By Art Marroquin Staff Writer, DailyBreeze.com
Once teetering on the brink of extinction, the future of the El Segundo blue butterfly isn't quite so blue anymore.
Even with the roar of jetliners taking off just a few hundred feet above, the endangered butterflies have managed to thrive on a 200-acre preservation site just west of Los Angeles International Airport's northern runways.
"Butterflies don't have the same frequency of sound that we do because they hear more vibrational kinds of noises," entomologist Richard Arnold said as a plane's engine screamed overhead. "Jet noise might bother us, but it doesn't bother them."
Fewer than 500 El Segundo blue butterflies were counted near LAX in 1976, prompting the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife agency to place the insect on the endangered species list.
This year, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 El Segundo blues are flitting about on airport-owned land, a 10 percent increase from 2008, Arnold said.
The increase in population is attributed to LAX's ongoing efforts to manage the preserve, which includes counting the butterflies, maintaining the El Segundo sand dunes and removing non-native plants.
"It's been very successful because the butterflies are more abundant here now than they were 33 years ago," said Robert Freeman, LAX's environmental manager.
While the butterflies have come a long way, they aren't completely out of danger. Much of their survival is dependent on a wider effort to preserve the native seacliff buckwheat, which is considered to be the center of life for the El Segundo blues.
No bigger than the size of a fingernail, the petite insects emerge from their cocoons and spend their weeklong life span fluttering around the seacliff buckwheat plants, sucking nectar for nourishment while seeking out potential mates.
The summer flings typically last from mid-June to mid-August, giving the brown-winged females a brief window to lay about a dozen eggs daily after mating with blue-winged males.
"When you got four to seven days to create the next generation, then you're not going to want to do a whole heck of a lot else except feed and look for a mate," Arnold said.
A week later, caterpillars emerge from the eggs and feed on seeds within the buckwheat's white blooms. The pupae shed their skin four times within a month before spinning their cocoons deep beneath the buckwheat plants. The insects stay hidden for 10 to 11 months, emerging as butterflies the following summer.
"The whole process really is quite remarkable and beautiful," Freeman said.
Arnold, an insect scientist hired by LAX to count the El Segundo blues each year since 1977, completes his annual census using two different methods.
Twice a week during the summer flight season, Arnold holds a net and several colors of Sharpie markers as he walks a 1
"Not everyone can do this," Arnold said. "You have to be very careful not to damage their paper-thin wings or kill them."
During that time, Arnold also conducts a block census to examine each buckwheat shrub and counts individual butterflies. Tying the two separate counts together yields an estimated population of adult El Segundo blue butterflies for the summer, he said.
The butterflies are found in sand dunes that once served as a large residential neighborhood of about 300 homes that were bought by LAX during the late 1960s as part of a settlement with homeowners over jet noise.
But before those houses were built and much of the South Bay became established, the butterflies were found fluttering on the El Segundo dunes, which had once stretched 36 miles from Playa del Rey to San Pedro. As a result, variations of the blue butterfly are known to frequent parts of Torrance, Redondo Beach, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and a two-acre preserve at the Chevron refinery in El Segundo.
While a small portion of the El Segundo dunes was set aside by LAX in 1976, a formal restoration plan wasn't established by airport officials until a decade later. The entire 200-acre preservation site was finally completed in 1993, serving as a home to a wide assortment of rare or endangered plants, animals and insects that can't be found anywhere else.
"Among insects, butterflies are easier to get public support and political funding compared to, say, ants, wasps or cockroaches," Arnold said. "But they're all here and, in some cases, they are even more rare than the butterflies."
The El Segundo blue butterfly is very similar to the Sand Mountain blue butterfly found at the popular OHV recreation area in Nevada.