Home & Garden Columns

Film Details the World of Wild Butterflies

By Steven Finacom
Friday June 09, 2006

It’s a tough world for the seemingly fragile butterfly. 

Not only must butterflies go through repeated and incredible physical changes to reach adulthood, but at every stage they’re beset by predators and threats from the weather, chemicals and pesticides, lack of suitable food, and encroachment on habitat by humans and invasive plants. 

A new film, directed and produced in the Bay Area by Oaklander Bill Levinson, provides a provocative and visually rich look at the familiar insects and the cycles of their lives. 

In The Company of Wild Butterflies can be seen locally this Saturday in San Francisco or next Tuesday, June 13, along with a special tour at the UC Botanical Garden (See sidebar). 

Levinson, who has other documentary film work to his credit, became fascinated with butterflies at the Berkeley garden of his sister, UC-trained Sally Levinson, who characterizes herself as a “consulting entomologist.” 

He began to film, up close, the habits and transformations of the wild butterflies she welcomes to her yard and often raises indoors during their pre-flight stages. 

The result, with the expert assistance of his sister and others, is a sympathetic and engaging documentary illuminating the multiple lives of butterflies and what they need to survive and co-exist in a world dominated by humans. 

It’s likely that no other creature with which humans come in regular contact goes through such complex change as the butterfly. It experiences four distinctively different stages of life: egg, larva, chrysalid, and winged adult. 

The changes are startling in form and scale. The film notes that if a human infant grew as fast as a caterpillar, it would achieve not only adulthood, but some ten tons in added weight, within a few weeks. 

The core and exotic beauty of the documentary is the presentation of the butterfly life cycle, shifting back and forth between various locally familiar species, including fawn brown buckeyes, yellow and black anise swallowtails, orange and black painted ladies, orange and silver fritillaries, cabbage whites, and monarchs. 

Amazing transformational moments are detailed on film, from tiny, translucent, caterpillars chewing their way out of egg shells, to an older growing, caterpillar molting off its tight skin, to the adult butterfly emerging from its chrysalid case. 

The film is most engaging and informative in capturing the nuances of each stage. For example, the molting caterpillar pulls its brain backwards, out of its hard exoskeleton “skull.” 

Detailed close-up images have caused some buzz in the entomological community, including a newly molted caterpillar inflating the spines that protect it from insect and bird predators, and caterpillars preparing for the chrysalid stage by shedding their skins and attaching themselves to twigs. 

The survival of butterflies is tied to the survival of their “host plants.” Many butterfly caterpillars are adapted to eat only one species or variety of plant. 

If a native plant loses ground to habitat destruction, the butterfly loses right along with it. 

And, as speakers in the documentary note, modern gardening, particularly in public spaces like schoolyards and parks, often disdains butterfly food plants as “weedy” and undesirable, replacing them with plants that are “pretty” or “low maintenance” but entirely useless to native insects. 

A few local butterflies have adapted, making the transition from one host plant to another. 

For instance, those large yellow and black anise swallowtails that are some of the showiest butterflies in the East Bay used to live on native yampah, but now thrive on fennel, a ubiquitous “invasive” typically found in local vacant lots and along roadsides. 

And cabbage whites, themselves exotic non-natives in California, don’t exclusively dine on cabbage anymore, but also favor garden nasturtiums. 

Throughout the film, common myths about butterflies are gently debunked. 

For example the adult female, flitting from plant to plant, isn’t primarily looking for flower nectar to drink. That ranks a distant third, after finding a mate and suitable host plants on which to lay eggs. 

The film presentation is very straightforward, with no fancy graphics, just a few subtitles and arrows to point out key features. 

Some entomological humor creeps in through the section titles, including “Exoskeletons in the Closet” and “Extreme Makeovers” along with descriptions of adult butterfly mating rituals including what’s called “bar hopping.” 

The narration is clear and simple, but doesn’t talk down to the viewer. A lot of technical terms pop up, from cremaster, to proleg, to instar, but are reasonably understandable in the context of the presentation. 

This is truly a local documentary. Almost all of the filming was done in Oakland or Berkeley, much of it in the Willard neighborhood, with a few excursions to San Francisco, San Bruno Mountain, and the Antioch Dunes. 

The latter two settings present discouraging scenes as butterfly seekers trudge by meadows overrun with invasive, butterfly-unfriendly, weeds and hillsides scraped down to bare earth to make way for new housing developments. 

There are cameo appearances by locals including San Francisco environmental activist Barbara Deutsch and Jerry Powell, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a nationally known butterfly expert. 

The film closes with encouragement to the viewer to “begin with the smallest steps in our own backyards” to help native butterflies survive. 

Most important, this means planting some larval food plants, and keeping the garden free of chemical pesticides. 

The narrator also notes that the “smallest plot of unused land, public or private, can often be a haven for butterflies.” 

A narrow sideyard, the verge between curb and sidewalk, or a few feet along the edge of a school play yard, as at Le Conte Elementary in southeast Berkeley, can effectively serve this purpose. 


In the Company of Wild Butterflies screens Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, with Bill and Sally Levinson present. Museum admission charge. 

The UC Botanical Garden screens the film Tuesday, June 13, at 7 p.m. At 6 p.m. Sally Levinson, and local landscape and butterfly habitat designer Andy Liu who also consulted on the film, will lead evening tours of butterfly friendly plants in the garden. $10 general public, pre-registration required. For more information, see http://botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu. 

The film may also be purchased or rented from Bullfrog Films, at www.bullfrogfilms.com. 


Photograph by Steven Finacom 

A West Coast Lady nectars on lantana, a good plant for generalized butterfly gardening.