A rare butterfly, whose habitat is near the sand dunes of the western end of the Los Angeles International Airport, could migrate to the Ballona Wetlands under certain conditions, says a prominent local biologist.
Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, a conservation biologist and the co-director of the Ballona Institute, says that the sand dunes that the El Segundo blue butterfly uses as part of its natural environment already exist in the Ballona Wetlands.
“We would need to plant buckwheat, which is what the El Segundo blue uses for its food source,” he said in an interview recently.
There were two sightings of this exotic and endangered insect earlier this month at county beaches in Redondo Beach and in neighboring Torrance. Travis Longcore, the science director of the Los Angeles-based Urban Wildlands Group, saw two in the South Bay.
“We’re recovering this species, right here, in the middle of the second largest city in the country,” he told another publication. “This is really amazing.”
The El Segundo blue butterfly, in the family Lycaenidae, emerges during summer when the flowers of its host plant, dune buckwheat (Eriogonum parviflorum), open.
The life span of these butterflies is relatively short, according to the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California at Berkeley. During their short time on earth, they mate and lay eggs, which hatch within approximately a week.
There are two different kinds of butterflies, according to van de Hoek — generalists, that can feed on a variety of plants, and specialists, like the El Segundo blue, that only eat a specific kind of vegetation. In the case of the El Segundo blue, the cuisine of choice is buckwheat.
The outer edges of the Los Angeles International Airport were at one time the largest habitat for this resilient creature. The abundant sand dunes, along with the rich nectar from the buckwheat vegetation that they use to lay their eggs, drew them to the colony in droves.
Locally, when developers began to build homes near the Westchester bluffs some years ago, the dunes were pushed aside. To protect residents from the loose sand, ice plant was shipped in from South Africa. This caused severe erosion in the butterfly population, which is suspected to be in the tens of thousands in California.
The butterfly was placed on the endangered species list because it lost its habitat, said the Ballona Institute’s co-director.
The other two colonies are at the Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo and on private land in Torrance.
Van de Hoek said that this action resulted in several other species relocating to the El Segundo blue’s habitat.
“As generalist butterflies, [these other species] can feed on a number of different plants or vegetation,” he noted.
Because a butterfly rarely leaves its natural habitat, van de Hoek is a bit skeptical that the El Segundo blue would have traveled as far as Redondo Beach or Torrance.
“It’s a very small and delicate butterfly, and I’m not sure that it would fly that far from it’s specialist plant,” he said. “I think that it’s virtually impossible that one would have flown that far down (to the South Bay) from the LAX area.”
Trish Meyer, the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Butterfly Association, believes that the butterfly could migrate to other parts of the coast — albeit within its flying range — to seek out the buckwheat plant that it enjoys so much.
“Butterflies do move around,” she said. “It’s in their nature.”
Scientists who have studied the insect’s migratory patterns were also surprised at the sightings at the two beaches, where they were observed mating and eating nectar from the buckwheat plant.
It very well could be a matter of “what’s on the menu.” What may have lured the El Segundo blue to the South Bay, biologists say, is the decision in 2004 to replace non-native plants on the beach’s cliffs with buckwheat shrub. “I think what one can take from this is, if you plant the right vegetation, they will come,” said Meyer.
Van de Hoek believes that, using controlled experiments, the butterfly can form a colony in the wetlands of Playa de Rey.
“The first stage of restoration of an ecosystem is to bring back its food sources, which is the buckwheat shrub,” the institute’s conservation biologist explained. “The second stage is to bring back the animal or insect.”
The quail, for example, was once prevalent in the wetlands, “but it’s not returning because it’s food sources have been depleted,” said van de Hoek.
Part of the experiment would involve transporting buckwheat to the area, as it was done in the South Bay. El Segundo blue caterpillars could then be bred in captivity and released into the wetlands.
Van de Hoek is skeptical that without the continuous reintroduction of buckwheat plants, the endangered butterfly will last long at any of its sightings.
“It’s too simplistic to say that ecological restoration is enough to bring back any animal or insect,” he said.
A good example of this kind of restoration is the recent success story of the bald eagle. Through captive breeding programs, reintroductions, habitat protection around nest sites and preservation activities, the majestic bird’s population has increased to the point that it was removed from the endangered species list on June 28th.
The California condor is another example of how captive breeding and other restorative methods can bring a species back from the brink of extinction.
The same, van de Hoek suggests, could be done for the El Segundo blue butterfly.
Meyer concurs with the biologist’s theory.
“I think that’s a very good point,” she agreed. “I think that it’s amazing how these little guys find the plants that they need.”
Under the right conditions, van de Hoek believes that reintegrating the El Segundo blue butterfly could be successful. “It would be a great educational opportunity for everyone,” he stated. “I really think that we could bring the butterfly here to the Ballona Wetlands.”