Exploring the World of Mount Diablo’s Butterflies

kids with butterfly nets

It’s easy to love butterflies. With vibrant colors, delicate wings, and graceful flight, butterflies on the trail are always a gift.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are more than 140 species of butterflies. On Mount Diablo, there are over 60 butterfly species found, which is a significant percentage of all known butterflies living in the Bay Area.

Here’s an introduction to Diablo’s butterflies, why they’re important, and what you can do to protect them.

Diablo’s Butterflies

Butterflies are categorized by their family, and there are six butterfly families. When trying to identify a butterfly, it is helpful to know which family it is in.

1. Skippers (Family Hesperiidae)

Northern White-Skipper

Northern white skipper (Heliopetes ericetorum). Photo by NatureShutterbug (CC BY 2.0)

Skippers are easy to identify from other butterfly families. Their bodies and particularly their heads are small and stout, making them look a bit like moths. They fly in quick movements, “skipping” from flower to flower, hence their name.

2. Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks (Family Lycaenidae)

California Hairstreak

California hairstreak (Satyrium californica). Photo by Frank D. Lospalluto (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Lycaenidae is a large family of butterflies (with more than 5,000 species worldwide). The blues, coppers, and hairstreaks are sometimes referred to as the gossamer-winged butterflies. “Gossamer-winged” refers to the delicate wings this family of butterflies has. Most of the butterflies in this family are small and fast.

3. “Brush-Footed” Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae)

California Sister

California sister (Adelpha californica). Photo by Bob Brittain

The “brush-footed” butterflies make up another large family with about 5,000 species worldwide. This family also has many subfamilies within it. The famous monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) belongs to this group. This family is easier to identify because its butterflies often have brush-like hairy legs.

4. Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae)

two-tailed swallowtail

Two-tailed swallowtail (Papilio multicaudatus). Photo by Scott Hein

Swallowtails are often quite large and colorful and have tail-like features on their hindwings. This family is smaller, with less than 30 species in the United States.

5. White, Sulfurs, and Yellows (Family Pieridae)

Sara Orangetip

Sara orange-tip (Anthocharis sara). Photo by Allan Schmierer

These butterflies are often white or yellow but sometimes have orange tips or green marbling on their wings. They are frequently medium-sized. The cabbage white (Pieris rapae), which might be the most common butterfly in the United States, belongs to this group.

6. Metalmarks (Family Riodinidae)

Mormon metalmark

Mormon metalmark (Apodemia mormo). Photo by Mathesont (CC BY NC 2.0)

Metalmarks live primarily in the tropics, but you can still find them on Mount Diablo. They are closely related to the Lycaenidae family (some people consider them part of the Lycaenidae family), and get their name due to their bright metallic markings.

Why Do Butterflies Matter?

Beyond the ecosystem, butterflies hold immense intrinsic and aesthetic value. For centuries, they’ve been symbols of growth, freedom, beauty, and peace. And people love seeing butterflies.

Butterflies play vital roles in the environment. They are important pollinators, and they are indicators of healthy environments and ecosystems. If a region does not have butterflies, it is a sign their environment may have harmful chemicals, or other factors deterring biodiversity and wildlife. Because butterflies are great indicator species, ecologists have used butterflies as model organisms to study habitat loss, fragmentation, and climate change.

Saving Butterflies and Creating Sanctuary

In recent years, habitat destruction, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and climate change have harmed butterfly populations. Butterflies, like the iconic monarch butterfly, have seen dramatic declines. Conservation efforts are especially crucial in the Bay Area because the region has multiple endangered butterfly species.

With this win-win strategy, you can turn your home into a butterfly and wildlife sanctuary while cutting down your utility bill.

Indian Paintbrush

Native plants like Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) are both beautiful and benefit butterflies such as the common, Leanira, Luesther’s, and northern checkerspot. Photo by Scott Hein

Why You Should Plant Natives

Because California native plants are adapted to the soil and climate, they can survive droughts and won’t require fertilizer and pesticides—which can harm butterflies. Overall, these gardens are better for the environment and for your wallet because they lower water bills.

Better yet, native plants support habitat, shelter, and food for butterflies and other local wildlife. With a native garden, you can expect to see more native bees, butterflies, and birds. Butterflies need natives to survive.

You can learn which butterflies benefit from which plants with this list from the California Native Plant Society. Learn more about native gardens in the Bay Area with the Bringing Back the Native Garden Tour.

Written by Floyd McCluhan

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