A golden longwing, originating from the neotropics, feeds on the nectar of a coral porterweed plant. In the evenings, longwing butterflies communally roost and rest together on the undersides of leaves and branches or on vines.

Wide-Eyed Wonder

On a raw December day in western Montana, several dozen visitors enjoy a welcome dose of the tropics thanks to the grand opening of the state’s new educational attraction: the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium. Inside the main exhibit area, visitors of all ages eagerly peer into terrariums and aquariums full of fascinating critters, from blue crayfish and massive water bugs to hissing cockroaches and a giant tarantula. A couple of college students sit enthralled as museum educators place giant millipedes and grasshoppers on their arms.

The extraordinarily long, strong front legs of male long armed chafer beetles are used as weapons when battling other males for females.

It’s when they walk through an airlock system of two separate doors, however, that visitors gasp with delight. There, they come face to face with hundreds of tropical butterflies flitting and fluttering through a mini tropical paradise of green plants. The butterflies represent at least 30 species, from smaller Heliconius butterflies with orange and black wings to giant owl and blue morpho butterflies swooping like wind-up flying toys through the sky-lit atrium.

Despite the flurry of insect activity, the atmosphere imparts a sense of calm fascination. This remarkable new space for exploration and enchantment is the culmination of two decades of vision, commitment, fundraising, and hard work.


The Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium is the brainchild of executive director Jen Marangelo and her husband, development director Glenn Marangelo. The two were married in 1997, while Jen finished her undergraduate degree in wildlife biology at the University of Montana (UM) in Missoula. After graduating, Jen eventually went to work for UM professor Doug Emlen, who, among other things, researched the evolution of extreme insect morphologies. Grant-funding agencies required the Emlen Lab to provide educational outreach, so Jen began taking live insects into schools to teach children about bugs. These experiences got her thinking about insects not only as fascinating animals but as tools for education.

The Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium was the brainchild of Jen and Glenn Marangelo, shown here next to the atrium arbor — a favorite perching spot for the facility’s butterflies.

“Jen noticed that when you go into a classroom and take live insects, you’ve got every kid’s attention right off the bat,” Glenn says. “And with the variety of insects, there were many different biological concepts and science topics that you could dive into by looking at insects and their life stages.”

It wasn’t until 2003, however, when the couple visited the butterfly house and insect exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, that the idea for Montana’s own insect education facility really hatched. The Pacific Science Center was the closest place to Montana with a live-insect exhibit, and Jen was so impressed by it that she turned to her husband and said, “I want to do this in Missoula.”


Despite Jen’s enthusiasm, the concept had to grow through several stages — much like insects themselves. “We started from nothing,” Glenn recalls. “In fact, the organization didn’t even begin right then because Jen went back to school to get a master’s degree in museum exhibit design and curriculum development. She graduated in 2008, and it wasn’t until early 2009 that we officially formed the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium.”

The butterfly house’s main atrium not only helps visitors learn about dozens of butterfly species, it provides a soothing, peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

For the next several years, the insectarium functioned as a volunteer project and operated out of the back of a car — literally. “Missoula luckily has festivals every weekend from May until October,” Glenn says. “So, every weekend we were setting up tables, bringing terrariums of animals that lived in our house, and talking to people about the different animals that we had on display — tarantulas, scorpions, and all these things. But we were also starting to present the vision we had for doing a tropical butterfly house and insect museum.”

During these years, the organization steadily gained both popular and financial support, and in mid-2015, Jen, Glenn, and their board of directors decided it was time to rent their first official facility above the SpectrUM Discovery Area on Front Street. Their new digs didn’t have room for a butterfly house, but they could start hosting school field trips and open their doors to the general public. “I think we used that space really well,” Glenn recalls. “We were able to get the permits to have all these animal species that we normally wouldn’t be able to have — and that just really expanded things.”

Still, in Jen and Glenn’s minds, renting that first space on Front Street was not the end stage of the insectarium’s development. More was still to come.


In mid-2018, after a good run at their Front Street location, the insectarium board received notice that the lease would terminate when it expired at the end of August 2019. That gave Jen, Glenn, and their team about a year to decide what to do next. They had already been looking at locations where they might finally build a bona fide butterfly house, but so far hadn’t found a perfect fit. They had been building positive relationships with Missoula County, however, and one day, Jen and Glenn met with Bryce Christiaens and Jerry Marks of the Missoula County Department of Ecology & Extension.

The name of these neotropical postman butterflies, sometimes called red passion flower butterflies, stems from their repeated visits to their favorite food sources.

“Jerry had this glimmer in his eye,” Glenn recalls, “and he said, ‘You know we’re in the process of starting our planning for building a new facility out at the fairgrounds. Why don’t we see if we can do something bigger together to make this a collaborative education facility?’”

The idea was for the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium to share a new building with the Missoula County Department of Ecology & Extension. The catch? The insectarium board would have to raise the funds for its part of the facility — a whopping $4.7 million. Undaunted, the insectarium team plunged right in, launching a capital campaign to raise the money. Meanwhile, they closed the Front Street facility and bought a vehicle they dubbed the BugMobile so they could take their educational programs on the road and into classrooms.

Then, COVID hit.

Ironically, for all the global pain it caused, the pandemic boosted the team’s fundraising efforts. That’s because many other nonprofits chose not to fundraise during this time — perhaps not realizing how many people were stuck at home looking for something to get involved in. That lack of competition helped bring more support for the capital campaign, including several generous cash donations. The pandemic also inspired the insectarium to launch extensive live remote video programs, expanding its educational reach to every part of Montana and beyond, which boosted the insectarium’s profile even more.

The result? By the end of 2023, the brand new Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium stood poised to spread its wings.


At 8,900 square feet, the new facility occupies about five times the square footage of its old residence on Front Street. This has allowed for much-needed office space, a containment laboratory, gift shop, and classroom space for school field trips and demonstrations, among other things. The insectarium also shares a conference room, outdoor classroom, and greenhouse spaces with the Missoula County Department of Ecology & Extension.

In the 2,300-square-foot exhibition area, visitors enjoy educational and live animal displays about various insects and other arthropods. Some, such as the tarantula, scorpion, rhinoceros beetle, and praying mantises, elicit oohs and ahs. Others, such as cockroaches and grasshoppers, highlight the importance of arthropods in the planet’s nutrient cycles and food webs. Some are just downright astonishing, such as giant water bug dads that schlep around eggs and young on their backs and sunburst diving beetles that carry bubbles of air underwater.

An orchard swallowtail, which originates from Africa, takes a break in the butterfly house atrium.

Two exciting exhibits will open this summer. A large window to the outside will be “plugged” with a functioning honeybee hive where visitors can watch the fascinating operation of this globally important species. And, a few feet away, a giant terrarium will reveal the complex workings of a colony of tropical leaf-cutter ants. Different chambers connected by pathways will show the ants harvesting leaves, carrying them home for processing, and feeding their young the resulting fungus they grow.

There are educational wall displays throughout the exhibit areas, and there’s even a cozy room in the corner for parents and kids to take a break with interactive toys. For most visitors, however, the star of the operation is — and will remain — the butterfly house itself.

A great Mormon butterfly (left) is accompanied by two common morphos at one of several atrium feeding stations stocked with rotting fruit — and a kitchen scrubby soaked in Gatorade.


Besides its sheer number of butterflies, the giant 2,500-square-foot atrium showcases our planet’s extraordinary butterfly diversity. The Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium has permits to exhibit about 120 species but isn’t allowed to breed the butterflies, so it receives weekly shipments of chrysalises from licensed breeders. These are gently pinned to boards inside a see-through glass case so visitors can watch the adults emerge and dry their wings. Two or three times a day, chief horticulturist Rob Taylor examines the newly emerged adults for any parasites or other problems. Then he releases healthy specimens into the main butterfly house.

“Every week, we plan on receiving 250 chrysalises,” Jen explains, walking around the atrium. “This is actually one of our biggest expenses — having them shipped here every week — so we’re starting with 250, just to see how it feels.” The number of chrysalises is so high because the adult butterflies live only a matter of weeks. As Taylor waters and monitors the hundreds of plants in the atrium, he constantly looks for those that have expired.

The atrium’s innovative design allows visitors to witness the emergence of the 250 butterflies that arrive at the butterfly house in the chrysalis stage each week.

Visitors must also keep an eye out — not for dead butterflies, but for live ones perched on the walkways. While many butterflies chill out on the atrium’s arbor or hanging garden, quite a few sit on the cement sidewalks, gleaning salts and sugars from spilled fruit and other substances. Looking out for these bugs is not necessarily a bad thing. The need to watch your step encourages visitors to move at a slower pace, which is more conducive to fully appreciating and observing the wonderful nature surrounding them.


From the moment it opened, the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium began filling multiple needs for Montanans. One is education. In addition to adding space to host programs for visiting schools and other groups, exhibits are designed to increase public interest in learning more about insects and other invertebrate animals.

“We designed some of our exhibits to show that insects do some of the exact same things that we do,” Jen explains. “They just do them in a very different way. We hope that creates a more personal connection with visitors. There are many insects, for instance, that take care of their kids. Of course many insects just drop their eggs and are gone, but many don’t. They provide some sort of parental care.”

A staff favorite, this 18-year-old Chilean rose hair tarantula was one of the first additions to the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium’s live collections back in 2010.

The new facility also helps meet a pent-up demand for family activities in Montana. Especially during the pandemic, many popular recreationally based businesses closed, leaving a huge need for fun, engaging things to do. Families can come and enjoy the facility anytime they wish with a year-round pass. “The Butterfly House itself is a very pleasant healing environment,” Jen adds, “so I think people will be attracted to it for that reason. To come in, feel the warmth and humidity, feel that air, and see the butterflies and the light. … Having that time, I think, will be a nice resource for the community.”

The new home of the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium sits on South Avenue West, next to the Missoula County Fairgrounds, and was designed by the Missoula-based architectual firm A&E Deisgn.

How do the Marangelos feel now that their dream has come to fruition?

“We gathered some people together — our staff and one of our key donors — to help release the first butterfly in here,” Glenn says. “It was pretty emotional. It was pretty incredible.”

Jen adds, “It has been amazing to walk through the butterfly house and realize we actually did it. But nothing is better than watching people come in for the first time. Their wide eyes and a look of awe — that’s why we did this. It makes us feel like it was worth it.”

Even those who experience the facility for the tenth — or hundredth — time are sure to agree.


The Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium opens at an important time for insects. Although exact figures are hard to quantify, vast numbers of insects and species are disappearing around the globe. Major causes include the widespread use of home and agricultural pesticides, the spread of invasive species, habitat loss, and climate change. Average citizens, however, can do a lot to turn things around. How? They can stop using pesticides and replace lawn space and exotic shrubs with native plants that support insects.

“Planting native plants doesn’t have to be a broad landscape-type thing,” says Glenn Marangelo, development director for the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium. “You can have little pockets where there’s good habitat, and it does help. Our house is right in the middle of town. We slowly, over the years, replaced almost everything with native vegetation, and every year I see new things that I’ve never seen before that are coming specifically for those plants.”

A short list of Montana native plants that are beneficial to insects — not to mention birds — includes buffaloberry, golden currant, maple sumac, various coneflowers, bur oak, aspen, bee balm, and more. You can find and purchase native plants for your area by visiting your local plant nursery or using the Audubon’s database at audubon.org/native-plants.


Sneed B. Collard III is a popular speaker and the author of more than 100 books for children and adults, including his forthcoming adult release Birding for Boomersand Everyone Else Brave Enough to Embrace the World’s Most Rewarding and Frustrating Activity and his recent travel title First-Time Japan: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Independent Traveler. His articles have appeared in Bird Watcher’s Digest, Montana Outdoors, and dozens of other magazines; sneedbcollardiii.com.

Tiffany Folkes was born and raised in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington state. She pursued her passion for storytelling by earning a degree in multimedia journalism from the University of Montana. Currently based in Missoula, Montana, Folkes finds inspiration in the beauty and solitude of the outdoors, which influences her personal and professional endeavors as a video editor and freelance photographer.

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