An Amazing Butterfly Irruption Is Swarming Across California

Painted lady butterflies pause to feed on the nectar of California's superbloom near Thousand Palms.
Painted lady butterflies pause to feed on the nectar of California’s superbloom near Thousand Palms.

Currently, skies in Southern California look like a scene out of Hitchcock—a little less moody, maybe, and a bit more ethereal. From Burbank to Redondo Beach to South Central Los Angeles and beyond, swarms of butterflies have been flitting throughout the air in a fever dream of irruption and migration. And with the overall numbers of these tiny, two-to-three-inch butterflies, known as painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), appearing to be down in the region (from around 300,000 in 2017 to 25,000 last year, according to one monitoring program), this magical burst of lepidopterans brings both wonder and hope.

The painted lady fluorescence is the result of an unusually rainy winter in California—and in the deserts in particular, which also helped spur this spring’s wildflower superbloom. In a statement, James Danoff-Burg, conservation director of the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, said “the average annual rainfall in the Coachella Valley is three inches. This year, we had three and a half inches on Valentine’s Day alone.” Art Shapiro, an ecologist at University of California, Davis, who’s been studying butterfly migration since 1972, told CNN that “Painted ladies tend to thrive when there’s a superbloom because there are so many plants for the butterflies to lay their eggs on and for caterpillars to eat.” While these butterflies migrate from Mexico every year, through Southern California’s deserts, to the Pacific Northwest, they usually go relatively undetected because there aren’t quite so many of them.

This year’s phenomenon is referred to as an irruption. “The difference is that a migration is a seasonal occurrence,” says Matthew Shepherd of the Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. “An irruption is a sudden and massive surge in population…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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