PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Butterfly Society in Fort Myers shutters its Butterfly House

Carleigh March, an employee at The Florida Native Butterfly Society in Fort Myers, shows off a monarch butterfly as part of the final release of the flying insects Friday. The society,  in the Butterfly House in downtown Fort Myers, closed its doors Friday after the property owners decided to do something else with the site.
Mike Braun
Carleigh March, an employee at The Florida Native Butterfly Society in Fort Myers, shows off a monarch butterfly as part of the final release of the flying insects Friday. The society, in the Butterfly House in downtown Fort Myers, closed its doors Friday after the property owners decided to do something else with the site.

A note on Facebook Thursday night said it all:

"It is with great sadness that we close our doors tomorrow 7/28/23 at 2pm.
We want to thank our customers for their support over the years.
Butterflies & Staff will miss you." — The Florida Native Butterfly Society

It was even more sad and poignant at the Florida Native Butterfly Societyin downtown Fort MyersFriday morning when employees made the last official release of butterflies inside the greenhouse-like structure that has been home to bright, colorful flying insects, plants and more since 2009.


"It's sad. It's heartbreaking," said Elizabeth Wilkerson, a society employee since 2019. Through tears she added: "Its just really too bad and unfortunate for the community."

The society, housed in the Butterfly House on the grounds of the Buttefly Estates, has been a downtown Fort Myers attraction, some might say landmark, since it opened in 2009.

The milky-white glass Conservatory not far from the corner of Fowler Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has entertained hundreds if not thousands of children and adults over the past 14 years.

Sherri Williams, the society's Butterfly House curator, walked around kind of in a daze Friday, greeting visitors, former and current employes with hugs, smiles, tears and frowns

There had been some speculation, she said, but the finality and surprise that the end was nigh was a shock, she said.

"Well, I knew the property was put up for sale, you know, about four months ago, maybe. And I knew that they were, you know, closing on the property on the 17th," Williams said. "And, I mean, we didn't know what was gonna happen, you know, I mean, so unexpectedly, we, you know, we found out that the butterflies are not continuing."

She said the assumption had been that whoever bought it was going to keep it running.

"I mean, what else are you really going to use this building for? Specific, that was kind of our thoughts you know. I mean it rains in when it's raining and you know it leaks. What else you're going to use this building for without spending a whole bunch of money to fix it up," Williams said.

She said the staff was given an opportunity to maybe take over the facility.

"Actually, (the new owner, Devon Benjamin) did give us the opportunity to maybe for the employees to take it over, you know, paying rent. And, you know, during the summer, you hardly get anybody.," she said, "So, I mean, that's just, that's not feasible. I mean, he tried to work with us. He's giving us time to get everything out. He doesn't want anything to happen to the fish or the turtles, or you know, even the butterflies and caterpillars. So we're trying to rehome especially our big koi, we have three beautiful koi that need a home."

The Butterfly House opened in 2009 as a for-profit attreaction but by 2012 it had segued into a non-profit, the Florida Native Butterfly Society.

Williams said she has heard of tentative plans, but nothing definite.

"I know he talked about maybe an immersive experience, which is like being in the middle of art. I know he talked about. So I mean, maybe they had that in mind. I don't know," she said.

The new owners could not be reached for comment Friday.

A note Friday on the Facebook page of The Butterfly Estates, the property where the Butterfly House is located, said: "We will miss FNBS as they close tomorrow. The new owners are in the process of determining how to proceed with the Conservatory."

Of the other businesses on the property, DAAS CO-OP Art Gallery & Gifts and Bullig Coffee & Bites have not announced any changes, and Thrifty Garden remains open until 8/27.

Williams said the butterflies now at the facility will be "rehomed" — transferred to other places such as the butterfly house at Rotary Park in Cape Coral, taken home by butterfly enthusiasts who work at the estates or released into the Florida wild.

A steady stream of visitors, some who had heard the news and others who were just intrigued, poured into the glass conservatory building Friday morning. Many were there to watch the regular release of butterflies. The "FINAL" regular release of butterflies.

For Williams, it was bittersweet. "The outpouring from the community has been overwhelming," she said.

At the end of the day Friday, the society posted a thank you on its Facebook page: "Our hearts are full. The support today does not have enough words to justify how we feel. Thank you for many joyous years as you learned about the butterflies life cycle. Keep those butterfly gardens growing because 'Dreams Take Flight'."

Wiping away a few errant tears, two-year employee Carleigh March, 27, brought out that final cage of recently raised butterflies — spicebush swallowtails, ruddy daggerwings, monarchs and others.

"A lot of love was poured into this place," she said, as she opened the cage and began releasing her charges.

The close to 50 or more visitors and others watching were transfixxed as wing-after-wing flew up and out, flittering away to plants and flowers. One visitor stood stock still as a monarch alighted on her back and took a breather. After it was all said and done, the crowd erupted into applause.

"Since Ian, there hasn't been as many butterflies," Williams said, and expressed hope that those butterflies taken home would produce eggs. "We will distribute the butterflies all over Southwest Florida," she said. "We will find homes."

She was particularly hopeful about the Florida state butterfly, the zebra longwing, that saw its numbers dwindle after the September 2022 hurricane. Williams plans to take many of the zebras to her home, place them on her lanai, and hope for the best.

"Anyone who wants zebra longwing eggs, just reach out," she said.

Tamara Gibbs, a former employee who now makes visits to the estates, got permission to take off work to come share the final day.

"I found out last night," she said. "It popped up on my feed on Facebook. It's absultely devastating, it really is. I'm in shock. Thank god my boss was like 'yeah, just go and do what you have to do'."

Gibbs and Wilkerson hugged each other, eyes leaking and faces scrunched in sadness, and watched as March let the butterflies free one last time.

"Stay in touch, Ok," she told Wilkerson. Then Gibb's eyes lit up as one of the swallowtails being released was placed on her finger where it sat for a few good, long moments before flying off.

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.