If you believe that environmental conservation is an enormous task and one person alone cannot affect change, the story of Tim Wong will prove you wrong. This 28-year-old aquatic biologist has singlehandedly repopulated a rare butterfly species in his backyard! Battus philenor hirsuta, popularly known as the “‘hairy pipevine swallowtail” or “California pipevine swallowtail,” is native to northern California, mainly San Francisco. However, the urban development of the early 20th century significantly reduced the butterfly population, and this blue-winged beauty became a rare sight. Now, thanks to the DIY efforts of Tim Wong, the species is making a comeback!
Tim’s work at the California Academy of Sciences allows him access to a great variety of marine animals. From albino alligators and Javanese stingrays to octopuses, he is always taking care of one of the 38,000 animals that are housed at the museum. However, raising butterflies is not part of his job description. He does this as a hobby in his spare time. It all started when he was in elementary school. He and his peers had to raise painted lady butterflies as a class project. Tim became fascinated with the lifecycle of butterflies and metamorphosis they go through.
As an adult, Tim spends his days catching and studying the various types of butterflies he can find. When he found out about the pipevine swallowtail and how it has become very rare in the San Francisco area, he took it upon himself to bring the species back. After doing a lot of research, he learned that the pipevine caterpillar feeds on the leaves of only one plant, the California pipevine. The plant is equally rare in the city. However, Tim was able to find some plants at the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. He was also allowed to take a few samples from there.
Though the pipevine swallowtail had become an increasingly rare sight in San Francisco, it was still found outside of the city where there is ample vegetation. Tim acquired about 20 caterpillars of the butterfly from private residences and began his mission. He built a large greenhouse using a screen enclosure to provide the butterflies with the perfect breeding and living environment. The setup not only protects the species but also provides them with temperature fluctuations, airflow, and natural sunlight – everything they need to thrive. Moreover, it allows Tim to study the butterflies and learn about what the females want in a host plant.
After carefully transporting the caterpillars, Tim set them loose in his backyard where they can roam around and feed on the plants. After a period of three to four weeks, the caterpillars pupate and form a chrysalis, which is a hard, outer shell. Thus begins the long hibernation when the insect liquefies inside the shell and develops into a butterfly. Though it typically takes about two weeks for them to emerge as butterflies, the process can sometimes take as long as two years! In this case, the insects remain dormant in the chrysalis. This delayed development is known as “diapause.”
Usually, the pipevine butterfly becomes an adult and hatches from the chrysalis during springtime. However, they are a common sight between February and October. Based on factors such as food availability, predation, and temperature, the butterflies can live anywhere from 14 to 35 days. During this period, the females of the species lay small, red eggs on the leaves of the pipevine plants. Tim collects these eggs and lets them incubate indoors. That keeps the eggs safe from predators such as earwigs and spiders. The eggs hatch, beginning a new cycle. After raising the butterflies in his backyard, Tim carefully brings them to the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Conservationists in Sonoma and Santa Cruz have made similar successful attempts at repopulating the pipevine swallowtail. However, San Francisco seemed to be out of their reach. In the late 80s, an enthusiast named Barbara Deutsch introduced 500 caterpillars to repopulate the species in the area. However, all the butterflies vanished in a matter of a few years. Their rapid decline could be attributed to factors such as lack of food, inadequate breeding, and increased predators.
In the beginning, Tim was able to donate hundreds of caterpillars to the garden. However, thanks to the perfect breeding conditions that he created in his backyard greenhouse, the population grew exponentially. In a matter of a few months, he was able to donate thousands of caterpillars to the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Since the time he began, Tim has cultivated over 200 pipevine plants to provide the caterpillars ample vegetation on which to feed. After proper planning and careful execution, he was able to bring the pipevine swallowtail back to San Francisco.
Since the time he began his DIY conservation efforts, Tim Wong has set a remarkable example of how one man can bring a significant change and save an entire species from going extinct. It can certainly inspire another to walk in his footsteps. However, raising butterflies requires a thorough understanding of the species and its natural history. It also involves a lot of work, most of which is fairly tedious. However, there are other ways to contribute. For example, planting native flora, weeding, avoiding pesticides and most importantly, protecting the natural habitat is a great way to start.