San Francisco Man Is Repopulating Disappearing Butterfly Species in His Backyard

April 1, 2019 Updated: April 7, 2019

As an aquatic biologist for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Tim Wong gets to work with dozens of incredible animal and insect species for a living.

When he gets home each day, though, his work truly begins—and the attention he’s been getting for his incredible backyard project has the world falling in love with one of the rarest butterflies in North America.

The California pipevine swallowtail is known for its spectacular black-and-blue wings, standing out in gorgeous, stark contrast against the leaves as it flits around in forests and gardens.

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Despite calling the San Francisco bay area home for centuries, though, the gorgeous butterfly has started to disappear. The sole plant that the butterfly feeds on while in caterpillar form, the California pipevine, had started to disappear—and the butterflies were vanishing alongside it.

Wong told Vox Media that he started collecting and raising butterflies in elementary school and learned about the rapidly decreasing swallowtail population. With enough space in his backyard for a greenhouse, he decided to do something about the problem—and since 2012, he’s managed to breed thousands of the butterflies to introduce to the California Botanical Garden in order to replenish their population.

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Wong started, he explained to Vox, by convincing the California Botanical Garden to let him clip some of the California pipevine they grew to bring home with him.

He then constructed a DIY greenhouse in his backyard, setting up a habitat for the pipevine swallowtail to thrive.

He then started with just 20 caterpillars he sourced with permission from outside the city, watching in delight and satisfaction as his efforts have resulted in more and more butterflies hatching each and every year.

“Each year since 2012, we’ve seen more butterflies surviving in the garden, flying around, laying eggs, successfully pupating, and emerging the following year,” Tim explained. “That’s a good sign that our efforts are working!”

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In the long run, bringing back a butterfly population to a thriving metropolis may seem low on the list of environment-saving efforts that people have undergone. The lasting effects, though, can be more far-reaching than one might believe; with every animal that is able to thrive in an ecosystem, others are able to remain healthy and interact as well.

When Wong isn’t working with other priceless creatures or coaxing his own pipevine swallowtails to thrive at home, the 28-year-old speaks about his conservation efforts with other gardeners. He works to educate the community about what he’s doing, hopefully encouraging others to do something similar.

Even for others who don’t want to do exactly what he does, though—he does warn that the kind of repopulation work he does “isn’t for everyone”—he encourages everyone to take little steps to contribute. From cleaning up the environment to growing the plants that help these insects thrive, he explains that there’s a way for everyone to do their part somehow.

“Improving habitat for native fauna is something anyone can do,” he said, letting Vox know how easy it is to make a difference with little gestures. “Conservation and stewardship can start in your very own backyard.”

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