We sat down with Ulrich Hartmond, the director of the Magic Wings butterfly house and the insectarium at the Museum of Life + Science (MLS), in June 2014 to discuss his job, the role the museum plays in the lives of its young guests, and the Blue Morpho exhibit they hosted. Uli, as he's known, holds a PhD in plant physiology and has been with MLS for over 10 years. He works alongside a team of five experts: Annie Spikes, entomology specialist; Bobbi Jo Holmes, lead horticulturalist; Leon Bradford, insectarium manager; Lew Menanno, horticultural specialist; and Richard Stickney, lead conservatory associate.
Can you explain to our visitors what it is you do?
I am the director of the butterfly house and insectarium. I fill in wherever my team of five needs me. So I am the horticulturalist; I came here as a horticulturalist when I first started. I'm the entomologist when our entomologists need a hand. I'm the conservatory attendant and butterfly curator when my curator isn't here. Then there are things like talking to you and doing the budget, working with the exhibits department to do something new or whatever is needed as manager. But I'm weeding out there often, I'm in the trees, I feed our birds, and anything that comes my way.
What's your favorite part?
Basically talking to appreciative people. Guests coming in and admiring this place is definitely my favorite part. Yes, I like to sit at my desk occasionally to cool down-it's a warm job being a horticulturalist when it's hot outside. But being out with the guests is probably the nicest part of it.
How do the butterflies get here?
We buy butterfly pupae. [Uli later explained that due to regulations, it is illegal to breed the butterflies they have.] These butterflies are tropical, from tropical zones around the world. They have farms down there, or out there, that produce these butterflies. Nowadays because of controls at the border, they go through a broker who ships through California. All the pupae go through California in a cargo box. He gets them through customs and Fish and Wildlife and USDA inspections and then breaks up that box and ships it FedEx to us.
How many butterflies do you bring in a week?
On average 500. We try to have just short of 1,000 in there at all times. This week we got a few extra because we have two shipments – one from Surinam and one from the Philippines. This week in particular we got a third one from Costa Rica with just Blue Morphos. July is our Blue Morpho month. We're painting the town blue. That's an extra shipment, so this week we got 700 or so, 800 even.
How many insects do you bring in on a weekly basis?
Weekly not so much. The insectarium is relatively speaking a cheap exhibit. That's because we have a bunch of colonies that breed here and I have an entomologist that takes care of those guys. Most of our insects in the insectarium that we routinely buy back are from Malaysia and then we get a few local species for smaller exhibits.
Are the more remote species harder to get?
Well, the internet is amazing. Then of course there're guys in Malaysia, or some in Costa Rica too, that have to go out and find them. So sometimes it's "oh we couldn't find them and get them for you." Harder to find is at the moment is actually bees. Our bee colony is dying again. And out of season you can't just buy them off the shelf.
Are there certain pieces of information that you hope visitors will take away from their trip to MLS?
I have been trained academically to the PhD level and Richard has a master's and Leon has a BS. So everybody has a college degree and we tend to think that way, that we want [guests] to know certain things, certain facts about the world. Or at least our exhibits. But that's not our concept of teaching here at the museum. We should stay away from trying to make them understand and know a particular fact. Let them ask the questions.
What I really want [guests] to do is ask those questions, to be curious and stop and look, maybe even read that label. Curiosity is great but you have to have at least the patience to wait for the answer or explore a little bit and just see if the answers are just there. I don't think when you go in there you could miss anything.
How important is it to have something like the butterfly house for a child growing up? What do you hope to give them?
A place like this is definitely very important. [People who don't have a resource like MLS] are deprived of the chance to do what they can't do at home. I grew up with a big yard; a lot of other people had that experience as a kid. But there needs to be more than just your four walls and your TV. The museum definitely can give a lot of that, in addition to what parents can offer them. This outdoor space, running around and seeing a park like that – there's not that much where you can just be in a park and walking around.
Is there anything in particular you want visitors to know about the Blue Morpho exhibit?
I believe [Blue Morphos] are so brilliant, the most attractive butterflies. They're my favorite. A year or two ago, I went to Costa Rica to tour butterfly farms and on one of those white water rafting trips in a dark, deep green canyon there was one of them, a few of them in the mist there. It was just magical. I'm not a magical person usually, but that was really just so gorgeous. It's one thing that I still love when I see them up here in the corner, they sometimes fly around chasing each other. It's pretty impressive to see.
Want to check out the Blue Morphos and other butterflies that Uli is so fond of? Head over to the Museum of Life + Science between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Tuesday-Saturday or between noon and 5 p.m. on Sunday. It's a terrific photo opportunity, and you'll have a chance to talk to Uli yourself!
While you're there, you can also take a look around the Museum's other exhibits, including the insectarium, aerodynamics experiments, the dinosaur trail, and much more.
Learn more about the Museum of Life + Science and other scientifically minded places in Durham. Read More