• Dickson’s Strandveld Copper, an uncommon species of butterfly, has a symbiotic relationship with ants. The ants pick up their larvae and carry them into their nests to obtain certain essential nutrients that the larvae exude. However, while in the nest the larvae (or caterpillars) turn on their hosts and start eating the ants’ larvae and pupae.
• A species of butterfly found on the West Coast practice what is known as “hill topping”. Dominant males circle over a koppie and fight off lesser males for supremacy and the right to mate. Their wings have very sharp barbs that they use as weapons.
• The ‘eye’ on most butterfly wings is a means of camouflage against predators. Predators, assuming that these eyes are on the butterfly’s head, attack them first. This allows the butterfly to escape, even though its wings might be torn and tattered.
Most people enjoy having butterflies in their gardens. However, many gardeners kill them whilst they are still in their larval stage as these caterpillars are perceived as worms that damage the plants.
There are over 800 butterfly species in South Africa and about 10 times as many moth species. Butterflies usually fly around during the day and moths during the night. Generally butterflies have clubbed or thick tipped antennae, while moths are feathery or gradually tapered. While resting most butterflies hold their wings up together above the body, while moths rest with their wings laid horizontally over the back.
The butterfly and moth life cycles have four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa and adult insect (butterfly or moth). Eggs hatch from 5 to 10 days into caterpillars. This is the main feeding stage of the insect’s life and the caterpillars consume many hundred times their own mass in food. Once fully grown, butterfly and moth larvae suddenly stop eating and pupate. During this period there is a complete transformation or metamorphosis from a caterpillar into a beautiful graceful flying creature. The duration of this stage is usually a few weeks, but some species are able to delay the emergence for a year or longer until conditions are favourable.
Many butterfly and moth larvae are specific in their plant choices and will only survive if their particular larval host plant is present. A good example of this is the Orange-banded Protea– butterfly found in areas where Protea plant species occur naturally. Its larvae feed exclusively on Sugarbushes. The larvae burrows its way into the flowerhead where it lives and pupates.
Butterflies obtain their food in liquid form. This is mainly nectar, but some species also feed on juices from rotten fruit, fermenting tree sap, or even liquid from faeces or dead animals.
Many butterflies, especially those coloured red and black are poisonous to birds. The well-known African Monarch is a good example of this. An interesting defense tactic is adopted by some palatable species and, although not poisonous, they look exactly like the poisonous species and even mimic its slow flight pattern.
Butterflies are part of the food chain and are preyed upon by birds, lizards, spiders, praying mantis etc. Only about 2% of the hundreds of eggs laid reach adulthood. A 98% loss of descendants sounds drastic, but actually indicates what an important food source they are for other creatures.