COCONUT CREEK, Fla. -- Ileana Garica of South Florida has just entered the Tropical Rainforest exhibit at Butterfly World. She raises her camera and prepares to shoot.
She has a magnificent butterfly, an iridescent blue morpho, framed in her viewfinder. Moving closer, Ileana clicks the shutter. It's one of many pictures she will take today in Butterfly World, the largest butterfly park in the world, home to more than 4,000 butterflies at any given time.
Ileana is not a professional photographer. She is 6 years old and is using a one-time-use camera. Her mom, Tracy, has taken her to Butterfly World to experience the magical metamorphosis of one of the world's most beautiful and amazing creatures, an animal that, after hatching from an egg, begins life as a crawling herbivore with many legs, changes its appearance as a caterpillar five or six times, weaves a cocoon, and emerges as a flying animal that smells with its legs, has four wings and eats sweet pollen.
Ileana is one of many photographers who capture the beauty of butterflies at Butterfly World with their cameras. Photo enthusiast Cesar Rivera, also from South Florida, brings his professional digital camera several times a year to Butterfly World to photograph as many species as he can, which numbers approximately 150.
On this day, Rivera is documenting the life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to mature animal, all of which can be experienced and photographed at Butterfly World. During his photo session, Rivera snapped a shot of a photographer just moments after a white morpho butterfly landed on their camera. A rare shot indeed!
Butterfly World, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2003, is the creation of its founder, Ron Boender. It's a hobby gone wild, he readily admits.
Butterflies are the good guys of the bug world, Boender says. They don't cause diseases, and they don't hurt anyone. Butterflies are mystical and magical creatures, and conjure up all types of feelings in children of all ages. Perhaps more important, butterflies make people smile.
Butterfly World, which covers almost three acres, is divided into several sections, giving visitors a unique insight into the life cycle of a butterfly.
In the Laboratory, visitors can see dozens of cocoons of soon-to-be butterflies, as well as butterflies emerging from cocoons. It's in the lab where butterfly experts raise and study caterpillars and moths.
The Paradise Adventure Aviary, complete with hundreds of topical plants, a pond and waterfall, is an open-air, screened area that is filled with countless colorful and exotic butterflies, some of which often land on visitors. In addition to seeing the piano key, autumn leaf, common rose and tiger butterfly, you'll see several species of moths in this area, including the atlas moth and lunar moth, both about the size of the palm of an adult hand.
In the steamy, 8,000 square-foot Tropical Rain Forest area, visitors get to experience life in the humid rain forest, and the butterflies that inhabit that ecosystem.
Bird lovers can get a up-close look at humming birds in Jewels of the Sky, an area in which hummingbirds dart around at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, beating their wings up to 60 times a second.
More bird action can be experienced in the Lorikeet Encounter Aviary. Throughout the day, visitors can hand-feed friendly lorikeets. In the Aviary, be prepared to act as a landing pad for these friendly birds, sometimes called the ''clowns of the parrot world.''
For flower enthusiasts, the Rose Garden, Grace Garden and Secret Garden host breathtaking tropical plants, including African Sunflowers, Angle's Trumpets, Tropical Snow, Yellow Bells and several varieties of roses.
Visitors to Butterfly World leave with a greater appreciation for one of the animal kingdom's most magnificent and interesting creatures.
''Scientists still don't really know how the miracle of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly happens inside the cocoon,'' says Boender. ''But here at Butterfly World, we at least get to share that miracle with children and adults on a daily basis.''
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