South Africa’s largest butterfly, Papilio ophidicephalus phalusco, the Emperor Swallowtail, Life History
The largest butterfly in Southern Africa is, without doubt, the Emperor Swallowtail (Papilio ophidicephalus). The insect is found throughout the mist forests in Southern Africa (through into East Africa). In South Africa we have a number of sub-species, ssp phalusco is found in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal as far north as Greytown, ssp zuluensis in the Eshowe area, ssp ayrsi in the Northern KZN into Southern Mpumalanga, ssp transvaalensis in the Drakensberg and Wolkberg Notrh of the Oliphants river and ssp entabeni in the Soutpansberg way up there in the Limpopo Province. There are a number of other ssp including the nominate further North but we shall stick to ssp phalusco, the one that I know most intimately myself being an inhabitant of their range.
Before I carry on, this post shall not go into detail regarding the length and duration of the instarts (period between skin sheds), as this has all been documented at length by the likes of Clarke and van Son. Instead I shall discuss what I observed during the short eight weeks of the cycle from egg to adult.
My old friend Clive Curtis has always been very pationate about butterflies. We have travelled all around the province together colelcting and breeding butterflies and he is currently working on a DVD about South African Butterflies (www.safarivision.com). Part of the work toward this is documenting the life histories of a particular species in each family. Clive chose the most spectacular of our swallowtails (P ophidicephalus phalusco) as one focus species to breed. He captured a female in the Karkloof had her lay about 20 eggs and past 15 on to me to breed at home.
The Papilionidae (swallowtails) are spectacular insects. All South African readers will know the Orange Dog (Papilio demedocus demedocus) or Green Banded Swallowtail (Papilio nireus lyaeus) from their gardens. These two breed on, amongst other plants, the Citrus species such as lemon, grapfruit and orange trees. Our species, the largest of all, is a far more selective eater. It eats a plant known as Clausena anisata (known as Perdepis in Afrikaans, loosely translated as Horse pee due to its smell when you crush the leaves). Anyway, the first stage of the life history is the egg. Eggs are laid lingly on leaves of the foodplant. The eggs are circular, cream coloured and between 1 and 1.5mm in diameter. It takes the little larvae take about five or six days to mature to eclosure or larval emergence. Just prior to the little larva breaking out of the egg it darkens up. Upon emerging from the egg the larva has its first meal, the old egg shell. To gat an idea of size the larva is approximately 2mm long on emergence. So, to photos, the first photo is of the egg while the second is of the young larva eating the egg shell.
OK, after the little creature eats its shell it settles into life as a butterfly larva. This is a dangerous life, birds, robber flies and spiders want to eat you, wasps and flies want to sting you and lay their eggs in your little body and have their babies grow in you (while you are still crawling around and eating). You are not equiped with very much to evade these hazards, you cannot crawl fast but you can hide. From the moment that these little larvae start to eat they begin to look like a piece of bird dropping. From the first to the fourth instar they larvae look like a bird dropping. They stay on the leaves, eating, growing and shedding skin until, after approximately four weeks they reach the final instar that is different. Of interest is that, during the third and fourth instars, the larvae rest with a slight twist to their body (see the photos below). Anyway, here are photos of the second, third and fourth instars.
The final instar is very different. Rather then resting on the leaves they spend their sleeping time at the base of the tree or branch. This means that they no longer need to resemble something grim like a bird dropping and are supprisingly different with beautiful green and brown patches on the skin. The lumps and bumps are still evident (indeed into the pupal stage). Of interest, the Papilio butterflies have a defensive mechanism, a foul smelling structure known as the ostometrium that it pops out of its head when threatened. As said they smell foul and obviously tell all attackers that they are not a pleasant tasting meal at all. Below are a number of photos of the final instar (and a couple with the mutters with their ostometrium exposed)
The most magical of all butterly larval stages has to be larva to pupa to butterfly. After 7 to 14 days as fifth instar larvae they get nice and fat and lethargic. The process of change begins. They slip off and find a safe place to spend the next two or three weeks as a vulnerable pupa. The Papilio butterflies all have a girdle holding the pupa in place. Like most other butterflies they spin a silk pad which that they attach themselves to (by anal appendages known as cremaster hooks). They also spin a girdle which is a little like you undoing your belt and slipping it around a branch and the fixing it. It allows you the spend your pupal stage, head up leaning back. The pupa is splendid, rather like a twig with a bit of lichen underneath.
Finally, after two to three weeks (and longer during winter) the adult emerges. Not much more can be said of the butterfly, most people have seen it. It is safe to say, and an awful cliche, that, like most jouneys the destination is great but the route is enlightening. The path to adulthood of these beautiful butterflies is full of risk. The response is a wonderful evolutionary result where larvae and papae are beautifully cryptic. Below are shots of a freshly emerged male.
Anyway, I must conclude by saying that if you want to see these butterflies, it is easy. All you need to do is get into open spaces within the mist forests on a sunny day in Summer (peak in November/December and again in March/April) and you will see them flitting around. An old trick is that they love the colour red. About 20 years ago I purchased a car for its colour, a bright red VW, and it was perfect to attract Papilio butterflies (especially P ophidicephalus and P euphranor) to come closer.
A few weeks ago I sent an email out to my friends inviting them to join me on a dash up Bushmans Neck to photograph Chrysoritis orientalis. A lot of interest and very little commitment was shown as the hill is very steep. Eventually two of us went. My old mate Clive Curtis, a professional hunter who can walk for a week before he starts panting and myself. I collected Clive at 05h30 from his house and we headed to Bushmans Neck. After a very misty drive we signed in at the Ezemvelo Gate and started the walk.
The path to the colony goes straight up the main ridge above the hotel, it is very steep and in some places precipitous on either side. On the way up we came across a small colony of Aloeides oreas. One particulary fresh male allowed us time to photograph him.
Clive has started a stock video company (linked to his hunting video business http://www.safari-vision.com/) and was able to get a lot of footage of this little chap. From here (about half was up) we dashed to the top. It took spot on an hour from the car park to the colony. I have visited the colony on a number of occations. Some on my own, once with Clive (where we had to sprint off the hill to avoid the huge lightning storm that appeared from Lesotho) and also once with Alan Heath where I found the larvae and Alan was able to breed the insect. Needless to say we walked the colony flat. We saw one very ropey female and nothing else. I suggest that we were far to late for the brood and should head up there again in October and November next year. That said we found two colonies of rocksitters on top. The species amakosa of the genus Durbania has been split into a number of subspecies. I collected a number of specimens from this locality 16 years ago and showed them to Steve Woodhall. They were nothing like our local insect, Durbania amakosa natalensis. I thought they were closer to the nominate amakosa however the red/orange patterning on the wings was far more extensive. Since then we have bred them from three localities and I am fairly sure now that they deserve subspecific status. Anyway, here are two males found in the upper colonies.
Again Clive got loads of footage of these. We then set off down the hill to see what we could find in the Proteas. Not long after entering the Protea stand we cam accross a male Capys alpheas, a butterfly whose larvae feed on the flower heads of Proteas. In the Proteas we also found more rocksitters. Further down the hill we came across a number of skippers. Spialia skippers have always confused me and here we had two of the 10 odd species. Anyway, I got home and IDed them (with confirmation from Steve Woodhall and skipper guru Johan Greyling). We found two, Spialia mafa and S asteroidia. I got a number of photos and Clive some video footage.
And finally a few candid shots of Clive photograhing the Spialia int he photograph above and on the walk home.
We got to the bottom absolutely famished and Clive treated me to lunch preceded by a iced lolly, one of those lollies where the packet should read “defrost and add 5l of water”, it was sweet but exactly what we needed. The usual conversation on the way home was a little less enthusiastic than usual as we were both rather tired. It is a hard climb and my cycling legs struggled!!
Things have been pretty wild for the last few weeks getting the Agric Hall going anf people have been asking me whats happening for December. Well December is here and the first person who will be in for the period Dec/Jan is Steve Bailey. Steve is an award winning Eastern Cape based photographer. A brief bio follows as do a number of photographs but please visit Steve site www.stevebailey.co.za for more information.
This December we hope to see Allen Hallett return to the Kiln after a very successful exhibition in Gaborone.
An now a brief bio :
“Steve Bailey was born in Liverpool, England and moved to Southern Africa when he was 10.
He has always had a passion for Photography – eventually studying Graphics/Photography, obtaining a City and Guilds Diploma in Graphic Reproduction.
He spent 25 years in Zimbabwe before moving to Cape Town, South Africa. He is now resident in Bedford in the Eastern Cape”, and a few photographs…..
A few weeks ago University of Natal art student, Sharon Weaving, approached Fran to use the Kiln at the Karkloof Farmers Market as a venue for the examination of her work. So, for the next week the Kiln is hers and her examiners. Next Saturday we will be back in and her work will be on view along with ours.
So, before I post photographs a short blurb on Sharon….
“I have always been passionate about art and craft. Whether ceramics, beadwork or knitting I find that creating with my hands is exciting, fulfilling and therapeutic. My passion stems from my Mom’s love for all handcrafts and the enjoyment she derives from experiencing a new craft and passing on her knowledge. I am excited to hear about the activities of new craft movements currently on the go. These are worldwide initiatives motivated by like-minded artists / crafters, young and old, encouraging people to appreciate all that is handmade. I think this is wonderful as these movements promote the ‘funky’ aspects of craft, and how contemporary art and craft can be used in development, activism and therapy. I believe that art and craft are such an important part of life and should be promoted as such.
I was first introduced to ceramics by attending underglaze painting classes which later progressed to running a ‘ceramic-painting’ studio from home. My passion for ceramics continued and I decided to study a BA (Visual Art) at UKZN, followed by Honours and Masters majoring in Ceramics. I started hand-building with porcelain in my Honours year, demonstrating an exploration of texture and translucency in my work. My ideas progressed further with the piercing of the vessel surface to create shadows.
The casting of shadows continued into the body of work that I now present. I started making geometric structural forms which were dipped in paper porcelain and fired to 1200˚C. The fired structure assumed a soft, organic quality in its slumped state which I found appealing, and continued to play with this element of ‘chance outcome’. Whilst working with these forms I discovered that I wanted to achieve a greater organic quality of form and decided to make the frames myself to have more command over the final product.
Countless test pieces later I discovered the composition of material, process and clay body suitable to create my recent works. Each piece is individually crocheted, dipped into an ‘engobe’ and dried over a mould. Once dry, the pieces are fired to 1200˚C, burning away the crochet cotton , leaving a hollow, fragile, porcelain structure each of which casts its own unique delicate shadow. I am very excited to have been able to use an age-old craft such as crochet in an unconventional manner thus illustrating that there is a place for time-honoured crafts in contemporary ceramics and other art forms.“
Again it has been a mad week with exams, work and getting the new gallery ready for opening. That asside Fran and I are nearly there and ready to have the gallery open next Saturday (the 12th). We will be sharing a room with Senqu at the Agric Hall in Howick.
To date the people exhibiting will be : Author and photographer Steve Woodhall, well known nature photographer and author Roger de la Harpe, Aritsts Denise Beuck and Andre de la Rosa, photographers Toni le Roux, Fran Simmons and myself. We are hoping that sculpture Allen Hallett will confirm as will Peter Wickham, Doug and Deryck Morton and Cheryl Logan.
Tony Thomson, local Amber valley resident and artist, will man the gallery and paint during the week.
This gallery, like the one at the Farmers Market, has been established as a showpiece for local artists and photographers. You will not find a selection of Midlands material as diverse and unique as this anywhere else so stop off and have a coffee, say “Hi” to Tony and have a look. I am sure that you will like what is to be seen.
And now some photos of material that will be on display (apologies for those who follow my blog as a few of these will be repeats).
The first photograph is Toni le Roux’s. Toni entered this into the “Natural History” category of the N3TC competition this year and won the category!!
Next we have Steve Woodhall. Steve is the president of the Lepidopterists Society of Africa and author of a number if books on butterflies (all of which will be available at the Kiln)
The Kiln Gallery at the Karkloof Farmers Market and soon to be at the Howick Agricultural Hall as well.
I have not posted for a while, mainly because I have been away in the Northern Province and further working rather hard with Fran and Doug getting our new venture going. The new one is another Gallery. Doug and Fran started the Kiln at the Karkloof Farmers Market and two months into it we were approached by Laurence Hancock, a local farmer and business man, about establishing a permanent exhibition at the Howick Agricultural Hall. This was to be open 7 days a week which would help us enormously. Anyway, we have been getting printing done, sorting out painting and trying to employ people. Hence no posts.
Oh, and I forgot to add, if you have not been to the Kiln FB page then do, and like it and you will be kept up to date with all the goings-on. See http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Kiln-Gallery/192143797488771
The new gallery opens its doors on the 12th November so we hope to see everyone there!! Anyway, to close off a few pictures. Bye!!
This last weekend Steve Woodhall, Michael Purves and I decided to hike up Bulwer Mountain to attempt to find and photograph the Drakenberg Daisy Copper, Chrysoritis oreas. This insect was first discovered by South African butterfly legend Ken Pennington on the higher slops of the Drakensberg in Loteni area. A few people visited the spot and collected specimens however I do not know of anyone who knows where this type locality is. In the 1980’s Clive Quickleberge and my old friend Wolter Kaspers were on the Bulwer Mountain when Wolter presented Clive with a little copper that he had caught. It was the Drakensberg Daisy Copper and Bulwer mountain is the only known locality besides the type. I have visited the mountain a number of times. The butterfly holds particular significance for me as the day that I trekked back from my first hike up the mountain was the day that I met my wife, Tracey. In 1997 I visited the mountain with Alan and Jenny Heath, Tony Brinkman and Tracey. On this trip Alan identified the foodplant (Thesium sp), the ant and got to breed the butterfly for the first time.
Saturdays trip was to secure a series of digital photographs of the insect, live and in habitat. Steve had photographed the butterfly on film once before.
We left Howick a little late as Steve was caught in traffic but got to the town of Bulwer in good time. The drive up to the Paragliding launch spot was a lot rougher than I remember and the climb a lot steeper. Steve was fighting off the last of a chest cold so we took it slowly. After an hour we were up on the ridge below the colony. There we came across Penningtons Protea (Capys penningtoni) hilltopping. This is another rare butterfly endemic to this area. Like other members of the genus this insect breeds on the heads of protea flowers. In the case of Penningtons Protea the foodplant os the widespread Protea caffra. After unsuccessfully trying to photograph the Penningtons Protea we wondered over into the habitat of the little copper. After a hour of searching we had found nothing but a few ragged Penningtons protea and a very weather-beaten Mooi River Opal (Chrysoritis lycegenes). Eventually there was a yell from Steve, he had seen one. Typical of these insects that live on the top of a windy hills, they fly low and shelter in the grass. Steve had found a female, we followed her and she barrelled into a tuft of grass. I was able to get a photograph before she shot off not to be seen again. About half an hour later, after searching the area and finding nothing but a few Penningtons coppers (Aloeides penningtoni) Steve again saw a female. This lady was a lot more co-operative and we all got a number of upper and underside shots. While this was happening I noticed something dart onto an Osteospermum flower. It was a male and it gave me enough time to get a number of photographs. All in all we estimated that there were five specimens in the area. All very fresh meaning we must have hit the begin of the brood. Before leaving we were able to induce a female to lay a few eggs for Steve to take home to photograph and breed.
The hike back was tough but made easier by our success. It was good to again make the acquaintance of this beautiful and very rare insect.