Next to one of the world’s busiest airports, thousands of solo flights tend to take place each summer, hidden in plain sight.
That’s because Los Angeles World Airports, which governs LAX, handles more than just airplane traffic. The agency also manages the LAX Dunes, an approximately 307-acre habitat sandwiched between the airport and the ocean. Within the southern two-thirds of these dunes lies a preserve, home to the largest population of the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.
Yet these insects, along with another endangered local species — the Palos Verdes blue butterfly — are rare to see.
For one, the butterflies are roughly the size of a human thumbnail. They also require a trained eye, as they resemble many other types of butterflies. Other species of blue butterflies exist in the South Bay, and only the males of both the El Segundo and Palos Verdes species are particularly blue.
Plus, the adults have short life cycles. Within just a few days, they typically mate, lay eggs and die. Even with staggered cycles among different butterflies, the window to see them is relatively small.
For the Palos Verdes blue, the adults take flight roughly between late January to early May, while the El Segundo blue does so from around June to early September, according to UCLA’s Biodiversity Atlas of Los Angeles.
Climate change could be affecting these butterfly seasons, notes Cris Sarabia, conservation director at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.
The butterflies “are following the bloom period of the plants. So as the bloom period changes, you would assume that their lifespan would change too,” he says. The conservancy and others are researching this issue to find out what effect, if any, these changes are having.
Keep your eyes open or you’ll miss them
Even if your timing is right, the limited numbers of these butterflies reduce the odds of seeing one.
While there was once an average of three-quarters of a million El Segundo blue butterflies per year, their numbers dwindled as their habitats shrank. For example, fewer than 500 were counted at the LAX Dunes in 1976, the year they became listed as a federally endangered species. Since then, habitat preservation and restoration work led to some recovery, with LAX’s governing body estimating a count of 5,300 to 6,500 in its preserve in 2020. These numbers fluctuate annually, due in part to issues like seasonal drought. The Palos Verdes blue has a similar story.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to see a blue butterfly in the South Bay. You just have to put in a little legwork.
And if you want to avoid doing more harm than good, then it’s important to understand how to safely see them — because protecting these insects isn’t just about preserving beauty. There are many reasons to preserve biodiversity in the South Bay and beyond, notes Brian Brown, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
“There’s utilitarian arguments, like the idea that biodiversity is the source of all our raw materials, our medicines, our food, our environment, including fresh air, clean water,” he says. Ecosystems with fewer species also can lead to more water and pesticide usage “to balance out the environment the way we want it.”
And these butterflies can symbolize broader conservation efforts. “There’s not just these two butterflies that are endangered. Those are the tip of the iceberg,” says Brown.
Find their favorite plants, find these butterflies
The trick to spotting the El Segundo or Palos Verdes blue butterfly is to know their food source.
The El Segundo blue has only one host plant — sea cliff buckwheat. The Palos Verdes blue has two — rattlepod and deerweed. Find those plants, and your odds of finding the butterflies improve dramatically.
Still, that’s no easy task. One wrinkle is that these plants have multiple monikers (e.g., coast or dune buckwheat instead of sea cliff), so you might want to rely on the look of these shrubby plants over the names. While there can be variations, in the South Bay, look for sea cliff buckwheat with clumps of white and pink flowers; rattlepod and deerweed have peapod or bell-shaped green-and-white and yellow-and-red flowers, respectively.
And while these are native plants, their existence also has been threatened, by human development and invasive plant species, leading to the butterflies’ decline. But several protected habitats exist throughout the South Bay, and work is being done to expand these areas.
For the El Segundo blue, the LAX Dunes has a short, dog-friendly path on the north side called the Waterview Trail. The dunes are fenced off, and the main butterfly area is farther south, but there’s still a slight chance of sightings. At the very least, you can get a sense of what a dune habitat looks like and see other native wildlife.
Roughly a mile north lies the Ballona Wetlands, where the butterflies started showing up in 2011, following restoration efforts. They presumably flew from the LAX Dunes, notes Neysa Frechette, manager of scientific programs at Friends of Ballona Wetlands. She also led the founding of and manages the El Segundo Blue Coalition.
Another notable site lies on the property of the Chevron refinery in El Segundo, where the company manages an approximately 2-acre preserve after discovering the butterfly’s existence there in 1975.
While the preserve is closed to the general public, visitors can view it from the perimeter, located at the southwest corner of Binder Place and Whiting Street. Be mindful of traffic and private property, as sidewalks are limited in that area.
The Chevron location is “a remnant of what was once the much larger El Segundo sand dune system,” explains Richard Arnold, an entomologist who has consulted with Chevron since 1977.
Remnants “tend to become stabilized because a lot of nonnative plants, largely weeds, colonize those areas,” explains Arnold.
Stabilization might sound good, but it actually harms the butterflies. “The weeds hold the sand in place and don’t allow this kind of natural, windblown sand dynamic to occur that the native plants depend on,” he says. That leads to native plants dying out, which is why it’s so important to remove invasive species.
So organizations like the Bay Foundation are working to remove invaders and restore habitats. In addition to helping manage the LAX Dunes, the Bay Foundation is working in areas like the Strand in Manhattan Beach to expand the El Segundo blue‘s habitat.
There, between 36th and 28th streets and 26th to 23rd, the Bay Foundation and other local groups have been removing species like ice plant and adding natives, including sea cliff buckwheat.
Along the coast on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, you can find crossover habitat for both butterfly species. The Palos Verdes blue also extends inland across the peninsula, including to the Defense Fuel Support Point in San Pedro, which was where the species was rediscovered in 1994 after having been thought extinct.
For the record:
6:35 p.m. Jan. 26, 2023A previous version of this story said the Palos Verdes conservancy releases captive-reared butterflies. A consortium of agencies, including America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College, work on this effort.
To help these insects, the Palos Verdes conservancy manages lands throughout the Palos Verdes Nature Preserve that are owned by Rancho Palos Verdes. The conservancy works with a consortium that includes America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College that releases captive-reared butterflies into the wild with support and collaboration from various government agencies and the nonprofit Urban Wildlands Group.
Soon, the Palos Verdes blue will have even more room to spread its wings, as the organization is working to restore a 96-acre wildlife corridor in Rancho Palos Verdes on the inland side of Palos Verdes Drive South.
Don’t let your excitement get the best of you, though. If you veer off path, you might accidentally step on caterpillars or damage the plants. A previous restoration project announcement led to people setting picnic blankets on top of host plants.
How to see and help blue butterflies
The good news is that your best chances to see blue butterflies are also some of the best ways to help these creatures. Here’s how:
1. Volunteer at a preserve
To get inside restricted areas like the LAX Dunes, you can join volunteer events with the Bay Foundation. Other organizations like Friends of Ballona Wetlands and the Palos Verdes conservancy also have regular volunteer opportunities, where you can help restore habitats and potentially see the butterflies.
“Folks that enjoy a morning with us can come back over time and are often able to actually witness the changes that their actions are contributing to,” says Tom Ford, CEO of the Bay Foundation.
If you can’t volunteer your time, you can donate to these types of organizations to expand opportunities.
2. Take a guided nature walk
Trained experts can help you spot the butterflies. The Palos Verdes conservancy, for example, provides a guided nature walk on the first Saturday of every month.
You can still enjoy public trails yourself, such as in Palos Verdes, but you might be better off focusing on hiking instead of spotting butterflies, as you don’t want to over-investigate and cause damage. Plus, many people misidentify butterflies, notes Sarabia, so a guide can help you safely spot them.
Friends of Ballona Wetlands also holds an annual viewing event of the El Segundo blue, typically the last week of June or the first week of July. The details are available only via the organization’s email list.
“It helps when people can come out and see what we’re all fighting for and feel an emotional and spiritual connection to something,” says Frechette.
3. Add native plants to your home
Want blue butterflies to come to you? If you live near the coast in the South Bay, you might attract them by adding the native plants they rely on. Even if you’re a couple miles inland, or outside of the South Bay, adding native plants still helps.
“It’s really going to be critical, especially in the face of climate change, to support our wildlife and give our animals — butterflies and bees and things — places to find food and find sanctuary,” says Frechette.