Credit: Baron Spafford

Walking the grounds of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum is, by any account, a year-round pleasure. Past Chad (a blue whale skeleton) and the halls of exhibits, one finds themselves tucked behind the grounds of the Santa Barbara Mission, hidden among mighty oak trees and a trickling creek, while the towers of the St. Anthony’s peek from above the foliage. However, in summer, the museum is graced by more than warm weather: the shimmering colors of butterflies in the annual Butterflies Alive! exhibit.

At Butterflies Alive!, which will run through September 4, the museum’s Sprague Butterfly Pavilion hosts more than two dozen Costa Rican butterfly species. The popular exhibit allows guests to step into a bountiful grove of color, both in the fluttering insects in bright blue, green, and yellow, along with the flowering flora that house the tropical guests. As a result, the experience is unlike most museum fare. While most exhibits are kept behind panes of glass, in the butterfly pavilion a bright-green malachite might pop out of the sky and land on your shoulder. More experiential than instructive, Butterflies Alive! demonstrates the immediate and inexplicable magic in nature, as undeniable as it is thrilling.

Butterfly coordinator Jimmy Friery | Credit: Josh Kazali

Jimmy Friery, the museum’s butterfly coordinator, oversees more than 1,000 butterflies of a dozen different species, tending to them from their arrival to Santa Barbara as chrysalises to their blossoming in the Sprague Pavilion. Fittingly clad in a butterfly tee and hat, Friery spoke of this year’s herd with the reverence of a shepherd. 

“This is our second year with Costa Rican species,” he said with pride. The butterflies at the exhibit are a privilege held by only a select few places in America. 

“You won’t see a blue morpho anywhere else but here on the Central Coast,” he said, gesturing to a radiant blue and black butterfly. Not to mention that the tropical butterflies are simply “cooler,” added Friery, “for lack of a better term.”

For Friery, the butterfly business has been filled with surprises. Since he started working in the Butterfly Pavilion in 2020, he has learned that the world of butterflies goes far deeper than one would imagine. 

“There’s a whole industry around this,” he said, “farmers in Costa Rica shipping pupae all around the world for butterfly exhibits.”

A basking blue morpho | Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

As it turns out, the work of raising butterflies contrasts greatly with the carefree insects themselves. 

“This is a really difficult process to get the butterflies to adulthood,” Friery said, involving gentle treatment of the dormant chrysalids and careful monitoring of pressure and humidity. For such delicate creatures, the work can often be less than delicate, including cleaning the buildup of meconium — “butterfly poop,” Friery said with a grimace.

However, it is the grace of the insects that is the real reward, for Friery and the museum’s guests alike. Being able to witness the brilliance of the insects brings visitors from around the globe to the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, offering a transformative opportunity to connect with nature, as many guests discover long-forgotten connections to the natural world. “That’s always really reassuring to see,” said Friery. “You get bogged down in the day-to-day,” and the spark of wonder that the butterflies invigorate can cause a deep and emotional experience.

The effect is palpable, an unbridled joy sustained for the 20-minute stroll through the butterfly pavilion. It even changed Friery, who grew up fearing butterflies and other insects: “Ten minutes in the pavilion, and I thought, oh, there’s nothing to be scared of at all.”

Butterflies Alive! is open at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum through September 4. See

A young museum member views butterfly ID guides. | Credit: Baron Spafford


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