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Butterfly watching at the Botanical Gardens

It's hard to believe they're bugs and even harder to believe that without them we're lost. Flamboyant, enchanting, mysterious and delightful, some with a wingspan greater than a man's open palms, they live out their short and glorious life in an artificial universe — right here, in the land of sleet and snow.

This year's Butterflies are Free exhibit, in its 11th year at the Botanical Garden of Montreal, will feature for the first time over 90 species of butterflies native to Africa, Central America and Asia. Until April 27, visitors can see about 2,000 butterflies at any given time, with up to 100 newly hatched butterflies released each day.

"In a natural environment, you would never see so many butterflies or so many species all at once," says the Garden's communications officer Francois Ouellet. In his two trips to Costa Rica, he came across only two such exotic creatures. "This environment is man-made, but it's spectacular."

Displaying countless iridescent hues, the butterflies emerge from their temporary tombs — their cocoons — gathering the strength to fulfill their mission to survive as a species.

The breathtakingly beautiful markings on their wings are not purely aesthetic, but also weapons of self-defense, warning potential predators of the butterflies' toxicity.

Their Latin names are impressive: Caligo eurilochus, Morpho helenor, Ideopsis juventa... but a child's imagination will respond more to common names like Clipper, Wood nymph, Owl butterfly and the Great eggfly bolina.

"Butterflies are ambassadors," says Pierre Veilleux, one of the Garden's technicians. He explains that while people fear what they do not know, the sheer beauty and fragility of these winged creatures awakens their curiosity regarding other insects as well. "Butterflies create a reconciliation between the human and insect world."

Veilleux's job is not easy. He must receive and maintain the cocoons, carefully packed and transported in temperature-controlled conditions, and see them through their life-cycle, releasing an allotted number every day.

He guides groups of schoolchildren through the greenhouse, pointing out which plants the butterflies feed on. He must also replenish these as needed, keeping "backup" plants ready. "Some of the plants may be beautiful, but they may be sterile. The butterflies know the difference."

The insects in the display were purchased from several butterfly breeding farms that provide economic support to communities while offering protection to wildlife. One such supplier, "Kipepeo" in Kenya is maintaining a forest of over 40,000 hectares with over 250 butterfly species.

Through Veilleux's presentation, visitors come to realize the profound interdependence of all living things and the importance of preserving biodiversity. "When the children understand which plants the butterflies need to survive, they realize they need to protect plants too," Veilleux says. "First comes respect, then the urge to protect."

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