Inside the laboratory, a queen butterfly has just emerged from its green chrysalis. Straightening out its crumpled brown wings, it's soon ready to be released into the growing population of butterflies zooming on the other side of the laboratory window.
It's a process that's repeated over and over as Charles Cappa, curator of the soon-to-open "Butterflies!" exhibit at the new Long Island Exhibition Center, populates the area's first year-round butterfly exhibit.
An emerging destination
The butterfly house, adjacent to the aquarium, is the newest addition to Riverhead's emerging tourism scene and the largest such exhibition in New York State, says Bryan DeLuca, executive director of the Long Island Aquarium (formerly Atlantis Marine World) and Exhibition Center.
The live specimens have been shipped in chrysalis stage from around the world to hatch open in the small Riverhead laboratory -- a process visitors will be able to watch through a window when the space opens Friday -- before fluttering freely in a large indoor house designed to mimic their natural habitat. At its peak, about 1,000 will be flying around what DeLuca calls an "enchanted garden with a little bit of Swiss Family Robinson and the Costa Rican Rain Forest."
Cappa, of Valley Stream, is a veteran butterfly expert. "I've been playing with butterflies since I was a kid," he says. He helped set up the island's other butterfly exhibit, at Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown.
He's been filling the new butterfly house with species from every continent (except Antarctica). There's a metallic blue morphos from Costa Rica, a julia that is native to Florida and see-through glasswings from South America. They zoom around the 5,000-square-foot room and sometimes land on a plant -- or your shirt front.
Although far from their native lands, with an average life span of only about two weeks, life is sweet for these butterflies. The indoor exhibition features tropical vegetation that attracts them, including lantana and butterfly bushes. Slices of cantaloupe and sponges soaked with a "nectar solution" (in this case: orange Gatorade) are left on trays like little butterfly oases.
Also part of the exhibit: moths, though not your average closet dwellers. One species of large moth, Cecropia, which was resting on the branch of a tree, is seen at night on Long Island, says assistant curator Jeffry Petracca of Huntington.
Taking a stroll
It's easy for visitors to get close to the butterflies and understand their life cycle.
A big "tree house" (actually a wooden deck with two stairways) puts you at the top of the canopy of trees for a butterfly's eye view. On the ground, life cycle boxes, designed by Eli Fishman of Rocky Point and Patricia Johnston of Wading River, can be lined up to show the transformation to adulthood of insects such as mosquitoes and beetles as well as butterflies.
And if you're lucky, one of the brightly colored butterflies will land on you. (Don't touch their wings, though, because you'll destroy their beautiful coloring.)
Want a butterfly to land on you? Petracca says bright colors such as orange and yellow tend to attract them best.
WHEN | WHERE Beginning Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Long Island Exhibition Center, 431 East Main St., Riverhead
INFO 631-208-9200, ext. 244, longislandaquarium.com
ADMISSION $12.50 ($10.50 ages 3-17)