Questions my Grand kids ask me: What Butterfly is that?
"Grandpa did you see that beautiful Butterfly in the garden? Do Butterflies have names? "
“Let’s go and look it up in the book called "The Wildlife of South Africa" and perhaps we can find it”. So off we go to try to identify one of the many kinds of Butterfly, Moths and Skippers found in South Africa. As this family of insect is the most colorful and also the most numerous this becomes an exciting adventure. It is even more interesting because there are still many kinds that have not yet been discovered and named. While some people believe that Butterflies can be identified as Butterflies rather than Moths because they spread their wings when perch, this is not true. Some Moths also do that. Butterflies, Moths and Skippers are all insects of the same species but different families.
As a part of the very large insect family they have very interesting names. African Monarch, Table Mountain Beauty, Pearl-spotted Charaxes, Small-spotted Sailor, Blue Pansy, Boland Skolly, African Leopard, Emperor Swallowtail, Cabbage Moth, Looper, Monkey Moth and Tiger Moth all tell us something about what they look like or where they are found.
Stages of development.
Did you know that Butterflies, Skippers and Moths all go through four stages of development? They start as eggs, change into larva, then become pupa and eventually break out of the cocoon to become the flying insects that we see in the garden. “Of course we know Grandpa, we have had silkworms haven’t we?”
But do you know how they defend themselves from being eaten by the many things that feed on them? They use many methods to protect themselves.
Firstly some can fly quickly and erratically. If you ever tried to catch a butterfly in a net you will know that.
Secondly some, especially moths, are very good at disguise. These can look just like the bark of a tree or a leaf and so are very difficult to spot. Some also only come out at night and so the dark hides them - they are what we call nocturnal, in other words they hide away during the day and feed at nighttime.
Thirdly others have the ability to imitate other kinds that are not at all pleasant to eat and so when in danger they can change what they look like.
Fourthly some can give off nasty smelling substances that discourage attack. Tiger Moths give off bubbling drops of repellent. Can you think of an animal that also uses this method?
Fifthly some kinds have a toxic (poisonous) spray that they can use to discourage enemies.
These are some of the clever ways that these fascinating insects use to defend themselves from predators. This subject makes an interesting study of its own.
Part of the food chain.
It is also interesting to know that Butterflies and Moths make up an important part of the food chain in our world. Many insects and animals feed on them. The worms feed on plants and then they and the Butterflies/Moths/Skippers are in turn fed on by many secondary consumers. These include fish, birds, spiders and small animals like monkeys.
In the caterpillar stage they can be very destructive because here they feed on plants and can destroy entire crops. The army caterpillars can destroy a farmer’s field in a short period of time. At the same time in many parts of the world, including South Africa, they are harvested as an important food source. The Mopani worms in this country comes to mind and in Mexico the caterpillars of the giant Skippers are eaten and also exported to other countries in tinned form. Remember to look in your local supermarket if you can find some!
Some of these insects serve other good purposes. For example it is the domesticated Silkworm that produces the beautiful material called silk. Butterflies also have a part to play in pollinating various plants and flowers.
Some people collect Butterflies, Skippers and Moths as a hobby and display them in cabinets. In the local museum you can look out for a display of these and other insects and you will be amazed at the large variety, the beautiful colours and the different sizes that you will see.
“But Grandpa you haven’t told us what kind of Butterfly that one is that we saw in the garden”. “Well to tell you the truth, I have not been able to find it in my book and so perhaps it is a new species. If you see it again try to catch it if you can and we will take it to the East London Museum and see if my friend there can identify it. If he can’t then maybe we have discovered a new species, won't that be exciting!”
Obviously I am going to have to look out for a better book on Butterflies so that I can identify the ones I photograph. Life seems to present new challenges on a regular basis. During a recent visit to Ndumo Game Reserve I met a group of Entomologists from the USA who were studying flies!