Man Single-Handedly Repopulates Rare Butterfly Species in His Own Backyard

The California pipevine swallowtail is considered by many experts to be one of the most magnificent butterflies in North America, but the massive development around San Francisco has caused it to slowly disappear. However, one man’s DIY conservation efforts are bringing this beautiful creature back.

Tim Wong, a young aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, spends his free time raising butterflies, a hobby he fell in love with as a young boy. “I first was inspired to raise butterflies when I was in elementary school,” Wong told “We raised painted lady butterflies in the classroom, and I was amazed at the complete metamorphosis from caterpillar to adult.” Tim used to spend his days in the open meadows outside his home catching, raising and breeding any butterflies he found.

When he got older and learned about the pipevine swallowtail becoming increasingly rare in the San Francisco are, Wong made it his goal to do something about it. Researching the species, he found that while in caterpillar form, it feeds only on a single plant – the California pipevine – which, he realized, had become equally rare around San Francisco.


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

Putting two and two together wasn’t difficult, but getting his hands on California pipevine was. “Finally, I was able to find this plant in the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and they allowed me to take a few clippings of the plant,” Tim recalls. he then set out to build a small butterfly paradise in his own backyard, where the butterflies could mate and feed on their favorite treat.


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

“[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,” the butterfly enthusiast says. “The specialized enclosure protects the butterflies from some predators, increases mating opportunities, and serves as a study environment to better understand the criteria female butterflies are looking for in their ideal host plant.”


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

While California pipevine swallowtail are rarely seen in San Francisco these days, they can still be found outside the city, areas with rich vegetation. So Tim went out looking for them and was able to source an initial group of 20 caterpillars from private residences, with permission. He took them home and released them in the enclosure, to feed on the plants he grew. “They feed as a little army,” he says. “They roam around the pipevine plant from leaf to leaf, munching on it as a group.”


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

In 3 to 4 weeks, the caterpillars pupates and creates an outer shell called a chrysalis, in which it liquefies itself. Then, it either develops into a butterfly in about two weeks or stays dormant for up to two years (a period called diapause). depending on various factors, like food availability, temperature and predation – pipevine swallowtail butterflies live for two to five weeks. During this time, the females lay tiny red eggs on the pipevine plants, which Tim Wong carefully collects and incubates indoors, away from predators. “From there,” he says, “the cycle continues.”


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

Conservationists have been able to successfully repopulate the pipevine butterfly in the neighboring counties of Santa Cruz and Sonoma, but no one has been able to do it in San Francisco. In the 1980’s, Barbara Deutsch attempted tot do it with 500 caterpillars, but for some reason, the butterflies disappeared again in a few years. But where others have failed, Tim Wong appears to be succeeding.


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

When he first kickstarted his backyard butterfly conservation efforts, Tim Wong would only take a few hundred of them to the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s “California Native” exhibit, but as his population of butterflies grew, so did the shipments, and last year he was able to introduce thousands of them to the gardens.


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

“Each year since 2012, we’ve seen more butterflies surviving in the garden, flying around, laying eggs, successfully pupating, and emerge the following year,” Wong says. “That’s a good sign that our efforts are working!” He attributes his success to the favorable habitat he has created for the butterflies in his backyard, which now numbers over 200 California pipevine plants as well as additional nectar plants.


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

Tim’s story has inspired others to engage in conservation activities, but he warns that butterfly conservation is not for everyone, as it requires a special understanding of each species’ natural history, a natural sensibility, and a lot of tedious work. However, there are ways we can all contribute in, like planting native flora, weeding to ensure easy access to the plants and avoiding chemical pesticides.


Photo: Tim Wong/@timtast1c

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