Fort Myers Florida Weekly

Soothed by butterflies at The Estates



Wherever Florida’s state butterfly flutters, it draws an invisible line through the air in mad curlicues or long, languid strokes. Other times the zebra longwing, right, dive bombs the native vegetation, or man-made pathways and waterfalls, inside the glass conservatory at The Butterfly Estates. On withering summer afternoons, like many other native butterflies in the conservatory, it may demur behind the shade of a palm tree or passionvine.

The Butterfly Estates is one of The River District’s latest landmarks, along Fowler Street, on the eastern border of downtown Fort Myers. It’s an “eco-attraction” built by co-owners Matthew Hoover and Rob Johnson, a green-thumbed farm boy from Indiana with a background in retail, and a former killer whale trainer from

Florida, respectively. And besides the conservatory and gardens surrounding The Estates, all aflutter with the main attraction, the owners restored three old termite-infested houses on the 1-acre property.

Co-owner Matthew Hoover surveys the conservatory at the Butterfly Estates.

Co-owner Matthew Hoover surveys the conservatory at the Butterfly Estates.

“It was quite an undertaking,” he said.

Now those houses, built in the 1910s, have been transformed into the lunch spot Flutterby’s Café, as well as Mother Nature’s Gift Shop, and Caterpillars Ice Cream & Fudge Factory. The wooden beams in the ceiling are original, Mr. Hoover said, but most of the rest had to be rebuilt from the ground up. A tall white fence surrounds the property along with streetlights, the crowning touches of a once dilapidated, crimeridden block in transformation.

A painted lady butterfly hangs at its home at the Butterfly Estates.

A painted lady butterfly hangs at its home at the Butterfly Estates.

It took Mr. Hoover and Mr. Johnson about five years to build The Estates, which opened a year and a half ago. As soon as the plants for landscaping the property arrived, Mr. Hanson remembers, butterflies started showing up. “Everything was in the middle of the parking lot and the butterflies just started attacking them, probably because they had nowhere to feed until that time,” he said.

The Estates repopulates the conservatory using only native species of butterflies and plants. The owners aim to promote green space and teach people how to create their own butterfly gardens at home. The gardens, correctly planted, are powerfully attractive to butterflies.

“Butterflies see red. They see purple and yellow,” Mr. Hoover said. “They’re not necessarily interested in whites and pinks. And I don’t know how they do it. It’s amazing.”

Butterflies emerge from their chrysalis on a daily basis at the conservatory. Every Friday at 1:30 p.m. the Estates has a scheduled butterfly release, taking recently transformed caterpillars out of their smaller cage and releasing them inside their new big glass house. Just a few species there include the monarch, the atala, julia butterfly, and painted lady. Most species live two or three weeks, but the zebra longwing lives up to nine months. That’s because it can store pollen in its proboscis and roost in groups, protecting it from predators.

Gardening classes are held at The Estates on the weekends. In the fall, Mr. Hoover plans to kick off a landscaping service for people who want someone to plant a butterfly garden at their house.

“We’ve been asked many many times, ‘Can you do this? Can you plant one at my house?’” he said. “And absolutely we can.”

Or you can just let a peaceful hour disappear in the conservatory, studying the calligraphic wakes of silent butterflies. 

.. in the know

>> What: The Butterfly Estates >> When: Open seven days per week, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the summer >> Where: 1815 Fowler Street >> Cost: The café, gift shop and ice cream and fudge factory are open to the public. Admission to the conservatory is as follows: ages 17 and up, $15, ages 3 to 16, $9, ages 2 and under, free. >> Florida residents receive $2 off with an I.D. Same discount for seniors and students. >> An annual membership is $24. An annual family membership is $59.99 (up to seven people of your choice). >> For more information: www.thebutterflyestates. com or 690-2359.

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