Butterfly Whisperer Repopulating Rare Butterfly Species in His Own Backyard

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Tim Wong, an aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, first learned about raising butterflies in an elementary school class project, in which he learned how to raise painted lady butterflies. Watching the complete metamorphosis from egg to butterfly inspired Tim so much that raising butterflies became a significant hobby for him outside of work. As Tim got older, he became acquainted with the beautiful, iridescent blue pipevine swallowtail butterfly, which is a captivating sight to see. When Tim learned that the population of pipevine swallowtail butterflies was steadily decreasing in San Francisco, one of it's native habitats, Tim made it his own personal mission to breed and nurture an increasing population of these lovely butterflies.

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

After doing extensive research on the pipevine swallowtail species, Tim created a large, screened-in enclosure in his own back yard that would become a "butterfly paradise." The enclosure that Tim built allows the butterflies to breed under outdoor environmental conditions, while being protected from predators (thereby increasing mating opportunities.) The enclosure also allows Tim to observe the butterflies more closely in order to better understand the criteria female pipevine swallowtails use when choosing appropriate host plants on which to lay their eggs.

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

In his research, Tim learned that in its caterpillar form, the pipevine swallowtail only feeds on California pipevine, which is just about as rare in San Francisco as the butterflies are. In order to find this plant for his budding butterfly population, Tim went to the San Francisco Botanical garden, where he was allowed to take clippings of the plant to put in his own back yard butterfly sanctuary. After acquiring the right plant and creating the enclosure, Tim set about sourcing an initial group of 20 caterpillars from private residences outside of San Francisco, and he was off. 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

The whole metamorphosis cycle can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. After about 3 - 4 weeks of feeding in their caterpillar form, the pipevine swallowtails then form a chrysalis in which they hibernate for 2 weeks to 2 years before emerging as a butterfly. 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Tim's efforts to reintroduce the pipevine swallowtail back to the San Francisco area are significant. Previous attempts to do the same have been unsuccessful in the city. Wong cites the favorable backyard paradise that he's created for the butterflies to be the foundation of his success. He has also successfully cultivated over 200 new pipevine plants in his back yard over the past 4 years, and with each passing year, more and more butterflies are successfully mating and metamorphosing.  

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Photo credit: Tim Wong (@timtast1c) 

Tim Wong's efforts show how one person's mission can really make a difference in the world. If creating a butterfly habitat and raising butterflies isn't possible for you, there are other actions people can take to make their home a more welcoming environment for native species. Planting native flora and weeding provides conditions suitable for native fauna to come back. Also, avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides is quite important for supporting efforts to create flourishing environments for local plants and animal. 

Rajmani Sinclair, July 14, 2016