A Day with Butterflies

Butterfly expert Fred Heath led a Butterfly walk in Topanga State Park in April. Photo by Roy Jansen

What makes Topanga so amazing is its geographical good fortune to be surrounded by an urban park of world-class proportions—the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area—that brings us close to nature.

On Saturday, April 1, butterfly expert and former Topangan, Fred Heath, a naturalist and author of “An Introduction to Southern California Butterflies,” agreed to travel from his home in Arizona to lead a walk and speak at one of the Mountain Mermaid’s series of nature programs.

A bonus for the group was the presence of Topanga Docent and bird expert, Chris Tosdevin, who is also knowledgeable about butterflies, and Botany specialist, Doug Allan, who seemed to know the name of every plant in the park.

The morning butterfly walk began in Topanga State Park where about 24 water bottle-bearing folks gathered in the parking lot at Trippet Ranch to walk and gawk at butterflies, “the poster children of the insect world,” says Heath.

The morning was crisp and beautiful beyond telling, the surrounding hillsides were lush and green after recent rains dispelled memories of years of drought. The air was abuzz with legions of tiny pollinators, when the first winged insect of any size and note tore overhead like Spiderman on speed. Heath confirmed that it was a White-lined Sphinx moth, often mistaken for a hummingbird.

“It’s no accident this moth (not a butterfly) zipped around like a bird. A lot of mimicry goes on in the butterfly world and this is how the Sphinx moth evades a predator that would pursue a bug but leave a feisty hummingbird alone,” he explained. 

Flying from flower to flower, butterflies are important pollinators just like the bees, Fred explained. Plants require pollinators for their survival, and trade their sugar water for the pollinating services insects provide.

During the two-hour walk, Heath identified a number of butterfly and moth caterpillars. Walking farther, we encountered a stunning Pale Swallowtail butterfly, often confused with the larger and deeper yellow Western Tiger Swallowtail, also common in Topanga.

“Butterflies are masters of disguise,” Heath said. The purpose of the Swallowtail’s tails and adjacent eyespot markings is to fake out predators who will go for the counterfeit head, break off a piece of the tail and allow the butterfly to get away with its vital parts intact. It’s not uncommon to see bird beak-shaped chunks missing out of a butterfly’s hind wings

We repeatedly encountered dark, drab little specimens with a name to match, the “Funereal Duskywing,” a close relative of the “Mournful Duskywing;” California Sisters were always flying near and landing on oak trees, their host plant; and Cabbage White butterflies, an immigrant from Europe, is now perhaps the most common butterfly in North America. We had hoped to see more, but it is still early in the season for many species.

I was glad to see at least one milkweed plant in the wild and false indigo, the host plant for the California Dogface butterfly, our official state butterfly.  

Preparing the Mermaid for Butterfly Day, I set out labeled butterfly host plants on the front patio—a sycamore tree for the Western Tiger Swallowtail, citrus tree for the Giant Swallowtails, mallow for the West Coast Ladies and milkweed for the Monarchs.

On the side patio, butterfly habitat afficionado Sergio Jimenez, with wife, Yaotl, and daughter, Luna, assembled an ambitious display of dozens of mainly native butterfly plants for sale. To find pesticide-free plants they went to two native nurseries, the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, and Matilija Nursery in Moorpark. Most nursery plants are packed with poisons and dangerous to butterflies and other insects. It’s best to get your plants from native plant nurseries.  

Guests descended on the Mermaid and flitted among the plants not unlike butterflies themselves. They purchased plants and enjoyed edibles and beverages prepared by Gail McDonald-Tune and Marilyn Babcock.

As Heath began the slide show with a picture of a moth, he said, “I don’t do moths. I prefer butterflies, and proceeded to point out the differences.”

Butterflies are iconic for their complex metamorphosis that breaks down into four stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Adult males focus on females to mate with, while females are all about finding butterfly host plants upon which to gingerly oviposit hundreds of eggs, often sticking them on the undersides of leaves out of view of predators.

Caterpillars (larva) hatch from the eggs and, because all of a butterfly’s growth happens during this stage, they shed their rigid skins many times before becoming a chrysalis. The short-lived adult butterflies emerge fully grown and are all about finding suitable mates. Because butterflies are hit hard by predators at all life-stages, Heath estimates only one percent make it to adulthood. 

A viable butterfly garden must have both butterfly host plants that caterpillars will eat, and butterfly nectar plants, from which adult winged butterflies will get sugar water (nectar).

Most butterfly larva are incredibly plant-specific about which ones they will consume. Monarchs will only eat milkweed, while Western Tiger Swallowtail larva eat sycamores, cottonwood, elm and alder trees. When it comes to nectaring, they will syphon nectar from the flowers of different plants. 

Jump for joy if you have lots of caterpillars and half-eaten leaves in your garden! It is a sign of a healthy garden as the energy from the sun and the soil stored in plant matter is being transformed into beautiful butterflies. Lots of caterpillars means more bird song, too. They are the primary food source for baby songbirds.

Being in the presence of Fred Heath was to be left with a heightened sense of wonder and amazement at the sheer beauty, intricacy and inter-relatedness of this magnificent planet.



Believe it or not, natural predators aren’t the worst threats to Butterfly survival.

Heath is on the board of the National American Butterfly Association (NABA), a non-profit that protects butterflies and promotes watching and photographing them in nature, rather than exploiting them commercially. There are butterfly breeders and exhibiters that use butterflies commercially for release at weddings, or for sale to hundreds of public butterfly exhibits around the world. Others raise and euthanize butterflies for sale to collectors and, worse, there is a multi-million-dollar global black market in rare and endangered, pinned and mounted butterflies, akin to the underground trafficking in exotic big animal parts.


By Bill Buerge


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