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News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

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Butterflies’ beauty on display in Encinitas

Around this time of year – while the temperatures are still warm – The Monarch Program facility is aflutter with activity, from butterflies emerging from chrysalises to curious children visiting on school field trips.

In the Butterfly Vivarium – the netted outdoor enclosure – it’s not uncommon to see four or more of the insects simultaneously drinking juices from watermelon slices on a plate while human visitors carefully walk around the pond on redwood chip pathways to avoid causing a disturbance. The butterflies then dance among their host plants, eucalyptus and ficus trees, and flowers.

Based at 450 Ocean View Ave. in Encinitas, the nonprofit research and educational organization was formed by David Marriott in 1990. Marriott – who holds academic degrees in musicology – first became interested in the winged creatures when his son began collecting them in the 1980s. By 1985, his focus became serious, and he began to educate himself about butterflies: learning their favorite types of flowers, studying their behaviors – particularly monarchs – and tagging them with ID stickers to track their migration patterns.

Marriott recognized the public’s increasing interest in monarch butterflies, and eventually established The Monarch Program. The building, grounds and property in Encinitas were donated to the organization, allowing for research and educational opportunities.

“The interest is going more crazy every year,” said Seiko Alvarado, Marriott’s assistant since 2005. “People come to learn what plants (to use to attract butterflies), what to do with their flowers. It’s great to have public interest in it.”

Upon entering the building, visitors will see displays on the walls and tables, including one that features the 145 species and subspecies of butterflies in San Diego County – more than any other county in California, according to Marriott. The high number is attributed to the area’s geographic diversity, from the ocean to the mountains and the desert, he explained. There are also maps of migration patterns, which follow the insects’ paths to the California coast and the Transverse Neovolcanic Belt of mountains west of Mexico City.

Just beyond the displays are rows of chairs placed in front of a TV, which shows a five-minute video of a butterfly’s life cycle. Cages with caterpillars of various species – including the mourning cloaks, which will “dance” in response to loud noise – are stationed near the windows, and interpretative specialists are on hand to answer questions.

But it’s the 1,200-square-foot Butterfly Vivarium that serves as the main attraction. The eco-biosphere currently houses six species, but sometimes supports as many as 10 varieties at a time. Thousands of students visit during field trips every year to learn about plant and animal relationships, with monarchs serving as the educational models.

Visitors are permitted to search for butterfly eggs, touch caterpillars, watch butterflies emerging from pupae, feed fruit to the winged creatures, observe mating behaviors and, of course, ask questions. They may also photograph and videotape the colorful creatures.

In addition to educating the public and conducting research, The Monarch Program cultivates host plants for the caterpillars and butterflies in its 2,200-square-foot greenhouse, next door to the Butterfly Vivarium. Some of them are transplanted into the netted enclosure; others are for sale, for people who are interested in butterfly gardening. Marriott and his staff will suggest different types of plants, depending on the species of butterfly that a person is trying to attract. For example, milkweed draws monarchs, while willow brings mourning cloaks and tiger swallowtails. Marriott said people can purchase caterpillars and a plant for about $15.

The Monarch Program also supplies butterfly houses to locations such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County – which receives 50 pupae a week, according to Marriott – and the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach. And it sells butterflies for events such as weddings, funerals and other celebrations.

The facility is open from April through mid-November; currently, it permits visitors from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, or by appointment. (During the summer, hours are from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.) Classes on field trips and other small groups are welcome to visit during weekdays. Students spend half of the time in the classroom and watch a slide show and video, participate in a drawing activity and see a magic trick; the rest of the visit is spent in the Butterfly Vivarium.

General admission is $7 for adults, $6 for teens and seniors, $5 for youths ages 4 through 12, and free for children 3 and younger. All proceeds serve as donations to the nonprofit.

For more information about The Monarch Program, or to volunteer, call (760) 944-7113 or (760) 599-7228, e-mail [email protected], or go to

Kelley Carlson is a North County freelance writer

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Butterflies’ beauty on display in Encinitas