Kloof's top 10 butterflies

Text and Photographs Steve Woodhall

I was discussing a topic for another article on butterflies with Paolo Candotti, when he suggested a look at our ten most often-seen butterflies. What a good idea, I thought! And with modern technology to help, it was quite easy to track them down.

Paolo put me in touch with Peter Spence who was working on an article on the nesting habits of the top ten birds of our area. Peter told me that he was working on Pentad 2945_3045, which covers Kloof, and I simply asked René Navarro of the Animal Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town to give me a butterfly list for this pentad.

A pentad is an area of ground bounded by five minutes of latitude and longitude. There are nine pentads in a Quarter-Degree Grid Square (QDGS), which is the unit of measurement used by our LepiMAP Virtual Museum (VM). This project allows anyone who can photograph a butterfly or moth to upload the image to an online database. There are thousands of species of Lepidoptera in South Africa, most of which are little-known and difficult to identify. The classical ‘butterflies’ are the easiest to determine, so we have a good record of these. But the fun of LepiMAPPING lies not only in getting an ID for easy species, but also in the thrilling prospect of discovering something new…

We have many local Citizen-scientists logging butterfly and moth data in the LepiMAP VM. As a result, the Kloof pentad has One of them, Mark Liptrot, keeps up the Kloof Conservancy website’s butterfly list – which currently sits at 149 species.  René’s list numbered 187 species, with 1800 records – which means we have some room for manoeuvre!

So what are our ‘Top Ten’? Well, starting at no 10…

10. Citrus Swallowtail

Papilio demodocus

Citrus Swallowtail butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
This is a very common and widespread species all over Africa and its caterpillars are familiar to all who own a lemon tree. There are 38 records in the VM, and one reason there aren’t more is that it’s a very active and fast flier. Not the easiest butterfly to capture on an image file! The same goes for all members of the Swallow- and Swordtail family, Papilionidae. This is not a big family and only six species are found in the Kloof LepiMAP list. The young caterpillars resemble bird droppings and the full-grown ones’ green colour with grey bands makes them well camouflaged. The chrysalis (or pupa) resembles a broken-off twig or piece of bark.

9. Common Mother-of-Pearl

Protogoniomorpha parhassus

Common Mother-of-Pearl butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
Again with 38 records, this is another big flashy butterfly that is often seen in Kloof gardens. They overwinter as adults, and we often see flocks of four or more chasing one another around the garden, their pearlescent wings flashing in the spring sun. They are quite easy to photograph when sitting still. It’s a member of the Brush-footed Butterflies, Nymphalidae, which at 68 species is the best-represented in Kloof’s list – probably because they tend to be easily seen and photographed. The spiny caterpillars feed on small low-growing plants in the Acanthaceae, such as Phaulopsis imbricata, which has no common name but is very common in our area. The pupa looks just like a curled up dead leaf and is very hard to spot among the undergrowth.

8. Blood-red Acraea

Acraea petraea

Blood-red Acraea butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
A third species with 38 records in the VM, this is a smaller butterfly that makes up for its lack of size with it brilliant Ferrari red colour. Another of the Nymphalidae, but a different subfamily to the Mother-of-Pearl. The caterpillar, another spiny chap, has only one host plant – the beautiful African Dog-rose, Xylotheca kraussiana. It concentrates the cyanide molecules the plant produces, and the red butterflies (and their bright orange pupae) are warning coloured. Having said that, cuckoos love to eat them…

7. Sooty Blue (or African Grass Blue)

Zizeeria knysna knysna

Sooty Blue butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
With 39 records, this tiny butterfly is called a Grass Blue because it is so often found on lawns. This is a member of the Gossamer-winged butterflies, or Lycaenidae. There are 51 species from this family in Kloof’s LepiMAP list, all of which are quite small butterflies. Its caterpillars don’t eat grass; they go for the little yellow-flowered Creeping Woodsorrel Oxalis corniculata that many gardeners try to eradicate from their lawns. They are tiny, green and hardly ever seen unless one confines a female butterfly in a small bottle with some of the host plant. A good advertisement for not killing anything in your lawn that isn’t grass, creating a green desert!

6. Blue Pansy

Junonia oenone oenone

Blue Pansy butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
Moving up the ladder of familiarity we come to another Nymphalidae butterfly that flies almost all over Kloof, the Blue Pansy, with 43 records. A small, confiding little butterfly, fond of sunny places and nectar plants. Like the Mother-of-Pearl they overwinter as adults, but instead of sleeping in dark places they come out on any sunny day and bask in the warmth. The small spiny caterpillars feed on many plants in the Acanthaceae, such as Creeping Foxglove Asystasia gangetica and Yellow Justicia Justicia flava.

5. African Migrant

Catopsilia florella

African Migrant butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
Unlike the previous species, the African Migrant with 46 records is usually a passer-by. Adults may spend time locally during winter, hibernating in heavy vegetation – but they are more often seen flying rapidly past, perhaps pausing to drink at a suitable flower. One of the reasons it’s so common is it’s host-plant, the ubiquitous intra-African invader, Peanut-butter Cassia, Senna didymobotryia. The green caterpillars are well-camouflages as are the leaf-like pupae. This is the only member of the Whites, Yellows and Tips to find its way onto the list – the Pieridae. There are 27 species on the list, but as they tend to be fast flying and seldom settle, perhaps are under-represented.

4. African Monarch

Danaus chrysippus orientis

African Monarch butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
Also at 46 records, the large African Monarch, with its lazy, floating flight pattern and bright orange colouring, is a common summer sight. It’s another of the Nymphalidae. The c onspicuous yellow-white-and-black hooped caterpillars, with their long black head and tail streamers, are easily found on the host-plants, Asclepiadaceae. The commonest host-plant is Gomphocarpus fruticosus, the Balloon Cottonbush. This is another distasteful species, but unlike Blood-red Acraea the African Monarch imbibes its poisons as an adult. They suck alkaloids from wilting plants such as Senecio and Heliotropium and metabolise them as poisons, as well as the pheromones the males use to attract females.

3. Bush Bronze

Cacyreus lingeus

Bush Bronze butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
Another tiny blue butterfly in the Lycaenidae, Bush Bronze (a misnomer) flies higher than the Sooty Blue and is more eye-catching. Males are fond of choosing prominent twigs where they perch, wings-open, appearing to sun themselves. But they are more likely to be displaying, to discourage other males from entering their territory. At 48 records this is the most often-recorded of our small blue butterflies. Probably because its caterpillars have a wide host-plant spectrum and feed on many Spur-flowers Plectranthus sp., indigenous as well as exotic. The introduced weed Verbena bonariensis is also a host-plant.

2. Common Hottentot Skipper

Gegenes niso niso

Common Hottentot Skipper, photo by Steve Woodhall
At 50 records, this busy little butterfly’s caterpillar eats various species of grass. It flies low, settling often with wings in the characteristic ‘Skipper’ pose. Its buzzing flight requires a lot of energy so they are usually seen guzzling nectar from flowers. This is the only ‘Skipper’ (family Hesperiidae) on the list, probably because it is one of the most confiding of its family. There are 35 species found in Kloof, but many tend to be crepuscular, or fly so fast that people never have a photo opportunity!

1. Common Bush Brown

Bicyclus safitza safitza

Common Bush Brown butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
Common Bush Brown butterfly, photo by Steve Woodhall
With 72 records this is by some distance the most frequently recorded Kloof butterfly in LepiMAP. Another Nymphalidae species, it has a slow, low, dancing flight and loves shade. It’s often seen flying in dull and rainy weather. It flies in most months of the year and easily sits still, posing for a photograph – perhaps why it is so well represented in our database. In spring, several individuals may be seen flying slowly in a circle, their up-and-down bobbing flight reminding one of children dancing around a maypole. The green or brown caterpillar feeds on forest shade grasses such as Basket-grass, Oplismenus hirtellus. It is nocturnal and hides in grass clumps during the day, so unless you watch a female laying an egg and rear it in captivity, you are not likely to see one.

Most of these butterflies can be seen in the book I have just written with Garden Designer, Lindsay Gray, Gardening for Butterflies (Struik Nature). The book shows you how to structure and plant your garden to attract local butterflies to it. It covers the butterflies and moths most often seen in gardens of SA, with their early stages and host-plants. In Kloof we are fortunate to have several parks and a large nature reserve in our midst, acting as reservoirs for butterflies. So it isn’t difficult to build up a large garden population. In this way your property becomes an extension of the nature reserves, and helps maintain our butterfly and moth biodiversity.

Talking of biodiversity, the aforementioned ‘LepiMAP’ is a joint venture between the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa an d the ADU, which provided the information underlying this article. It was born from the SA Butterfly Conservation Assessment (SABCA) which started up the Virtual Museum from which most of the data was gathered. Anyone who can handle a digital camera and an internet connection can submit data to LepiMAP, and we call on all to do so. It is the main means by which we monitor and measure our butterfly and moth biodiversity.

Recently, LepSoc and the SA National Biodiversity Institute, SANBI, have introduced a new partnership, SALCA – the SA Lepidoptera Conservation Assessment. This forms part of SANBI’s new National Biodiversity Assessment for all lifeforms, due in 2018. As far as butterflies and moths are concerned, it will draw on several data sources, including LepiMAP. It is particularly appropriate because it sets out to identify ‘development no-go zones’, which have particularly rich biodiversity and concentrations of threatened or rare species. So we need you all to go out and LepiMAP – especially in areas that are under-represented in the data. You can read more by going to the LepiMAP page, or by visiting the LepiMAP Facebook page.

Steve Woodhall is a butterfly enthusiast and photographer who began watching and collecting butterflies at an early age. He is President of the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa, and has contributed to and authored several books, including Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa and the popular What’s that Butterfly?