and Science of Butterflies at Berkshire Museum

The butterfly effect: how studying these pollinators broadens analytical and creative minds

Tiger Swallowtail by Howard HoopleMuch like bees, butterflies play an important role in our local ecosystem – and also in ecosystems globally. As pollinators, butterflies help to ensure that plants exchange genetic material, something that we depend on in order to enjoy many of our favorite foods! However, changes in the way that humans live and the ways in which we interact with our surroundings have caused butterfly populations to decline (especially the iconic monarch). Learning about butterflies and their role in our ecosystem is essential to understanding and appreciating our surroundings; luckily, opportunities for learning about these beautiful Lepidoptera abound during the next few months!

Beginning Saturday, May 31st, the Berkshire Museum’s exhibit Butterflies will open to visitors in Pittfield. Open through September 1, 2014, the exhibit offers the opportunity to explore and learn about butterflies from all over the world. Perhaps the most exciting portion of the exhibit is the Butterfly Pavilion, which houses butterflies from all over the world – including many species found locally, like the Monarch, Tiger Swallowtail, Mourning Cloak, and Question Mark. In addition to the Butterfly Pavilion, Butterflies will include historic and cultural artifacts from around the world, and numerous pieces of butterfly-related artwork from contemporary artists.

Arcus (2012) by Paul Villinski is made of aluminum (discarded cans) cut into butterfly shapes and painted. It is 142” wide by 60” high.

The exhibit offers visitors a variety of ways to learn – traditional museum-style exhibits detail species indicators, caterpillar identification, and metamorphosis, while the Butterfly Pavilion allows for up-close-and-personal experiences with real, live butterflies, many of which are species that most of us won’t ever encounter in nature.

Project Native’s Native Butterfly House. (Photo credit: Peter Slothower)

In addition to visiting live butterflies at the Berkshire Museum, families can meet native species of butterflies at Project Native‘s Native Butterfly House. Being unveiled at Project Native’s summer solstice celebration on June 21st, the Native Butterfly House is filled with native species of butterflies and their favorite plants, and aims to educate visitors about the importance of pollinators and ways to ensure that populations will be preserved. Families with young children can visit the butterfly house just to marvel at the fluttering creatures, while older children can use a visit to the house as a way to learn about the special relationships that certain species have with specific plants, ways to create pollinator gardens at home, and how to identify common local species of butterflies and caterpillars.

Of course, once you’ve spent lots of time learning about butterfly identification and the process of metamorphosis, the best way to solidify your understanding is by watching the process take place at home! It’s easy to watch a caterpillar transform – simply collect a caterpillar, identify it, feed it its favorite foods, and watch closely as it settles in, builds a chrysalis, and emerges as a butterfly! Be sure to properly identify your butterfly, as certain species have very specific needs (monarchs, for example, need milkweed in order to survive).

In addition to teaching children about metamorphosis and the importance of pollinators, a study of butterflies can expand into  allowing children to learn about art, history, and math! Using the pieces displayed in the Berkshire Museum’s Butterflies, families can explore the presence and representation of butterflies in art across cultures and from many different time periods. Additionally, families can keep a list of butterflies and caterpillars that they find at home, tracking the population in your yard and allowing children to have practice collecting data. Maybe you can even make a chart at the end of the season! Similarly, raising a butterfly at home presents many opportunities for data collection and mathematical representations of information – keep track of how many leaves your caterpillar eats, how far it moves, how many days it takes to emerge from its chrysalis, etc.

For more information about Butterflies at the Berkshire Museum, call 413-443-7171. The Berkshire Museum is located at 39 South Street in Pittsfield, and admission is $13 for adults and $6 for children. Admission to the Butterfly Pavilion is an additional $2 per visitor.

Project Native’s Butterfly House is located on the organizations grounds at 342 North Plain Road in Housatonic. For further information about the Butterfly House, call Project Native at 413-274-3433 or e-mail

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