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Long Island butterfly gardens showcase rare species

The Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center in Riverhead features a butterfly exhibit. On July 19, entomology curator Jeffry Petracca said the exhibit has 500 to 700 butterflies from around the world.  (Credit: Randee Daddona)

As Kiara Banse stops to admire the delicate butterflies floating around her at the Long Island Aquarium, a monarch flutters directly onto the teenager’s head. She poses for photos — is she a butterfly whisperer? — and marvels at the oddity. Up until that point, the Patchogue native had been more smitten by the exotic insects at the aquarium’s “Butterflies, Bugs and Birds” exhibit.

“I’ve been here about three or four times and it’s awesome,” says Banse, 13. “My favorite butterfly is definitely the monarch.”

Close encounters are a routine part of the walk-through exhibit, which spans 4,000 square feet and serves as a living habitat for hundreds of butterflies and moths at any given time representing 40-50 colorful (and the more rare colorless) species. Few are native to Long Island.

“Getting to see butterflies I previously only saw in books is an incredible experience,” says curator Charles Cappa. Some days, that’s beautiful blue morphos and huge caligo owl butterflies flying from person to plant. The exhibit’s insects range from massive Atlas beetles to bullet ants to deadly spiders. On a recent weekday, several visitors are there with friends or making a family outing.

“Look at this,” says Jay Sutherland, 22, of St. James, as three butterflies swarm and secure spots on his sleeve. “It’s honestly awesome and these blue butterflies are my favorite.”

In Smithtown, it’s peak visiting time for the Sweetbriar’s Nature Center’s butterfly and moth vivarium. The outdoor enclosure is home to at least 10 species of North American butterflies, including zebra butterflies, painted ladies and monarchs. This year, it has a rare black and white monarch, that program coordinator Veronica Sayers says is usually found in Hawaii.

Sweetbriar is a 55-acre wildlife rescue with more than 100 animals that have a permanent residency due to an inability to survive on their own, as well as another 50 animals in rehabilitation. Visits are enhanced with educational art and nautre programs. A recent yoga class was able to watch the formation of a butterfly chrysalis while practicing poses.

“We have wildlife yoga in different places on the property,” Sayers says. “We can have owls flying around, butterflies fluttering near or even rabbits running by us.”

“Butterflies, Bugs and Birds” at the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center

WHEN|WHERE 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily at 431 E Main St, Riverhead

INFO 631-208-9200, longislandaquarium.com

ADMISSION $10.50 ($8.50 ages 3-12); $10 parking through Labor Day (or use nearby municipal lots)

Sweetbriar Nature Center’s Butterfly House

WHEN|WHERE 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily through Sept. at 62 Eckernkamp Dr., Smithtown

INFO 631-979-6344, sweetbriarnc.org

ADMISSION $5 ($3 younger than 12)

TIPS FOR VISITING A BUTTERFLLY GARDEN

  • Wear bright colors to increase the chances of a butterfly landing on you.
  • Never touch a butterfly- they are too fragile. If one lands on you (and you don’t like it), ask a staff member to remove it or gently shake your clothing for it to fly off.
  • Watch wear you step- butterflies may linger on walkways.
  • Check your clothing before you exit- the insects may hide on clothing, in pocketbooks or atop hats.

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