Butterflies Around Town

by Carol DeFrank

NATIVE FLORIDIAN AND ENVIRONMENTALIST Rob Johnson’s philosophy is that the future of the earth’s animals, large and small, depends on the decisions humans make today and only dedication to change destructive habits will save the planet. Since butterflies and moths are the most fragile of insects and often exhibit the first warning signs of an unhealthy environment, Johnson, and his business partner Matt Hoover, opened The Butterfly Estates in downtown Fort Myers. They wanted to bring the diversity of Southwest Florida’s subtropical environment to an urban setting.

After four years of planning and renovating, the Estates opened in January. There’s a butterfly conservatory, an outdoor butterfly and botanical garden, Flutterby’s Café, Mother Nature’s Gift Shop and Caterpillars Ice Cream & Fudge Factor, all located in a fenced-in acre of land located on Fowler Street in the heart of the River District.

“Being a nature lover, the eco-system has always been a major concern of mine,” Johnson said. “Matt and I wanted to get involved in a project that could reverse some environmental damage; a butterfly conservatory seemed perfect. Between construction and pesticides, the environment that lured people here is slowly disappearing. Butterflies are more important than ever now that the honey bees are in such danger.”

The conservatory is a full cycle breeding facility that thrives under a 3,614 square foot glazed glass enclosure of tropical rain forest. There’s always 400-1,500 butterflies, a variety of the 187 species native to Florida, free-flying around and enjoying the cascading waterfalls, lush nectar plants, trees and shrubs. The selection changes with the seasons. At night while the butterflies sleep, colorful moths come out to play and reproduce.

The men worked with Greg Disero of David M. Jones Architecture to design the premier attraction. In the six months since the Estates have been open they’ve logged 6,000 visitors and signed up 890 annual members from as far away as France, Germany and Japan. The eco-friendly attraction incorporates a hands-on natural park atmosphere with an educational twist intended to promote conservation. “The garden has proven to be especially therapeutic for visitors with terminal illnesses as it enables them to get close to nature and relax,” says Johnson. The entire facility is handicap accessible.

The glass structure has a self-regulating, rooftop, weather station that controls the inside atmosphere by monitoring heat, humidity, shade and misting systems and windows. “If the interior needs to stabilize with the exterior, the windows open automatically. The station reports any problem, day or night via phone, immediately,” Johnson explains.

The staff is fanatical about keeping everything on the premise organic, therefore the insects are controlled only by ladybugs and liquid pesticides. Granular pesticides are avoided because rain carries it into the Caloosahatchee River.

“It’s all about the environment,” Johnson says. “The more people we can get interested in helping the butterflies, the better off our eco-system will be.”

Only the conservatory is new. All other structures on the property were built in the early 1900s then renovated. Event Coordinator, Susan Watson, says that although the butterflies are the main draw, the other attractions are also popular. Flutterby’s features shade-grown organic coffee, healthy sandwiches, salads and desserts that can be enjoyed outdoors on the wraparound veranda. All the utensils and serving containers are eco-friendly. “The forks are made from potatoes, the containers from corn and the dishes from sugar cane,” she says. “These products cost only a few pennies more than plastic, but they make a significant difference in the landfills. It takes a plastic cup 90 years to disintegrate; ours disintegrate within nine months.”

Caterpillars, originally built in 1918, offer sweets by chocolatier Winfeild Lentz, who specializes in healthy, organic, dark chocolate filled with antioxidants. Watson has her own theory about the homemade fudge. “My myth is that if you eat fudge with your eyes closed, you’re not indulging in any calories. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Mother Nature’s Gift Shop utilizes every square foot of the original home built in 1915. It showcases a selection of environmentally friendly gifts originated by a network of artists who lead the eco-industry in art, winged jewelry and gracefully displayed butterflies.

It takes 21 employees, including a master gardener, to keep the Butterfly Estates in tiptop shape. “Our employees are just as interested in the environment as we are. Many ride their bikes to work. It’s their way of reducing carbon footprints,” says Johnson.

“The conservatory has fast become a favorite for wedding ceremonies, vow renewals, wine tasting, corporate events and birthday parties,” she continues. “Cascading waterfalls, an abundance of flowers, sweet treats and garden benches is the perfect ambiance for any event.”

The Butterfly Estates is located at 1815 Fowler St. in Fort Myers and open 365 days a year from 10am-5pm, open late Fridays & Saturdays June-August. Call 690-2359 for information.

THE Butterfly Estates isn’t the only place in Fort Myers to enjoy and learn about butterflies and moths. The Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium, located up the street from the Butterfly Estates on Ortiz Avenue, has its own version of a butterfly garden. It’s different from the conservatory — a low maintenance 1,000 square foot enclosed pool cage maintained by volunteers, with all of the plants for sale. Like the Conservatory, it’s filled with native plants and butterflies and used as an educational tool to teach visitors how to grow their own butterfly garden without pesticides.

When the Nature Center was built in the late 1960s it did not have a butterfly garden. The Center now encompasses 105 acres and is home to more than 100 animals, a butterfly and bird aviary, museum, a planetarium, gift shop, meeting places, picnic areas and miles of nature trails.

The Calusa Nature Center was an offshoot of a popular traveling trunk show sponsored by the Junior League of Fort Myers. The number of trunks and displays grew to the point where they needed a permanent home and the Junior League eventually leased the land for 50 years from the city. They received a nonprofit status and formed a contract partnership with the Environmental Educational Program (EEP) of Lee County School District. The organizations worked together to give elementary school children the opportunity to enjoy educational field trips.

“In 2000, the city renewed our lease for 99 years,” Naturalist Kelly Williamson said. “That’s when the late Charles Edgar Foster earmarked a major donation for a butterfly aviary and native plant nursery. He made it a tribute to his wife Margaret, who was known as the first plant lady of the Nature Center.”

Employees of local businesses built the enclosure and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) contributed $4,300 to install a well and an ultra-low volume irrigation system that provides water to the Aviary and the alligator pond.

A brick walkway ushers visitors from the museum through the aviary. Only a few species reproduce here. Most are purchased in chrysalis stage from Ken Warner, owner of Gulf Coast Butterfly, the same supplier used by the Conservatory. “We don’t have enough plants, staff or space to do it all here. We have 10-15 species year-round. The caterpillars eat so much that the plants need to be rotated constantly,” Williamson explains.

“We hope to enlarge it someday and possibly make it self-sustaining. There’s enough space. It’s in a great location; right next to the Audubon Aviary that houses permanently injured bird of prey such as hawks, vultures, bald eagles, owls and a few others,” she continued.

The Nature Center’s applying for grants to offset the recent loss of funding. People can help fund the Nature Center by purchasing a brick on the butterfly walkway, becoming an event sponsor, an annual member, adopting an animal, frequenting the Center or simply donating. They are also in dire need of volunteers as the staff has been cut by almost 50%.

The Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium is located at 3450 Ortiz Ave. in Fort Myers and is open Monday-Saturday 8am-5pm and Sunday 11am-5pm. There is a Butterfly Talk daily at 12:30pm. Call 275-3435 for more information. •

from the July-August 2009 issue

Butterfly Estates conservatory

waterfall at The Butterfly Estates

A zebra longwing butterfly
The Butterfly Estatses

The butterfly aviary
the Calusa Nature Center