Insects aren’t exactly a rarity here in northern Michigan, where summer meadows are filled with butterflies and the orchards murmur with the ceaseless hum of honeybees.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed when you’re surrounded by a flock of Central American morpho butterflies, all of them bobbing and weaving around your head in a playful, shimmering squadron of metallic blue. Or fascinated by a working beehive where you can peer through glass to watch the domestic comings and goings of the bees.
Fascination is exactly what Cyndie Bobier and Rob Roach had in mind when they created the Butterfly House and Bug Zoo in the village of Wiliamsburg, just east of Traverse City. In their enclosed garden, over 25 species of exotic butterflies from around the world join such local mainstays as monarchs, admirals and swallowtails, fluttering, feeding and frolicking among the plants — and occasionally perching on the unwary visitor. (In fact, there’s a large mirror at the exit where you can check to make sure you’re not walking out with a six-legged hitchhiker.)
There are also a few shiver-producing exhibits – like the Tarantula Tree, the Beetle Boulder and Duke Elsner’s Crawl Space, an exhibit of local insects and arachnids from the enormous collection of Michigan State University entomologist Duke Elsner. There’s a new display called “Mantids: Masters of Disguise” that features several species of praying mantis, including Ghost Mantids and Giant African Mantids.
“Some of them aren’t exactly cuddly,” concedes Cyndie. “But they’re truly amazing.”
They’re certainly amazing, and sometimes more than a little scary, to the youngsters who make up a large percentage of today’s visitors. Many have never actually encountered insects in the wild, says Cyndie, a trained zoologist who specializes in educational “total immersion” wildlife encounters. Too often, their first instinct is to either run away or try to squash them.
“So it makes it all worthwhile when you have that breakthrough moment with a child — or an adult — where they suddenly recognize these aren’t just bugs, they’re important species,” she says. “That’s what makes people willing to conserve them and protect them from harm.”
Still, there’s little doubt that the butterflies are the star attractions. Fluttering around in the steamy 84-degree warmth of their garden enclosure, they settle briefly on the landscaped flowerbeds, drink from dishes of sugar-rich nectar and ripe fruit, and perch on almost every available surface to rest their wings.
Cyndie and Rob are both natives of the Traverse City area. (She still thinks it’s wonderful that a guy whose last name is “Roach” would end up as her partner in owning an insect zoo.) Inspired by a similar attraction near Niagara Falls, they started work on the project several years ago, and 2015 will be their first full season. “We opened last fall for a sort of preview so we could iron the bugs out of our business model,” she says with a grin.
In spite of its name, the zoo has a few non-insect inmates, including a small selection of frogs and a tank of cute little axolotls. (For the uninitiated, an axolotl – sometimes called a “walking fish” — is an amphibian that looks like a salamander but never comes out of the water. Once found in lakes near Mexico City, it is now extinct in the wild but it always seems to be wearing a gentle, enigmatic smile.)
“We want to create opportunities for engagement and conversation at every age level,” says Cyndie. “Some people just come in and look around for 20 minutes and leave, and that’s OK, but we’re also here for people who want to slow down and learn something new.”
Later in the year, the zoo plans to begin free educational presentations about some of the most popular creatures in the collection, outdoor nature walks, classroom presentations, and “junior zookeeper” classes where kids can spend a few hours helping to feed the insects. There’s even some discussion about putting together wedding and party packages.
The GT Butterfly House and Bug Zoo is located at 8840 East M-72 in Williamsburg. It is open in the summer from 10 am to 7 pm and from 10 to 6 pm in the fall. Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for children 4-12 and free for children three and under. For more information go to GTButterflyZoo.com
For detailed information about other activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, contact Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-TRAVERSE or visit their website at www.traversecity.com.