Virtual Butterfly Festival
Since we can't host the 13th Annual Barbara J. Walker Butterfly Festival at the sanctuary this year due to COVID-19, we're bringing the festival experience to you—virtually!
Get to know New England's native butterflies, learn about the history of our annual festival, have some outdoor fun with the family, discover butterfly photography tips from experts, and find out how to support these amazing pollinators close to home.
The very first Barbara J. Walker Butterfly Festival was held in 2008 to celebrate butterflies, draw families to the sanctuary, and fill a void in Worcester's late summer events calendar. The festival was named in honor of a sanctuary supporter who counted butterflies and worked hard to craft some of Broad Meadow Brook's ecological initiatives.
The event was hosted at the sanctuary in partnership with the Massachusetts Butterfly Club and The Caterpillar Lab (who remain festival partners to this day). That first celebration was filled with workshops, lectures, and butterfly walks.
As the years progressed, the festival became more family-oriented and grew to include crafts, activities, and family strolls to the Frog Pond and around the Visitor Center meadows. Photography workshops, gardening tips, pollinator garden tours, and a plant sale also became pillars of the festival. The sanctuary's hummingbird station has also become a popular festival stop.
About Barbara Walker
Barbara Walker loved butterflies and Broad Meadow Brook. She was an active member of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club, leading field trips and helping with butterfly surveys.
Barbara worked in a research lab at UMass, and she came to Broad Meadow Brook—then in its fledgling days as a sanctuary—during her lunch hour to walk the trails and record the butterflies she saw. Her records, with over 80 species documented, helped establish Broad Meadow Brook as a showcase for butterfly diversity throughout Mass Audubon.
Sadly, Barbara passed away in 2008 after a determined battle with breast cancer. The sanctuary's annual butterfly festival—as well as one of our meadows—were named to honor her legacy as a passionate butterfly advocate.
Get to Know Butterflies
Butterflies occupy a happy spot in the human psyche. Only our most exuberant songbirds are as closely identified with the warm, colorful passion of summer. We tend to think of butterflies—quite rightly—as inhabitants of sunny meadows filled with wildflowers. But meadows aren't the only places you can find butterflies! These insects live in a broad spectrum of habitats including forests, heathlands, bogs, swamps, even salt marshes—anywhere, in fact, where there are host plants for their caterpillars and sources of nectar for the adults.
In addition to their aesthetic appeal, butterflies are among nature's most fascinating creatures. Their life cycle has four distinct stages—egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). Most species spend the vast majority of their lives in the first three stages, while their time as winged adults only lasts for a few days or weeks. Once butterflies gain their wings, they will seek out a mate and the females will then find suitable host plants on which to lay their eggs.
How many butterfly species are found in Massachusetts?
The Commonwealth is home to 125 butterfly species. To learn more about each one, check out the Massachusetts Butterfly Atlas!
Where are the butterflies this year?
Because butterflies are dependent on temperature to move and grow, this year's cool spring delayed development—meaning butterflies "hatched" a little later. Dry weather forces them to wet places where plants are healthy and blooming. Look for butterflies near streams, rivers, and wetlands where water is plentiful!
Where do butterflies go in winter?
It depends! Some species, like Monarchs and Red Admirals, migrate south to warmer regions. Other species spend the winter months hidden beneath leaves on the ground as either a caterpillar (like the Great Spangled Fritillary) or as a chrysalis/pupa (like the Painted Lady). Some butterfly species—such as the Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma—hibernate the winter away tucked inside hollow logs or sheltered in stone walls and then feed on sap before flowers bloom in spring.
Are butterflies being impacted by climate change?
Yes. The number of butterfly species found in Massachusetts is changing as different populations are being forced to shift their range in response as climate change impacts their habitats. As a result, some butterfly species native to the southern US have started moving into New England, and some species that were once common in Massachusetts are becoming scarce.
Resources to Learn More
- Butterflies & Moths of North America >
- Monarch Joint Venture >
- North American Butterfly Association >
Butterfly Activities & Guides
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DIY Seed "Bombs"
A seed bomb is a compressed ball of growing medium (think soil or clay) that's been packed with live seeds. To "plant" a seed bomb, all you need to do is toss it on a bare patch of soil and water it!
Seed bombs are fun, easy projects to do with children of all ages. Try making some before your next family walk around the neighborhood—kids can carry the seed bombs in their pockets and "plant" them as you explore.
Butterfly Photography Guide
1. Think like a butterfly
Do some research into the species you're hoping to find. Different butterflies prefer different habitats, times of day, temperatures, etc.
- Make sure it's the right season (March–September in MA)
- Go to butterfly-friendly places like woods, meadows, or hilltops
- Pick a sunny day with little or no wind & comfortable temperatures between 70–90°F
- Research what food sources adults prefer (can include nectar, tree sap, animal droppings, etc.)
- Try to find caterpillar host plants—remember, some species only use a single kind!
2. Get to know your camera
- Does it have a close-focus setting? (Most do)
- A dime is about the same size as the smallest US butterflies, so find a dime and try taking a photo. How close can you get? If you can get a sharp picture of a dime, you can photograph any butterfly! Cell phone cameras work too.
- Experiment with different settings for shutter speed, ISO, & depth of field—there are no right answers!
3. Make friends with your subject
- Be gentle—butterflies are incredibly fragile at all life stages
- Follow slowly, stay low, & resist the urge to chase
- Wait, observe, & be patient!
- Keep trying—it can take many attempts to get into a good position
4. Take the picture
- Move around so that the sun is behind you
- It's okay to get down on your knees and/or elbows
- Shoot from a few feet away, move a little closer, take another shot, & then repeat
- How close can you get? (Remember the dime!)
- Be careful not to trample nectar and/or caterpillar host plants
- Watch out for ants and other bugs
- Help your friends take pictures too—more lenses means more chances for a great photo!
Ways to Help Butterflies
Garden for Pollinators
No matter where you live, creating a pollinator garden is one of the best ways you can support butterflies at all life stages!
Filmed at Broad Meadow Brook in 2014, this video features This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook showing viewers how a garden can be made to attract butterflies.
Become a Citizen Scientist
Caterpillars Count! is a citizen science project that tracks seasonal variation and abundance of foliage arthropods like caterpillars, beetles, and spiders. Participants collect data by conducting surveys on trees and shrubs and recording all of the arthropods observed. You can conduct surveys at existing sites, or start your own count site! Get started >
Virtual Festival Sponsors
Our sincere thanks to the following businesses and organizations for supporting this year's festival.
Massachusetts Butterfly Club
After the Massachusetts Butterfly Atlas was completed in 1990, the project's volunteers—who had discovered not only a lot of good butterflies but also each other—decided to form the Massachusetts Butterfly Club (MBC). In 1992, the Club played an active part in founding the North American Butterfly Association, familiar to many as the organization that coordinates the national Fourth of July Butterfly Counts. MBC members are teachers, investigators, and citizen scientists who happen to love butterflies.
- Activities: The Club sponsors two meetings each year, field trips that are open to all, and publishes the Massachusetts Butterflies journal. MBC's website offers a free image library of Massachusetts butterflies—a useful tool for butterfly identification. Club members also run a Facebook page, Massachusetts Butterflies, where butterfly photos are shared and celebrated.
- Citizen Science: MBC has compiled over 20 years of continuous data on butterfly sightings throughout the state. Sightings, which have been used in scientific research, are posted on an email listserv, Facebook page, and/or sent to the club compiler. This impressive citizen science effort is helping us understand how butterflies are responding to climate change.
- Become a Member: Membership is open to all! Learn more and join >
Support Our Butterflies
Broad Meadow Brook's butterfly garden, pollinator programs, and ecological habitat management are typically funded by annual programs and events—especially the Barbara J. Walker Butterfly Festival—and by the contributions of our visitors, members, and sanctuary friends.
Since COVID-19 has forced the sanctuary to close for many months as well as cancel most in-person programs, these reliable sources of funding have come to a standstill. Donations in any amount are welcome and incredibly appreciated!