‘Butter-coloured flyning things’*

Butterflies are such integral parts of gardens that they are often taken for granted, almost being regarded as another colourful feature along with the flowers they pollinate.

It was only after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel Flight Behaviour, that I started consciously noticing and trying to identify butterflies in our garden. In the novel, a flock of Monarch butterflies is discovered on a Tennessee farm, far away from their normal migration route. This allows the author to explore climate change as it impacts on the lives and jobs of ordinary people in a fascinating and thought-provoking way.

Being a total butterfly ignoramus, this led me to all sorts of other questions – why do they migrate? how long do butterflies live? how do such fragile creatures survive? and many more. A wealth of information and the answers to many questions can be found in Steve Woodhall’s What’s that butterfly: a starter’s guide to butterflies of South Africa and Field Guide to butterflies of South Africa.

Citrus-Swallowtail Photo: Margaret Richards
Photo: Margaret Richards

And so I have started discovering all sorts of interesting things about the butterflies who regularly visit our garden. The large showy Citrus Swallowtail or Christmas butterfly (Papilio demodocus demodocus) who regularly hovers about the lemon tree, is attracted by the smell of citronella oil. The female lays her eggs on the leaves which are eaten by the young caterpillars when they hatch. The caterpillars then convert the citronella oil from the leaves to a concentrated defensive secretion and, when attacked, can spread a repulsive smell from glands behind their heads with forked, red protruding tubes, which make them look like small snakes – enough to deter the hungriest bird!

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) who loves the nectar of the Buddleia and Duranta, is found on every continent except Antarctica, and is strongly migratory. Apparently South African butterflies are not migratory in the sense that they do not make repeated journeys (like the North American Monarch butterfly which migrates from the US and southern Canada to Mexico and southern California in late summer/autumn, and returns north in spring). However, South African butterflies do fly considerable distances, usually in response to food shortages.

Adult butterflies appear when there is a food plant available for their larvae, which is of course influenced by climatic conditions. Therefore in the winter-rainfall Western Cape most butterflies are active in spring and early summer, and then again in late summer and autumn.  This explains why the Garden Inspector or Garden Commodore (Precis archesia archesia) has suddenly appeared in the garden – its larvae feed on Plectranthus species which are now flowering in great profusion. This butterfly has different colouring in summer and winter. I saw the summer form, which has cream bands on a dark brown background (the winter form has maroonish-red bands instead of cream).

Garden-Commodore Photo: Margaret Richards
Photo: Margaret Richards

I am so looking forward to learning more about these fascinating creatures at next month’s meeting.

*The word butterfly can be traced back to about AD700, to the Old English buterflege. It has been suggested that the most common British butterflies are cream or pale yellow – the colour of butter – hence ‘butter-coloured flying things’!

Article by Leonie Twentyman-Jones