Guelph Grads on the Go – Trip to Mexico or Butterfly Job?

Conservatory director excited about education, research

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Adrienne Brewster’s job at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory has taken her to Costa Rica, where she had a chance to visit one of the breeders her organization purchases butterflies from. Photo by Lea J. Morgan

In her fourth year of studies at U of G, Adrienne Brewster had planned – and saved for – a six-month trip to Mexico. It would be a perfect way to celebrate her graduation. Then she saw a position for a curator at the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory (then called Wings of Paradise). She applied and was offered the position.

Trip to Mexico or job with butterflies? The job won out.

Sitting on a bench in the conservatory’s tropical garden, with butterflies swirling past her and a pair of quail scooting from one side of the path to the other, Brewster’s confident she made the right decision. Today, she’s the executive director. Excited about the expanding opportunities for education, research and conservation at the conservatory, she also loves being able to work in a building she shares with thousands of tropical butterflies representing more than 40 species.

Her passion for butterflies is obvious now, but Brewster didn’t discover her interest in entomology until she took a course in third year. “It just clicked,” she says. “I was then able to take a trip to Ecuador with professors Stephen Marshall and Gard Otis, and that was amazing.” She took as many entomology courses as she could within the Department of Environmental Biology.

She graduated in 2003 and began working at the butterfly conservatory. A year later, she realized the need for greater expertise and was able to arrange for the conservatory to sponsor her for a two-year scholarship through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada so that she could earn a master’s degree in environmental biology. She spent 10 weeks each year working at the conservatory and also focused her research on questions of interest to the organization.

“Most butterfly conservatories and similar places spend $50,000 or more each year importing butterflies from the tropics,” she explains. “My research looked at how conservatories could get the ‘best bang for their bucks.’ I studied which species live longer and which ones fly around and are more active around visitors, as well as what can be done to help them live longer.”

After completing her master’s at U of G in 2006, Brewster returned to the conservatory full-time and was promoted to executive director in 2009.

She has participated in the Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management program, which involves attending six week-long workshops over a period of three years at institutions across North America that are leaders in butterfly conservation. “We’ve always been very involved in Monarch butterfly conservation, and now we have the potential to expand to other imperiled butterflies,” she says. “There are two butterflies no longer seen in Ontario because most of their habitat has been destroyed.”

Restoring the habitat is a daunting prospect, but Brewster comments that the maintenance of the habitat will be equally challenging. “We need a 10-, 20-, 30-year plan,” she says.

While the conservatory at present consists of a single building plus outdoor butterfly and pollinator gardens, Brewster points out that the facility is situated on a 117-acre plot of land that includes the environmentally-sensitive Kossuth bog, so there is ample space for expansion of programming and conservation efforts. The largest room holds not only the butterflies, but an exotic-looking garden of tropical plants and a number of tropical birds.

The birds, she explains, are mostly unwanted pets donated to the conservatory. “We do have to make sure they aren’t butterfly-eating birds.” A few butterflies are also bred onsite so that visitors have a chance to see the process of metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.

Bowls of rotting fruit set out amongst the flowers provide food for many of the butterflies. The liquid from rotting fruit is a favourite meal of the blue morpho, a brightly-coloured and active butterfly that is one of the most popular in the exhibit.

Public education is a major goal for Brewster. More than 100,000 school children have participated in the conservatory’s education programs, and it is a popular spot for families and seniors as well. Local photography clubs often visit for the opportunities to get close-up shots of the insects.

Brewster also maintains her connection to U of G. “We now have a PhD student working on butterfly research and funded just as I was,” she says. Other students have found the conservatory a useful location to work on projects – taking and analyzing blood samples from a few of the tropical birds, for example.

She says her years at Guelph taught her to work independently and to think analytically: “I have the scientific background to pick up a study and understand the analysis, and I understand the needs of the insects, birds and plants we have here.” She’s excited about the opportunities the conservatory offers her. “We have so many aspirations here, so much we hope to accomplish.”