Cocoon, Sweet Cocoon

Inside the butterfly house at the Secret Woods Nature Center in Fort Lauderdale, graceful insects flutter among potted flowers and hanging plants. It's an idyllic scene, one that would satisfy just about any weekend nature-admirer. But because Scott Bryan, a volunteer at the center, is an insect enthusiast, he has much more to show visitors. He bends back the stem of a fennel plant, revealing a critter that will one day become a black swallowtail butterfly. At the moment it's just an arty-looking caterpillar with celery-green skin peppered with yellow and black dots.

Obviously this caterpillar isn't into camouflage. But it is safe from natural predators, according to Bryan, who says that bright colors indicate the bug is yucky-tasting or toxic. No bug is safe from humans, however. While most folks admire butterflies, caterpillars send them running for bug spray. And some gardeners rip native plants from their back yards, assuming butterflies will be just as happy with the replacements. But butterflies are quite picky about where they lay eggs.

Add statewide pesticide use and the loss of natural habitat due to development to the mix, and you have a considerable decline in the number of butterflies, which, like bees, are instrumental in the pollination process. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), says that butterfly numbers have dropped significantly in some parts of Florida. In fact, NABA has begun to conduct national butterfly counts, to keep tabs on just how serious the problem is.

Sanctuaries like the one at Secret Woods have been set up to help the local butterfly population rebound. The screened enclosure, about the size of a living room, provides eggs and caterpillars with a secure environment, where they grow and eventually emerge from a saclike chrysalis as a butterfly. The aviary is visible from the park's boardwalk, but Bryan is more than happy to take visitors inside for a closer look.

There you'll find the zebra longwing, a black butterfly with yellow stripes, and the monarch, which is mostly orange but has black markings and white dots on the edges of its wings. Even more ornate is the white peacock butterfly, which resembles antique lace accented with shades of brown, tan, and yellow. Bryan points at a high branch, where, amid the leaves, there's the faintest flicker of orange. It's a male ruddy-daggerwing.

"He'll defend this little sun patch," Bryan says. "Males perch. Anything that flies through, he chases off or he mates with it."

However prolific butterflies are as lovers, many of them are still being snuffed out, according to Bryan, who recently created the butterfly house for the park. He'd like the new exhibit to serve as a teaching tool.

"If we get a kid in there now and he begins to look at nature more closely, he's more likely to be environmentally friendly as he gets older," he explains.

Bryan, age 32, has been a nature buff since childhood. As a long-haired young man in tie-dyed T-shirts, he took butterfly-gardening classes and asked lots of questions of the staff at Butterfly World, a privately owned attraction at Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek. Bryan recently gave up a career as an electrician and enrolled in Broward Community College. He says his passion for the environment and his job in the building industry didn't quite jibe.

He did, however, build the butterfly house, which is home to at least 25 native butterflies at any one time, plus caterpillars, eggs, and cocoons. After they've been nurtured and cared for, they're sent out into the park to fend for themselves. And multiply, of course.

-- Patti Roth

The Secret Woods Nature Center and the butterfly house are open between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. The park is located at 2701 W. State Rd. 84, Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 954-791-1030.

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Patti Roth