Butterfly watching and photography is rapidly growing in popularity. You can even buy binoculars designed specially for butterfly watching, and the new smartphones have macro capabilities. Many birders are now becoming butterflyers, and this all adds to their appreciation of nature.
However, like birds, butterflies have their problems. Small dull birds have been labelled ‘LBJ’s’ – little brown jobs. There are also butterfly LBJ’s, but they are little blue jobs. In Kloof we have 23 species of these! More if you count the Hairtails (Anthene species) but they are easy to tell apart as groups – in the interests of simplicity we’ll keep these apart for now!
Black-striped Hairtail Anthene amarah
This is a typical example of a Hairtail. They have two (sometimes three) tiny bristle-like tails at the anal angle (tail end) of the hind wing, as shown by the arrows on this image:
Black-striped Hairtail Anthene amarah amarah male underside showing bristle-like tails
We have four Hairtails in our area, Black-striped, Common, Large and Spotted. For this article we’ll concentrate on the Blues.
Most people struggle with the Blues. They tend to be tiny, fast-flying, and hard to tell apart. Fortunately, they are fond of nectar and wet earth, so with a pair of binoculars or a telephoto macro you can get in close enough to tell them apart. If all else fails, net them and put them in a little plastic bottle of the sort you can buy easily in a plastics shop.
The upper sides often offer few clues; besides, these butterflies seldom settle wings-open for long enough to spot the differences. Luckily, the underside markings are distinctive enough to tell them apart, so we can concentrate on those. Let’s group them and look for common features, then distinguishing features.
Bronzes (Genus Cacyreus)
Three species – Common Geranium (C. marshalli), Bush (C. lingeus) and Mocker (C. virilis)
Common Geranium Bronze Cacyreus marshalli underside
This is the common little butterfly whose larvae eat your geraniums, and is easy to tell from the other two local Bronzes. Apart from the always-brown upper side, there are three identifying marks on the hindwing underside. A = double tooth mark in the lower corner of the wing, B = short, narrow dark band crossing wing base from inner margin, C = narrow ‘V’ shaped spot on leading edge (‘costa’) with inner edge leaning ‘away’ from body. Males and females have the same upper side markings.
Bush Bronze Cacyreus lingeus underside
Another common species in our area, whose larvae feed on Lamiaceae (Plectranthus and allies), not Pelagonaceae. The male upper side is plain bronzy blue and the female is dark grey with white and blue marks. Underside is similar to the other two local Bronzes, with these differences. A = single mark in lower corner of hind wing. B = broad, dark band crossing wing base from inner margin. C = broad ‘V’ shaped spot on leading edge (‘costa’) with inner edge leaning ‘towards’ body.
Mocker Bronze Cacyreus virilis underside
Less common in our area than the other two species. The host plants and upper sides are similar to Bush Bronze. The underside is also similar, with two clear differences. A = broad ‘V’ shaped spot on leading edge (‘costa’) with inner edge leaning ‘away’ from body. B = conspicuous white streak across middle of hindwing, parallel to costa.
Blues with banded or striped undersides
Some blues have notably striped or banded undersides. On closer inspection one can see that the three species found in Kloof with such undersides are not difficult to tell apart.
Zebra Blues (Genus Leptotes)
There are four species of Zebra Blue found in South Africa that are identical on the wing surfaces. The only way to tell them apart is by inspection of the male genitalia under a strong lens. This is seldom convenient, and it has the disadvantage of killing the specimen. DNA is the only way to tell the females apart.
Zebra Blue Leptotes sp. underside
From convention we normally label these butterflies as ‘Leptotes sp.’ although the great majority are most likely to be the Common Zebra Blue (used to be ‘Common Blue’), Leptotes pirithous. The underside has a distinctive pattern of irregular white-edged dark grey blotches and bands on a paler grey ground. The only butterfly that can easily be confused with it is the much rarer Sesbania Zebra Blue Leptotes pulchra pulchra, which has a paler underside ground colour. Some people confuse it with the larger Pea Blue (below) but that butterfly has a distinctive broad white submarginal stripe on the underside. Zebra Blue males are plain blue on the upperside and females have a pattern of grey spots and bands on a white and blue ground. Common Zebra Blue is very widespread and is even found (rarely) in England where it rejoices in the name of ‘Lang’s Short-tailed Blue’.
Pea Blue (Genus Lampides)
Pea or Long-tailed Blue Lampides boeticus underside
Known as Pea Blue in Africa and Asia, and Long-tailed Blue in England, this is the largest blue in Kloof to have a striped underside. Its tails are longer than those of the Zebra Blues and the underside hindwing has a distinctive outer white band (arrowed). Males are plain blue on the upper side, females grey-brown with blue patches. The larvae feed on many species of Fabaceae (peas and legumes) and can be a pest on domesticated peas. This is the only member of its genus in the world and it is found almost all over the Old World, reaching as far as England.
Dusky Blue or Dusky Lineblue (Genus Pseudonacaduba)
Dusky Blue or Dusky Lineblue Pseudonacaduba sichela sichela underside
Pseudonacaduba is a small African genus of two species, one of which is found in Kloof. It’s a small, inconspicuous little butterfly whose grey underside carries a pattern of white-centred, white-edged grey bands. Unlike the other two ‘stripy’ blues it has no hindwing tails.
This modest little butterfly is often overlooked as it sucks on wet mud or flowers, and isn’t as common as the other two. The male upperside is dull dark blue and the female is grey with brighter blue patches.
Blues with bands of spots on their undersides, and an orange spot near the tail
Smoky Blues (Genus Euchrysops)
There are three medium sized Blues found in Kloof that can confuse even the experts! The underside patterns are very similar with certain differences. All have bands of white-edged grey-brown spots on the outer edges of the undersides, and white-ringed, dark brown to black spots in the basal half of the hindwing underside. The larvae all feed on Fabaceae host plants such as wild Black-eyed Pea Vigna, which is common in our area.
Osiris Smoky Blue Euchrysops osiris underside
Osiris Smoky Blue is a colourful species widespread over the eastern side of South Africa. The underside can be told apart from the other Euchrysops Smoky Blues in Kloof by the double black and blue hindwing tail eyespots with orange ‘lunules’ (half-moon shaped spots) next to them (arrowed). There is a single hind wing tail.
The male has a plain violaceous-blue upper side and the female is dark grey with bright blue patches. This butterfly is slightly smaller than the Pea Blue, but larger than the Common Zebra Blue.
Barker’s Smoky Blue Euchrysops barkeri underside
Barker’s Smoky Blue is less widespread than Osiris Smoky Blue, and is usually associated with low-lying, marshy areas close to the coast. However, there are populations in Kloof, particularly inside Krantzkloof Nature Reserve. At least two of these are contiguous with populations of Osiris Smoky Blue, which raises the interesting possibility of these two closely related species hybridising.
The main difference between the species is the single black and blue hindwing tail eyespot with an associated orange lunule (arrowed). However, Krantzkloof specimens sometimes have a faint second orange lunule.
Male Barker’s Smoky Blues have powder-blue, not violaceous-blue, upper sides and the females are paler on the upper side with wider white spots and bands. The females found in Kloof are definitely distinctive.
Barker’s Smoky Blue Euchrysops barkeri female upper side
Osiris Smoky Blue Euchrysops osiris female upper side
Common Smoky Blue Euchrysops malathana underside
Common Smoky Blue is easy to tell from the other Smoky Blues on its underside hindwing, which has no tail and single black and blue hindwing tail eyespot with an associated orange lunule (arrowed – like Barker’s Smoky Blue). The female upper side is similar to that of Barker’s Smoky Blue but the missing tail is diagnostic. The male’s upper side is plain mid-grey, not blue, which makes it easy to tell apart.
Blues (Genus Eicochrysops)
Eicochrysops is a genus of small blues, 15 species in Africa, two in SA. They have distinctive upper sides, but the undersides can be confused with other blues.
Cupreous Blue Eicochrysops messapus mahallokoeana underside
Cupreous Blue is a very small species with a distinctive upper side in both sexes. It has no hindwing tails and can be confused with Common Meadow Blue, but for the differences arrowed here. A = orange patch near hind wing lunules ‘bleeds’ into surrounding grey areas; B = post discal row of spots forms a band edged with white.
Cupreous Blue Eicochrysops messapus mahallokoeana male upper side
Cupreous Blue Eicochrysops messapus mahallokoeana male upper side
Once seen, the male upper side is unforgettable with his basal patches of pinkish copper. The female is very dark and can be confused with Grass Jewel, except for the number of hind wing orange spots, and the less ‘spotty’ underside. The larvae use Thesium sp. as host plant, which is quite specialised so this butterfly tends to be found in isolated colonies.
White-tipped Blue Eicochrysops hippocrates underside
White-tipped Blue is related to Cupreous Blue, but its appearance is very different and it is confined to wet places. The underside is very pale – almost white – and sparsely marked with tiny dark grey to black dots. The hind wing has a tail (unlike Cupreous Blue) and a small orange lunule next to a black dot. Both sexes’ upper side is unmistakable. The male upper side is dark brown with conspicuous white forewing tips. The female upper side is dark grey with shiny blue patches. The larvae use Persicaria and Rumex, water plants.
Meadow Blues (Genus Cupidopsis)
Meadow Blues live in grassland and grassy savanna, and fly along rapidly, low down. There are two species – one has hindwing tails, the other does not. Both have grey undersides with patterns of black dots, and a white submarginal band on the hind wing underside. The larvae use low-growing Fabaceae such as Vigna, Rhynchosia and Eriosema.
Common Meadow Blue Cupidopsis cissus cissus underside
Common Meadow Blue is similar in size to the Smoky Blues, but its underside is closer to that of Cupreous Blue. As shown by the arrows above, A = orange hindwing lunules are edged with black and do not ‘bleed’ into the surrounding grey areas. B = White submarginal band, lacking in Cupreous Blue. C = white-ringed black spots The male upper side is plain blue, and the female has a pattern of white blotches on a blue ground.
Tailed Meadow Blue Cupidopsis jobates jobates underside
Tailed Meadow Blue is smaller than Common Meadow Blue, and the sexes are similar. It has a similar grey underside, but the differences are: A = the orange lunules run together into a band along the hind wing underside margin. B = unlike Common Meadow Blue, this butterfly has hind wing tails.
Grass Jewel (Genus Chilades)
Grass Jewel Chilades trochylus underside
Grass Jewel upper side is superficially similar to a female Cupreous Blue, but the sexes are similar. The underside is distinctive. Like Cupreous Blue it has no tails, which sets it apart from the other small blue with extensive orange lunules, Tailed Meadow Blue. As shown by the arrows: A = row of three ‘jewelled’ hind wing spots with orange lunules. B = conspicuous white-edged black basal spots, unlike the small greyish ones on Cupreous Blue. The larvae feed on low-growing Indigofera plants.
Tiny Blues with bands of spots on their undersides, with no orange spot near the tail
Rayed Blue (Genus Actizera)
Rayed Blue Actizera lucida underside
There are two Actizera species in South Africa, this one and A. stellata, the Red-clover Blue. That is a high altitude grassland species not found in our area. Rayed Blue male is blue on the upper side; female is grey-brown with blue patches. The underside is unmistakable with its bright white streak (arrowed). The larvae feed on Oxalis spp. as well as Argyrolobium, Rhynchosia and Crotolaria.
African Grass or Sooty Blue (Genus Zizeeria)
African Grass or Sooty Blue Zizeeria knysna underside
This and the next two species are probably the most often confused small blue butterflies. All have grey undersides with white-ringed black or dark grey spots, and marginal rows of grey blotches and lines. These are variable in size and shading – in some specimens they are large and very dark, in others, small and paler. It is the pattern that counts.
The distinctive features of African Grass Blue (also known as Sooty Blue) are arrowed here. A = discal (central) hind wing row of dark spots forms an even curve parallel to the outer edge of the wing, like Tiny Grass Blue but unlike Clover Blue. B = submarginal line is made up of white-edged arrows, like Clover Blue, but unlike Tiny Grass Blue where they form an undulating white-edged grey band.
Male upper side is dull blue with a broad grey-brown margin. Female is grey-brown with powder-blue patches. This is a familiar garden species whose larvae feed on common lawn weeds such as Oxalis corniculata and Tribulus terrestris.
Clover Blue (Genus Zizina)
Clover Blue Zizina otis antanossa underside
Clover Blue can be told apart by the arrowed features. A = discal (central) hind wing row of dark spots has second spot offset towards wing base. B = as in African Grass Blue, submarginal line is made up of white-edged arrows. Male upper side is bright, shiny blue with a narrow grey-brown margin. Female is grey-brown with silvery-blue patches. The larvae feed on Indigofera sp., and Desmodium incanum (Sweethearts – a pesky plant that does have a reason to exist, after all!)
Tiny Grass or Gaika Blue (Genus Zizula)
Tiny Grass or Gaika Blue Zizula hylax underside
Tiny Grass Blue (also known as Gaika Blue) is consistently the smallest blue butterfly in South Africa (although small specimens of Rayed Blue can rival it). Distinctive features of the hindwing underside are arrowed: A = like African Grass Blue, discal (central) hind wing row of dark spots forms an even curve parallel to the outer edge of the wing. B = unlike African Grass or Clover Blues, submarginal line forms an undulating white-edged grey band. The larvae feed on several species of Acanthaceae such as Justicia, Ruellia and Phaulopsis.
Babul Blues (Genus Azanus)
Babul Blues are a group of five tiny to small blues, three of which have been recorded from Kloof. All of them use Vachellia and Senegalia (used to be Acacia) as larvae. The underside markings are all similar but with some practice they can be told apart.
Topaz Babul Blue Azanus jesous jesous underside
Topaz Babul Blue (was called Topaz-spotted Blue) can easily be told apart from the other two local species by the arrowed features. A = hindwing underside postdiscal (just outboard of central) marks are bands, not spots. B = forewing tip has two brown bands. The male upper side is bright blue with a pinkish sheen. The female upper side is brown with a dark-centred white blotch in the forewing.
Black-bordered Babul Blue Azanus moriqua underside
Black-bordered Babul Blue (was called Thorn-tree Blue) is easy to mistake for Topaz Babul Blue, but the arrowed underside features can be used to distinguish it. A = underside forewing tip has grey-black band on a paler grey ground. B = hind wing underside postdiscal marks are spots. It can also be confused with Natal Babul Blue, but C shows the difference – the outer marginal black spot is closer to the margin than the neighbouring spot.
The male has a dull steel-blue upper side and the female’s is dull grey with paler grey patches.
Natal Babul Blue Azanus natalensis underside
Natal Babul Blue (was called Natal Spotted Blue) can be told apart from the other two local Babul Blues from the arrowed underside features. A = forewing underside tip has a single hard-edged dark brown or black stripe on a white ground. B = like Black-bordered Babul Blue the hind wing underside postdiscal marks are spots. C = unlike Natal Babul Blue, the outer marginal black spot is closer to the wing base than the neighbouring spot.
The male has a bright blue upperside and the female has a chequerspot pattern of white on dark grey, with blue wing bases.
Pierrots (Genus Zintha)
Hintza Pierrot Zintha hintza hintza underside
Hintza Pierrot, unlike the Pies, has a bright blue upperside, not black-and-white. It can easily be mistaken for a Natal Babul Blue, but for the upper side and the distinctive black-spotted white underside. And that underside is very similar to the Black Pie, but the forewing tip (arrowed) has a pattern of spots where a Pie has an inverted ‘T’ shaped mark. Female upper side resembles that of Natal Babul Blue.
Pies (Genus Tuxentius)
Black Pie Tuxentius melaena melaena underside
Pies are tiny butterflies that are not strictly speaking, blues – the upper sides are black-and-white (sexes similar). But the undersides are easy to mix up with the Hintza Pierrot and Natal Babul Blue, so we are showing one here. The only Pie we get in Kloof is the Black Pie.
The underside can be told apart from that of Hintza Pierrot by the inverted ‘T’ mark in the underside forewing tip, where the Pierrot has a pattern of spots.
I hope this little article will help you all in identifying these difficult little butterflies!
Steve Woodhall is a butterfly enthusiast and photographer who began watching and collecting butterflies at an early age. He was President of the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa for eight years, and has contributed to and authored several books, including Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa and the popular What’s that Butterfly? His app, Woodhall’s Butterflies of South Africa, is available via the App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android).