The gardens outside the new National Butterfly Center sounded like an open-air bazaar Thursday, with the merchandise being species to photograph or simply watch — a colorful tapestry of fluttering wings.
“Got a Gulf Fritillary here!” said another.
“Pipevine Swallowtail!” came yet another.
The enthusiasts making the calls knew their stuff, having come from around the country and across the Atlantic for the opening of the multimillion-dollar complex unique to the United States if not the world. Neither a zoo nor a farm, it is a 100-acre campus lovingly laid out with native plants to attract the butterflies that are already in the Rio Grande Valley in remarkable abundance and diversity.
“Coming here to the National Butterfly Center is like going on a butterfly safari,” NABA president Jeffrey Glassberg said, noting that he himself spent Wednesday delightedly spotting about 100 different species. “This is where they live. We just made it a place they’d like to be and they all showed up and stayed.”
But while the 140 NABA members taking in the temporary displays in the just-painted main building and the first of what will be dozens of different gardens were clearly in butterfly-lover heaven, they are not the target visitors, Glassberg explained.
They already know that the Rio Grande Valley has an environment that merges the temperate and the tropical, the same ecosystem that makes it a bonanza for bird watchers checking off “life lists” of sighted birds. The target is the schoolchild or vacationing family who’s unaware of the importance of preserving habitat for all wildlife, including butterflies. “If we can save butterflies, we can save ourselves,” he said.
The center is still a work in progress, with unplanted soil surrounding a reflecting pool out front, walls still awaiting installation of the whiz-bang interactive monitors and displays, and workmen in the back still landscaping more native-plant gardens. When complete, the center will be a series of buildings housing an art gallery, library, and visitor’s shop, Glassberg said.
While located near Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, one of the nine sites of the World Birding Center, it is not part of the World Birding Center and is funded with a mix of public and private grants
Margaret McAllen, whose family is namesake of the city of McAllen, was among those cutting the symbolic blue ribbon, as was former U.S. Rep. Kika de la Garza. “This is now a national and international spot right here in Mission,” de la Garza said. “It puts us more on the world map.”
A very distinguished member of the global butterfly-loving community readily concurred. “This really is a hot spot for butterflies right here on the Rio Grande,” said Dick Vane-Wright, a University of Kent professor who retired from the British Natural History Museum as head of butterfly collections. “This is brilliant.”
Vane-Wright said he liked the NABA’s analogy that a new visitor would walk into the center as a caterpillar, spend time inside the center as chrysalis, learning about the insects, their life phases, and their important place in the global ecosystem; then leave to explore the grounds as butterflies, newly enlightened. “Involvement is the biggest concern, relationship to nature,” he said. “In the end we all depend on it anyway.”