‘‘Have you seen D’Urban’s Woolly Legs?” shouts Humphrey to his friend Hubert. Hubert, bedecked in a multi-pocketed khaki vest with magnifying glasses, nets and more paraphernalia than the average trout fisherman, answers, “No, but I’ve just seen a Yellow Zulu.”
“Splendid” replies Humphrey, “and remember that we’re still looking for Mrs Raven’s Flat.”
The two men are in the middle of an open field and there isn’t a block of flats in sight, nor a yellow Zulu for that matter. So just what on earth are these two fictional fanatics up to? They’re collecting butterflies, and when most people think of butterfly collectors, Humphrey and Hubert are probably more or less what comes to mind. It’s a nerdy pursuit after all – just reflect on the members of your high school’s Lepidopterist Society – and to be interested in butterflies means you must be some kind of nature geek, right?
Well, I’ve been involved with birding for years and that’s geeky enough, but recently I faced the prospect of searching for D’Urban’s Woolly Legs and other species of butterfly as leader of a tour group in KwaZulu-Natal. My biggest fear was that the tour would somehow be miraculously booked up (they’re normally cancelled for lack of interest) and I’d be faced with six Huberts and Humphreys – serious lepidopterists in other words – while leading my first butterfly trip.
As it turned out only two people booked for the tour and, although keen, were very accepting of my novice status, relieving me of much apprehension. We had great fun in our quest for Yellow Zulus and so on, and I learned a lot from them, so much so that casual observers might have mistaken me for their tour client.
DNA analysis is a powerful tool
We started out at the large wetland on the edge of Wakkerstroom. I strapped on my binoculars (10x42s for identifying specimens we couldn’t get close to), slung my camera over one shoulder and the pouch carrying my Field Guide to the Butterflies of South Africa over the other, grabbed a large butterfly net and Voila! – I was ready to begin.
Soon, however, I discovered the net wasn’t necessary as our aim was to identify as many species of butterfly as we could without disturbing them – as we would do by netting them. Granted, butterflies are often so much more difficult to identify than birds that simply looking at them is not enough. Many are only two to three centimetres across and very similar to others, differing only in the vein patterns on their wings or other tiny anatomical features.
Indeed, in some cases even the experts aren’t always sure whether they’re dealing with two butterflies of the same species or not.
DNA analysis is an important tool in this respect, but obviously it was way beyond the scope of my clients and I, so our method was to ‘capture’ as many butterflies as we could on our digital cameras and then, over sundowners, view them on a laptop and use the book to identify them. The method proved highly successful and also meant we didn’t have to worry about getting provincial collecting permits.
She’s a mimic
Not all butterflies are difficult to identify. The Swallowtails, Emperors and Swordtails are large and colourful, kind of like the Rollers and Bee-eaters of the butterfly world. Not that they sit still for long, but a quick glance is often enough to make an identification. The Citrus Swallowtail (the large, common and fast-flying yellow-and-black butterfly seen all across the country) is a case in point.
The Green-banded Swallowtail, which is fairly common in the north and east of the country, is also easily identifiable, having spectacular green to blue lines across a velvety black background on its upper wings. Unfortunately, it is not often seen perched with its wings open.
The Mocker Swallowtail is another easy one, or at least the male is. He’s a subtle but attractive sulphur-yellow colour with a large black trailing edge to the wing and well-developed swallowtails. He also measures 10 centimetres across, making him hard to miss. The female is harder to put your thumb on as she’s a mimic, copying other species (a copied species is referred to as the ‘model’), such as the well-known African Monarch, the Friar, Layman and Chief – all of the family Danaidae. Mimicking the unpleasant tasting Danaids protects her from predators. Other mimics include the Diadems, for which the models are also the Danaids.
Not all butterflies are bright and colourful either. The Evening and Bush Browns are, as their names suggest, cryptically coloured. But they’re still attractive, with subtle brown hues and large, dark eyespots. They are active at dusk and can often be seen flitting around in shady spots where they are usually easy to approach when settled.
Noticeable and ‘lovable’
Butterflies are more prolific in tropical environments. The UK has about 56 species, we have 666 and Peru has a staggering 3500+. In South Africa, the north and east provide the richest pickings. The northern KwaZulu-Natal coastal strip is particularly good and that’s where we headed after Wakkerstroom, with stops in St Lucia and Eshowe, among other places.
As they are outside game reserves it means you can walk about, which is the best way to see butterflies. What’s more, if you’re in a good spot you simply have to wait and let them come to you. However, some of the bigger species are fast fliers and all you might get is a tantalising glimpse of one as it suddenly zooms past. And though species such as the African Monarch and Citrus Swallowtail are common and widespread, others are highly localised and might be known only from a few hectares of land, the Langeberg Skolly, Brenton Blue and Roodepoort Copper being examples. Others, such as the Rocksitters, are limited by lichens that grow on certain types of rocks or particular hillsides and are thus vulnerable to local environmental degradation.
Apart from being more noticeable and ‘lovable’ than other insects, butterflies are good indicators of environmental health and when they start to disappear, as is happening in the United Kingdom, it’s already way past the point when people should have started worrying.
Another great thing about butterflies is that they are found almost everywhere, from large game reserves and protected areas to your own backyard. Generally, the most important factor is the availability of suitable food plants, and to find half a dozen species visiting a certain flowering bush or tree can be quite exciting – for us nature geeks anyway.
True nature lovers
Because butterflies are ubiquitous it’s easy to begin learning about them and identifying them. A walk in the park or an afternoon in the garden can produce many new species. All you need is a field guide to help you, such as the Struik Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa by Steve Woodhall, as well as binoculars and perhaps a good digital camera – things which most nature lovers have anyway.
As I discovered on this tour, the only disadvantages in becoming a butterfly enthusiast are that you find yourself naming every unfortunate specimen as it becomes a yellow-green splat on your windscreen, and having to endure the chuckles of bystanders as you chase butterflies down, say, a main road – as we did in St Lucia. I don’t think this bothered my clients, but I felt somewhat like a Humphrey or a Hubert.
Oh well, if you can’t beat them I guess you might as well join them.
My thanks to the Lepidopterists’ Society of South Africa for help in confirming the identification of the species photographed.