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Butterflies: Mythic Beauty

Butterflies: Mythic Beauty 

California Sister. The California sister, Adelpha californica is one of the largest and most beautiful native butterflies in the Santa Monica Mountains. This orange and black butterfly belongs to the family Nymphalidae—named for the beautiful nymphs from Greek mythology. Other members of this large family of often spectacular insects include painted ladies, monarchs, and admirals. The California sister depends on oaks for a host plant. They hatch during the spring and summer, with the final flight sometimes lasting into autumn. We’ve seen them as late as October. The name “sister” is also present in the scientific name—”adelpha.”

Backyard Butterflies

Fly, white butterflies, out to sea,

Frail pale wings for the winds to try,

Small white wings that we scarce can see


Some fly light as a laugh of glee,

Some fly soft as a low long sigh:

All to the haven where each would be


—Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Envoi,” 1883

Everywhere, all over the Santa Monica Mountains this spring, butterflies are on the wing—“frail pale wings for the wind to try.” While everyone is familiar with the orange and black splendor of the monarch and the vivid gold and black of the swallowtails, there are numerous smaller butterflies adrift in gardens and open space that are less well known, but no less remarkable than their larger, showier relations.

Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera. It’s a big family, with more than 165,000 species. There are at least 70 species of butterfly in the Santa Monica Mountains and this area could potentially still be home to species that have never been identified or named.

Because of its metamorphosis from caterpillar to winged beauty, the butterfly is a symbol of the immortal soul in many cultures, including Egyptian, Greek, and Roman iconography. Traditionally, butterflies are also messengers sent by the dead to the living, the envoi in Swinburne’s poem.

That mythological heritage lingers in the scientific names for many butterflies, which reference satyrs and nymphs, gods and goddesses, kings and princesses. The common names are also evocative: painted ladies, mourning cloaks, duskywings, metalmarks.

Butterflies are a key part of the local ecology as pollinators and an important part of the food chain for wildlife. Habitat loss and pesticides are major threats to native butterflies. We can help by living poison free, planting native plants, and being tolerant if caterpillars eat those plants. 

Butterflies, like the plants they depend on, are cyclical: some years there are an abundance of one or another species, in other years, one encounters almost none. This is a good year for many native butterflies, the abundant rain and extended spring wildflower season provides ideal conditions. 

Late morning or early afternoon on May or June days when the morning marine layer has burned off and there is little or no breeze is an ideal time to look for butterflies. One often doesn’t have to go any further than the backyard to observe a surprisingly wide range of Lepidoptera

All butterflies are tied to the life cycle of the plants that support them. Some species are able to use a variety of plants, others only feed on a specific plant—like the monarch’s caterpillar, which only feeds on milkweed.

Butterflies are a living symbol of transformation, but they are also ephemeral. Some migratory species, like the Western monarch, can live for eight or nine months, but most emerge from their chrysalises into their winged form for a final life phase that lasts just a few weeks. The butterfly’s goal is to find a mate and ensure that there will be a next generation. The patterns on the butterfly’s wings carry messages to prospective mates and potential predators—beautiful and ethereal messages, borne on the wind.

Lorquin Admiral. The Lorquin admiral, Limenitis lorquini is a medium-sized butterfly with black and orange markings on its upper wings. The Lorquin admiral’s name is a departure from the whimsy and mythology present in the names of many other butterfly species. It was named for French naturalist Pierre Joseph Michel Lorquin, who came to California during the gold rush. Lorquin admiral caterpillars depend on willows and cottonwood trees for their host plants, but the adults are attracted to many types of flowers and are sometimes observed feeding on animal dung or even bird droppings. Butterflies need the sun to regulate their body temperature. They are most active on warm, sunny days.
California Hairstreak and Fiery Skipper. Monarchs aren’t the only butterflies attracted to milkweed. The flowers of the native narrow-leaf milkweed attract many pollinators, including this fiery skipper, Hylephila phyleus, and a California Hairstreak, Satyrium californica. Both butterflies feed on nectar from a variety of plants, but the skipper’s caterpillars feed on grass—including lawn grass, while hairstreak’s host plants include willow, oak and ceanothus. Satyrium refers to the satyrs of Greek mythology, while Hylephila means “forest-loving.” Phyleus was a prince in Greek mythology, the son of King Augeas of Elis—owner of the famously dirty Augean Stable—and an ally of the hero Hercules.
Common Painted Lady. There was a spectacular abundance of painted lady butterflies during the super bloom in 2019. There are fewer this year, but Vanessa cardui, the common painted lady, is still one of the most abundant butterflies this season. This species is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. There is a less common West Coast lady, too, which has a different pattern of white on the upper wings. Common painted lady caterpillars prefer thistles—the “cardi” part of the scientific name means thistle, but they will also feed on legumes like vetch. Adults seek nectar from a wide variety of plants.
Marine Blue. The tiny marine blue, leptotes marina, is one of the most abundant butterflies in the Santa Monica Mountains and throughout western North America. Its wingspan is less than an inch across and it is so light it is almost entirely at the mercy of the slightest breeze. The only blue on the side of the wing is in the eye marking, but the top view reveals a shimmer of iridescent ultramarine. This species’ native host plants are usually legumes, but this small butterfly is attracted to plumbago, or leadwort, a popular garden flower.
Funereal Duskywing. The funereal duskywing is a small butterfly that belongs to the skipper family. Even its Latin name is gloomy: Erynnis funeralis. There’s the funeral again, together with Erynnis, for the Erinyes, or Furies, the goddesses of vengeance in Greek Mythology. The duskywing’s host plant is usually deerweed, but the butterflies are attracted to the flowers of the sages and mints.
Cloudless Sulphur. Sulphur butterflies are everywhere in early summer—a flash of gold almost too quick for the eye to follow. The cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, is named for another Greek god, this time Phoebus, the sun god, an aspect of Apollo. Adults are attracted to many garden flowers, including bougainvillea and hibiscus, but the caterpillars eat legumes—the senna that is part of their Latin name, but also a wide variety of wild and cultivated legumes—much to the sorrow of backyard vegetable gardeners who are often less than pleased to find fat green caterpillars in their pea plants.
Western Monarch. The Monarch’s scientific name also holds an echo of Greek mythology, it’s Danaus plexippus, for Danae, the daughter of the King of Argos, who was seduced by Zeus in a shower of gold. Plexippus means sleeping transformation. This is probably the best loved and most instantly recognizable butterfly in North America. It’s also teetering on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, the agrochemical industry and climate change.
Mourning Cloak. The mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, is one of the longest lived butterflies. Individuals can survive for more than a year. This is a migratory species and is distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere. In the Santa Monica mountains, the mourning cloak’s host plants are willows, in other parts of the world they prefer elm. This butterfly’s gloomy name comes from  Northern Europe, where it is  known as the “Trauermantel” in German, and the “sorgmantel” in Swedish. The Latin name derives from Greek mythology. Antiope who was a princess and a demi-goddess.
Sara Orangetip. The sara orangetip, Anthocharis sara, is a flighty butterfly that rarely stays still long enough to photograph. It’s one of the first to appear in the spring—its first flight appearing as early as February, its second emergence hatching in May and early June. It is a member of the family Pieridae, named for the Greek muses. This is one of the first spring butterflies to appear, and to disappear, once summer heat arrives. Males have the vivid orange wingtips that give this species their name. The larval host plants include members of the mustard family.
Common Buckeye. Junonia coenia, the common buckeye, is another butterfly species with a connection to Greek and Roman mythology. Junonia refers to Juna, the jealous wife of Jupiter, who keeps a watchful eye on the things with the help of her guardian,  hundred-eyed Argus, whose eyes appear on both the tail feathers of the peacock, and the wings of the beautiful buckeye butterfly. “Coenia” refers to the butterfly’s brown coloration. This is a widespread butterfly that can use several plant families for a caterpillar host, including plantains, monkeyflowers, and snapdragons.
Red Admiral. The red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, is a widespread member of the Nymphalidae and a cousin of the painted lady. It’s a common spring and summer garden butterfly. Its host plants include California nettle and common nettle. The name is said to be a corruption of “admirable,” and has nothing to do with military titles.The scientific name of this beautiful butterfly once again refers back to Greek and Roman mythology. Vanessa, a name synonymous with butterflies, refers to the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus. Atalanta was a huntress and follower of the moon goddess Artemis in Greek mythology.
Variable Checkerspot. The variable checkerspot, Euphydryas chalcedona, is another member of the family Nymphalidae. As the name suggests, this small to medium-sized butterfly can vary significantly in color—sometimes black and red and white, sometimes brown and orange, and cream, but always with the vivid checkered pattern that gives this species its common name. The Latin name is a combination of “euphi”—a good or pleasing shape, and “dryas,’ for the dryads of Greek mythology. The checkerspot’s host plant is Diplacus aurantiacus, the sticky monkey flowers. The adults are often seen feeding on nectar from golden yarrow flowers.
Northern White Skipper. The Northern white skipper, Heliopetes ericetorum, is tiny but beautiful, with a furry blue body and the poet’s “frail pale wings.” This small butterfly’s host plant is mallow, which is especially abundant right now in the Woolsey Fire recovery area. It often forages for nectar among garden flowers. This white skipper is found throughout the West. Its name references Helio—the sun—but “ericetorum” just means it is associated with plants in the heather family—Ericaceae.
Pale Swallowtail. The Pale Swallowtail, Papilio eurymedon, gets its name from the king of the giants in Greek mythology—Eurymedon, and this is a large and spectacular butterfly. The pale swallowtail is the size and shape of the tiger swallowtail, but its color is cream instead of golden.
Western Tiger Swallowtail. Papilio rutulus, the Western tiger swallowtail, is one of our most spectacular and easily recognizable butterflies. Host plants include willows and ash trees.

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