Alan Mothner, executive director of the Dunwoody Nature Center, says the butterfly festival is both an entertainment and educational event.
Alan Mothner, executive director of the Dunwoody Nature Center, says the butterfly festival is both an entertainment and educational event.

Live butterflies have visited the Dunwoody Nature Center annually for more than two decades. But people won’t see the hundreds of colorful guests flying in a mass migration into town. Before they go on display, the showy butterflies ride from Florida on a truck, asleep in a simulated state of hibernation.

Ashley Jones and her father now own the traveling butterfly exhibit that had been part of the Greathouse Butterfly Farm in Earletown, Fla. The farm closed in January and owner Zane Greathouse hired Jones to care for the 100 acres of land and for his nearly 90-year-old mother, Jones said.

“It was sort of a family business because we all worked there, but we’re not related [to the Greathouse family].” Jones said. “Some of my family and some of my friend’s family worked there.”

Ashley Jones, along with her father, owns the traveling butterfly exhibit that will bring the insects to the Dunwoody Nature Center’s annual festival on Aug. 15.

Before the Aug. 15 festival, Jones and a handful of family members will load up a rental truck for the seven-hour trek to Dunwoody.

Once there, they set up a pair of tents filled with butterflies and plants the butterflies feed on. Jones and “Professor Mullet,” the character her father plays, each host a tent. They teach about the life cycle of the butterfly and why it’s an important pollinator, along with bees and bats.

Alan Mothner, the Nature Center’s executive director, said once people visit the festival, they look forward to it all year until the next one.

“We’re all about experiential learning, and those tents are a prime example of being back in touch with nature,” Mothner said. “You’re in a tent with hundreds of butterflies flying around. There’s no other experience like it.”

In addition to Monarch butterflies, which the Nature Center’s 22nd annual butterfly festival will focus on as part of its Milkweed Project, Jones and her family are bringing Zebra Longwing, Common Buckeye, Sleepy Orange, Giant, American Black and Tiger Swallowtail species of butterfly.

The Monarch butterfly can live up to eight months, Jones said, but most species of butterfly live only two to four weeks, depending on the season as much as the species.

Jones and her father grow butterflies in greenhouses that have the proper host plants, such as the milkweed for caterpillars that will become Monarch butterflies.

“They lay eggs on plants and grasses, so you have to have the right plants for the specific butterfly,” she said. “They lay their eggs, they hatch, and the caterpillar eats the food, makes a chrysalis and emerges. Then it starts all over again.”

Though the butterflies exhibited at this year’s Butterfly Festival will return to Florida, some butterflies leave their farm home for good, Jones said, shipped in special containers via priority overnight FedEx. Her business sells some butterflies that are to be released — customers as far away as Canada purchase the butterflies for release during special events such as birthday parties, weddings and funerals.

“We fold the wings up as if they were resting and put them in an insulated box,” she said. “We have ice packs at the bottom, separated by a barrier so [the butterflies] don’t get too cold. It puts them in a hibernation state.”

Cooling and shipping butterflies extends their lives, she said, because of the hibernation state. “When it gets cold here, they fold their wings and rest until it warms up,” Jones said. That’s how they travel for the annual festival as well, she said.

Jackie Sherry, the program manager for the Nature Center, said visitors to the tents will be expected to follow the rules set by Jones and her family. Because more than 3,000 people come to spend time with the butterflies, each group of 20 people will have between seven and 10 minutes in the tent, Sherry said.

Jones said visitors will be given sticks to hold and a sugary substance like Gatorade to put on the sticks to encourage the butterflies to land on them.

Though many people treat the butterflies with respect, accidents do happen, Jones said. Sometimes, someone will accidentally step on a butterfly or a child might get nervous and shake the sugary stick too hard, she added. “Throughout the day, usually about 10 butterflies end up not making it,” Jones said.

The end result is education as much as entertainment, Mothner said. He wants to show people how important butterflies are for the environment and give people a chance to check them out up close.

“We want people who might be scared of bugs or butterflies to come in and realize how beautiful they are,” Mothner said.