Though the creatures are a garden variety, so to speak, there’s nothing commonplace about the tent filled with dozens of butterflies at the Kansas State Fair.
The Butterfly Experience is new to the fair inside a spacious, inflatable tent pitched to the east of Lake Talbott.
The tent is filled with 180 butterflies of three types-- monarchs, painted ladies and swallowtails. Visitors can watch as they flutter around mums, echinacea and milkweed.
Joe Damiano, from Ronkonkoma on Long Island, New York, started the traveling business a year ago. He uses the butterfly tent to raise awareness about drastically decreasing populations of butterflies and other pollinators.
Each visitor picks up a feeding stick, a paint sponge dipped in watered-down Gatorade. Holding the sponge in front of a butterfly allows it to step on and taste the juice with their feet, Damiano explained.
Inside the butterfly tent, he pointed to the tip of a milkweed plant where a female monarch butterfly just landed.
“Look at this! She’s laying eggs, you’re so lucky,” Damiano said to a child visiting with his dad on Sunday morning.
“They just know. It’s so amazing how they know their plant,” Damiano said.
Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on milkweeds, so whenever they travel, Damiano purchases milkweed locally, allows his butterflies to fill it with eggs, and plants them in the area.
“Next year, we’ll start giving away packets of milkweed seeds to plant at home,” Damiano said.
During fairs, Damiano moves the milkweed plants out of the way to protect the eggs. Butterflies can lay about 100 eggs at a time, he said. The tiny eggs are easily damaged by an accidental poke from a visitor’s feeding stick.
In about three to five days, the young caterpillars have grown. When they’re big enough, Damiano moves them from the plant to the front of the tent for visitors to see.
So far, Damiano and The Butterfly Experience attended to 20 events this year, including schools, fairs and camps. Traveling with the delicate insects is “not as tough as you’d think,” he said.
“We have smaller nets," Damiano said. "We stop to feed them all the time. It’s mostly just keeping them safe in the back seat or the trailer,”
The Butterfly Experience is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The exhibit is free, but donations are accepted to purchase milkweeds that assist in the monarch’s migration.