When you are a soft and squishy larva of a butterfly you need to send out a clear message to potential predators: DON’T EAT ME – rather find something else looking less fearsome and palatable! This message is loud and clear in these four examples:
They have appeared all over the garden – all within two weeks. All are spiky and brightly coloured:
This is one of several threading their way through the grass on the lawn.
Several have been crawling along the outside walls of our house.
Some have even been seen wending their way on the lid of the dustbin.
I won’t venture to guess which butterfly these are the larva of but, judging by the number of them in our garden, we should be getting a lot of them here sometime!
Brown-veined White Butterflies (Belenois aurota) are fairly easily recognised. Other common names for this butterfly include Pioneer, Pioneer White and Caper White.
There is a touch of yellow in the wings of this one.
The wings of this one are a little ragged.
Is this a much younger one? Looked at from above, it looks different – is it a Brown-veined White?
Dozens of these butterflies were flying above and in between the grass on the edge of town last month – perhaps these were the vanguard of the enormous migrations that had many South Africans agog at their numbers earlier in the year. Apparently these butterflies need to frequently replenish themselves with nectar to avoid dehydration and are particularly attracted to grass nectar – which would explain the numbers of them that settled briefly on the long grass.
Their annual north-easterly migration usually occurs during mid-summer, although the actual timing may depend on factors such as drought and rain. During this time they provide food for other insects and birds.
Horta, from the Latin hortus, means garden. Given the plethora of the reddish-orange butterflies that have been fluttering through the garden, it comes as no surprise to find the Garden Acraea is scientifically known as Acraea horta. If you get half a chance to look at one closely, you will see its black spots that are shorthand for ‘distasteful’, a warning to birds to leave it alone and seek something else for a snack.
Apparently it is distasteful because its larva extracts cyanide from its host plant and carries it through to the mature stage, when it is exuded should the butterfly become injured or feel threatened. Such plants include the Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana), which we have growing in our garden. I must keep an eye on this tree for the spikey caterpillars will doubtless be stripping leaves off it during autumn. The Garden Acraea also visit the Tacoma capensis (Cape Honeysuckle), which is coming into bloom now.
Both the Diederik Cuckoo and the Red-chested Cuckoo – fleeting visitors to our garden – do not appear to be affected by the cyanide content of the caterpillars and are happy to eat them. You may want to read this fascinating article on the relationship between the caterpillars and the leaf cyanide in the Wild Peach: https://journals.co.za/content/veld/73/1/AJA00423203_2121
If you are interested in attracting butterflies to your South African garden, I recommend the book Gardening for Butterflies by Steve Woodhall and Lindsay Gray published by Struik Nature.
The seasons have turned and, if we’re not already sure of that, we could tell by the variety of butterflies flitting through the garden. Most are too high or too fast for me to capture and then there is a host of Cape Autumn Widow (Dira clytus) butterflies that fly slowly just above the level of the grass, often settling on bare patches of ground.
These velvety brown butterflies only appear during March and April, when the warm, dry days provide perfect flying conditions. They sometimes land on the bricks surrounding the pool and wait obligingly to be photographed.
We have watched them with delight as they skim the lawn and dip into the surface of the pool in passing. Sadly, some take a dip too far:
During one teatime we rescued three Cape Autumn Widows in less than a minute – all within seconds of them landing in the water. Here is one on the pool net:
We have since covered the pool to slow down evaporation. This is another rescued butterfly, pausing to dry its wings. Doubtless the eyespots help to protect them from predatory birds – it is interesting that they are clear on the underside too:
I am pleased to report that it was able to continue its flight – many more were not as fortunate.
These photographs were taken with my aged cell phone.