How One Man Single-Handedly Saved A Rare Butterfly Species That “Needed A Little Extra Help”

Two photos: A group of black butterflies with blue and orange spots, and Tim Wong holding up a pink flower

One person can make a world of difference. Tim Wong, a senior biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, single-handedly brought a struggling butterfly species back to his home city of San Francisco. 

“I became aware of the California Pipevine swallowtail — which is native here to San Francisco — a couple years ago,” Wong said in an interview with The Weather Channel this past summer. “I was looking into trying to create a pollinator habitat in my own backyard and I found that there were some native butterflies that needed a little extra help.” 

Although the California pipevine butterfly was still common near the coast and in the Sierra foothills, they had all but disappeared from San Francisco. In the city, the species’ host plant — the California Pipevine  — was extremely sparse. 

“What I learned is that a lot of our native butterflies have really tight relationships with native plants and some types of butterflies may only feed on one native plant,” Wong told meteorologists Stephanie Abrams and Jordan Steele. 

Fortunately, Wong was able to find the plant in the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park and was allowed to take home a few clippings of the plant. 

"[I built] a large screen enclosure to protect the butterflies and to allow them to mate under outdoor environmental conditions — natural sun, airflow, temp fluctuations," Wong told Vox

Once his butterfly garden was complete, Wong traveled outside of the city to carefully source 20 California Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars. 

"They feed as a little army," Wong explained to Vox. "They roam around the Pipevine plant from leaf to leaf, munching on it as a group."

After three to four weeks, the caterpillars began pupating and forming a chrysalis. Some remained in a chrysalis for weeks, others for years. Once they hatched, Wong continued caring for them as they laid eggs on the Pipevine plants and raised new caterpillars in the same habitat. 

"From there," Wong said, "the cycle continues."

Wong appreciates the spotlight on his favorite butterflies, but he reminded Vox that conservation efforts can start anywhere. 

"Improving habitat for native fauna is something anyone can do," Wong said. "Conservation and stewardship can start in your very own backyard."

Header images courtesy of Tim Wong

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