Butterfly magic means we can all be joyful children again — standing face-to-face with a colourful monarch in wide-eyed wonder. Or perhaps with a large, black pipevine swallowtail with showy spots on its wings that look like orange eyes.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s new butterfly pavilion is the perfect place to introduce children and adults alike to the butterflies of Southern California and to the native plants on which their caterpillars live. The exhibit will be open through Aug. 1.

pipevine swallowtail butterfly on suisun thistle
The purple-flowered Suisun thistle entices a pipevine swallowtail. Butterflies seem to be particularly attracted to purple and lavender flowers. The blue sheen on this pipevine indicates this is a male butterfly.

“The 24’ x 36’ butterfly pavilion, erected near the Lantz Outdoor Classroom, is a temporary [net] enclosure that combines science education and interactive fun for visitors of all ages. Visitors can walk among the butterflies and caterpillars as they feed; see caterpillars pupate into chrysalids and emerge as butterflies,” states the RSABG Web site.

As many as twelve visitors can be in the butterfly tent at one time. The large plants are planted in pots sunk into the ground, smaller plants directly in the soil. A few of the plants will stay in place all year round.

Then the process repeats itself as butterflies mate and lay eggs.

There are 10 to 12 species of butterflies in the enclosure, some grown at home by the curator of the butterfly pavilion, Bob Allen, affectionately known as “BugBob.” The charmingly-eccentric entomologist also catches butterflies in the local mountains.

Others are raised at the butterfly house and on the grounds of the botanical garden, and some are purchased from outside vendors.

bob allen ties pupa, a chrysalis, to a stick so the emerging butterfly can be seen by viewers. the stick is placed in the vestibule of the butterfly pavilion. girl middle emeri, girl right - both 4.5
Bob “BugBob” Allen ties a chrysalis to a stick so the emerging butterfly can be seen by visitors to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden’s Butterfly Pavilion. Allen patiently explains the process to Emeri, middle, and Meg, both 4 1/2 years-old. They each chose a pupa to hang and where on the stick they wanted it placed.

Early in the day the butterflies are quietly napping but as it warms up they become more active. They sleep hanging on the netting and on the plants and on cloudy days the insects are less active.

I asked BugBob what do butterflies eat?

“Butterfly adults eat nectar secreted by plants, mostly from the flowers. Adults will take nectar from most any plant that secretes nectar but they appear to visit most often, plants that have purple flowers such as thistles, coyote mint, and sages.

In the caterpillar stage, most eat only specific species of plants. For example: California dogface butterfly caterpillars eat only false indigo; monarchs — milkweed and pipevine swallowtails — Dutchman’s pipe,” he said.

California dog-face butterfly
On July 28, 1972, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill designating the California dog-face butterfly (seen here sipping on a seaside daisy) the official State Insect of California after it had served for more than forty years in an unofficial capacity.
monarch butterfly chrysalis
The outside of a monarch butterfly’s chrysalis looks as if it has gold beads on it.

There are feeders around the pavilion that contain sugar water and ripe or rotting fruit. And there are butterfly feeders that are also commercially available for home use. (sugar water recipe below)

The number of butterflies varies daily. When I was there, about 40 individuals were flitting about. As chrysalids begin to emerge there could be as many as another 50 over the next few days.

The pavilion was the brainchild of Lorrae Fuentes, the former Director of Education at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, (RSABG) who decided to create the exhibit in December 2009.

Fuentes and Allen did the rough design, then sat down with Ken Fall of BioQuip Products, Inc., Rancho Dominguez, Calif. The three finalized the design and then RSABG contracted BioQuip to build it.

In addition to insects in the enclosure, there are mounted specimens of butterflies. Those are good “because people can see features up close and see the butterflies with their wings open — many times butterflies rest with their wings closed,” Allen said. And specimens “don’t fly as fast,” he joked.

Before landing on my shoe, this mourning cloak sipped nectar from a dudleya.

There is also a self-running slide show in the Lantz outdoor classroom. The space was created in memory of the late Walter Lantz and his wife Gracie. Lantz originated the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker and his foundation is a great supporter of RSABG.

While we were talking, BugBob jumped up and grabbed his net to try to ensnare a tiger swallowtail — a species that he has yet to capture for the enclosure. The insect was too fast and Bob came back, empty net in hand.

There are three main rules to follow when visiting the butterfly pavilion:

1. Don’t touch the butterflies

2. Stay on the sandy path

3. Only open one door at a time (there are four), which lowers the chance of a butterfly escaping. They are natives to Southern California so if one does escape it is going to be OK, but the caretakers of the butterflies don’t want to lose any!

Even though you can’t touch a butterfly, it is considered good luck to have one land on you. And a little disconcerting I might add, almost magical.

Four-year-old Amanda is excited when a butterfly lands on her purple blouse. “It really loves me,” she said.



Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden
Where: 1500 N. College Ave, Claremont, CA 91711
When: 7 days a week 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
California Garden Shop: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Closed January 1, July 4, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day


Sugar Water
1 part sugar, 4 parts water = 20% sugar

Telephone: 909-625-8767
Web: www.rsabg.org/index.php
Members — Free
Adults — $8
Seniors (65+) — $6
Students w/ valid ID —$6
Children aged 3 to 12 —$4
No charge for children under 3

The butterfly exhibit will be open daily 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition to standard RSABG admission fees, the entry fee for the Butterfly Pavilion is $2 a person.

Small outdoor insect cages
BioQuip Products, Inc., Rancho Dominguez, CA.

Butterfly Feeder


  1. Dear Lara . . .
    Just returned from the Sawdust Festival and visited your site and enjoyed your photos; especially the one with the young girl and the “flutterby.”
    Now, can’t wait for your photo(s) of my grandson, Michael, as he prepared to tie-dye his T-shirt this afternoon. (NO pressure on you to do so, of course!)

    Leigh Hess (note the initials?)
    Long Beach, CA


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