Wednesday, July 24, 1996
Butterflies to make your heart flutter

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Melissa Smith has the touch. She can make butterflies land on her fingers.

She does this not with the nectar of flowers, but with a sweetness all her own.

Her technique is simple and flawless. Keeping a steady hand, she slowly extends her index finger. In seconds, a small, soft creature silently flutters down and lands on her fingertip.

The 17-year-old did this over and over as she took in the Cincinnati Parks' Butterfly Show at the Krohn Conservatory. Lost in concentration at Eden Park's oasis under glass, she could have been a million miles away from the group home where she lives in Aurora.

As butterflies took turns landing on Melissa, an elderly woman watched. The white-haired woman kept her distance at first. But she could not resist the temptation for long. Slowly, age - stooped by arthritis - edged closer to youth.

Butterfly handoff

The elderly woman mimicked Melissa's actions. She held up a crooked finger. No butterfly came close.

Melissa saw her. Holding her hand close to the woman's, the teen-ager coaxed another butterfly to land.

Two index fingers met. Tip to tip they came together, one straight and unlined, the other bent and wrinkled. The butterfly, one of 1,500 in the show, was a white peacock. This delicate beauty, whose lacy wings were woven with shades of gray, tan, yellow and white, danced along the fingers spanning the years.

Melissa giggled. ''It tickles,'' she said, trying not to squirm.

The owner of the wrinkled finger stared in girlish wonder at the touch of the butterfly's spindly legs. ''Thank you,'' she whispered to Melissa and they parted.

Melissa rejoined her housemates. The elderly woman stood still, flabbergasted by the teen's kindness. The butterfly joined three other white peacocks lounging on a shrub's green and cream leaves.

''I didn't know the lady,'' Melissa said later. ''She just looked lonely and nice and wanted to touch a butterfly. So, I let one land on my finger and gave it to her. I was just being kind.''

And living up to her name.

''Melissa,'' she announced, ''means 'bee' and has to do with honey. Maybe that's why butterflies like me.''

Not far from where Melissa stood, Joe Klingenberg manned the show's entrance.

''Go in all at once,'' he said, shooing a family of three into the land of butterflies. ''I don't want to break my record. I've been on the door all day and not one butterfly has escaped.''

Wiping his face, the retired Xavier University chemistry professor watched as the family slammed on the brakes and three heads turned to gawk. A giant swallowtail butterfly had caught their attention. It was fanning its wings on the broad leaf of a banana plant.

As the family turned to go on, everyone ducked. A Julia butterfly, the color of a ripe tangerine, nearly had a midflutter collision with a stealth bomber in the shape of a zebra long wing. Collision averted, the butterflies floated into a bed of impatiens. It was nectar time.

''I'm floored by this,'' Joe said as he watched a crowd gather by the dining insects. ''I just can't get over the way people keep coming here.''

Keeps going and going

Attendance for the show, the first exhibit of its kind in the Krohn's 63-year history, passed the 50,000 mark Sunday. As the show heads toward its July 28 conclusion, it's averaging 1,300 people a day. The goal of 55,000 is within reach. The show opened June 21.

Ruth Ann Spears is in ecstasy. ''Normally this is our dead period,'' the Krohn's manager said as an hour-old viceroy butterfly opened and closed its black-bordered orange wings while resting on her hand. Total attendance for June, July and August last year was 16,285.

''We made more money in the first five days of butterflies than we did all last summer,'' she said and placed the fledgling butterfly on an shiny green leaf of ivy.

At the entrance, Joe Klingenberg whisked another family into the show. After giving the matter some careful consideration, the highly educated doorman explained the show's popularity.

''You see things here that touch you deep down into your soul,'' he noted.

''When people see these beautiful things flutter around, it's like they are being touched by small bits of silent magic.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.