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On a recent morning, Darl Fletcher stepped inside the entrance to the Virginia Living Museum’s new “butterfly haven.”

The outdoor enclosure uses a set of airlocked mesh screens to prevent the insects from escaping.

Once inside, the butterflies are everywhere – flying overhead, resting on native plants inside, sticking to the ceiling.

Fletcher, a horticultural curator at the museum, said the butterflies in the new haven are raised offsite by a local hobbyist who brings in new ones weekly, along with caterpillars and chrysalises that grow into butterflies within the greenhouse-like enclosure. 

There are more than a dozen native species, including black swallowtails, zebra swallowtails, white cabbages and spicebush swallowtails. 

Then there are the beloved monarchs, famous for their trademark bright orange wings. 

The species is a popular draw  – but they also face serious threats from climate change, habitat destruction and pesticide use.

Milkweed is the only plant that monarchs will use to lay their eggs, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But humans have paved over or used millions of acres of the plant for agricultural expansion.

The butterfly haven includes a host of native plants for the creatures to feed on, including milkweed, sunflower, mountain mint, asters and nodding onion.

haven inside sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner 

The butterfly haven at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.

Fletcher said he hopes visitors to the exhibit will be inspired to boost the local pollinator population through their own backyard gardens.  

It’s better not to touch the butterflies, he noted, because they have dust-like scales that help strengthen their wings. 

Kids who stop by the exhibit struggle to resist the urge. 

Three-year-old Mason extended his arm, in awe of a monarch that opted to rest on the crook of his elbow.

“We love how gentle they are,” said Madolyn Kenreigh, Mason’s mother. “And my kids just really think it’s magical.”

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The haven will be open through at least late September. After that the museum will open its doors, and the butterflies can fly out into the wild.

butterfly sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner 

A black swallowtail at the butterfly haven at the Virginia Living Museum.