Q&A with Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory

While visiting her grandmother in Michigan, Marie Hulett met a friend who told her about Mackinac Island. She visited for what was supposed to be a single summer on the island, but she decided to stay. That was 38 years ago.

For most of that time, Marie has been curator and manager of Wings of Mackinac, one of two butterfly conservatories on Mackinac Island.

Four kids sit excitedly outside the Wings of Mackinac butterfly sign.

Q: How long has Wings of Mackinac been on Mackinac Island and how long have you been with the conservatory?

Wings of Mackinac first opened in 1997 as Wings of Mackinaw in Mackinaw City. We will be celebrating our 25th year in business and my 25th year as Curator and Manager this upcoming season. In 2001 we moved to Mackinac Island, partnered with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, and updated the name. I have been blessed to stay with the company and continue all of the responsibilities and demands that are required to operate such a complicated but fulfilling business.

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Butterflies dry their wings after being hatched at the Wings of Mackinac conservatory.

Q: What is your favorite part or thing to do in the butterfly conservatory?

I love coming in early before we are open to the public or our employees have arrived. The quiet, the smell of the earth after watering, and how everything just glistens. The butterflies are just starting to move. The warmth of the sun gets them active. This is very calming and peaceful for me.

I also love the process of getting our weekly shipments in and pinning the butterfly pupa in the display cases. A lot of thinking happens for me while I do a task that’s both calming and detailed.

Two kids have a close up encounter with butterflies at the Wings of Mackinac conservatory on Mackinac Island.

Q: Why should people add Wings of Mackinac to their Mackinac Island trip?

My first thought is why would you not? I think anytime you can learn from or enjoy a quiet, peaceful place, or understand and support any institution of nature and science, then please come! And if we think about the larger survival of our rainforests, this is an important step in giving back, not taking away, from an industry that has a lot of impact and deserves our support.

We try to have a place full of fun, learning, and respect for nature. There are always crafts, face painting, and fun signage. We showcase hundreds of butterflies from around the world. Every day we release more butterflies into the conservatory. Our plants are beautiful and very important to the exhibit. We are always happy to share information with gardeners or plant enthusiasts who want to know more about how they can help with the survival of butterflies. Photographers love taking photos, and the opportunity to shoot one of these creatures up close is amazing.

We are also always happy to accommodate groups interested in private showings either in the morning before we open or after we are closed in the early evening.

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Two butterflies feed in the garden at the Wings of Mackinac conservatory on Mackinac Island.

Q: What is something regarding butterflies that always surprises people when you tell them?

People don’t realize how short the life of a butterfly is. There are exceptions to their life cycle, but butterflies for the most part do not live very long. They think I show the same butterflies all summer long, or go out and catch them in the wild when really, we get shipments of butterflies every week all summer long.

Their life span is only a couple of weeks, so restocking continuously is key to having a constant showing of butterflies. This is also very expensive, which is why sometimes visitors don’t understand why we charge an entrance fee.

Teaching people about the migration of the monarch is always a surprise, too. They often have the similar notion that one monarch lives all year and makes the long journey to a warmer climate. However, the monarch migration takes a handful of generations of butterflies between starting the migration and restarting again in the fall.

Two staff members smile for the camera with a butterfly at the Wings of Mackinac conservatory on Mackinac Island.

Q: What does a typical day look like for you?

I water and oversee the plants first thing every morning; it’s a daily responsibility and I have to pay close attention. I’m always making sure the plants are healthy and not stressed by bug infestation, they have the right amount of water, and they’re not suffering from sun damage or too little sun. I want them to be happy where I have planted them.

Our outside grounds also need to be watered and cared for every day. Especially during the dryer months of the season.

Newly emerged butterflies need to be released every day and cleaning the cases and tubs is very important to the health of an emerging butterfly. We have daily opening and closing chores to keep our exhibits clean and healthy.

If our employees have experience or a flair for art, writing, or computers, I will do my best to let them help in these areas. We share all duties within the conservatory, the gift shop, crafts, and the work outside. We work hard and fast on Mackinac Island and have fun at the same time. At the end of the day, we are tired but ready to go the next day!

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A woman and child enjoy an up-close encounter with a butterfly at the Wings of Mackinac conservatory on Mackinac Island.

Q: Besides butterflies, what else can people expect from a visit to Wings of Mackinac?

Wings of Mackinac is located at Surrey Hill on Mackinac Island. This area is just a short walk or bicycle ride from downtown. You can also take a Carriage Tour up to where we are located.

Surrey Hill is a beautiful lawn area next to lots of shopping, a food court, the Grand Hotel Carriage Stable and Museum, a blacksmith shop, and our outdoor Paddock with resale items and crafts. There is also the charm of relaxing and getting away from the busyness of downtown. You can enjoy the surroundings and have a picnic under the birch trees, let the kids run around, and on really warm days I have the sprinkler going to cool off!

Because we are known for our artistic garden full of art, color, and design, we also offer Mackinac Island weddings inside the conservatory outside of the hours open to the public. Our large display of butterflies from around the world, flying beautifully every day all summer long, makes for a pretty special wedding moment.

(Originally published May 11, 2022)


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