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June 2015

Autumn is now well advanced and as we enter our traditionally colder months of June and July one wonders what sort of winter awaits us. We must prepare for the worst and ensure that our fire protection measures are in place. As it is still unusually warm, some annual weeds persist and the perennials have not as yet been knocked back by frost so chemical control may still be effective.

Thankfully there is still much that is colourful and interesting in nature at this time of year. Butterflies with their beautiful and vibrant colours have fascinated mankind through the ages. There are approximately 20,000 species of butterfly worldwide. SA has 666 of these, a vast number for a country that largely lies outside the Tropics. SA’s butterfly richness is largely attributable to the many specialist species that have adapted to niches created by our arid and temperate climate and our diverse vegetation types. Many of our butterflies are endemic (found nowhere else in the world).

Both butterflies and moths belong to the Order Lepidoptera which stems from the Greek word for wing scales. Before we investigate butterflies in more depth it may be appropriate to answer frequently asked questions about butterflies:

  • How long do butterflies live? It is a fallacy that butterflies are short-lived, lasting only a few days. Even those that do not feed as adults live for about a week. Some of the more robust species can live for several months and those that are distasteful to predators can live much longer.
  • Do butterflies die if they lose the powder from their wings? This “powder” that comes off when butterflies are handled is in fact wing scales. Loss of these scales will do no harm nor impede flight. Severe damage to the forewing is more serious and may impede flight but damage to the hind wing seems to not affect flight ability.
  • What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?Strictly speaking, there is no difference since both belong to the insect order Lepidoptera. They all have scale-covered wings and bodies and undergo complete metamorphosis (the transformation from the larval to adult state).

Insummary, the major “accepted” differences between butterflies and moths are:

  • Butterflies are day-flying and moths are night-flying. There are however many exceptions since there are as many day-flying moths as there are butterflies and some butterflies fly at dusk or at night.
  • Moths have hairy bodies that are large in proportion to the wings.Butterfly bodies are slender and less hairy.Skipper butterflies are the exception having large hairy bodies.
  • Moths are dull and brown whereas butterflies are brightly coloured. Most day-flying moths and many night-flying ones are as brightly coloured as butterflies and there are many sombre-coloured butterflies.
  • Moths sit with their wings flat over their backs and butterflies fold theirs vertically. Many skipper and some nymph butterflies habitually rest with wings held flat. Some moths fold their wings vertically but no butterflies sit with wings curled round their bodies as do many moths.
  • Moths’ fore and hind wings are held together by a frenulum whereas butterflies rely largely on the overlap between fore and hind wings. Some skipper butterflies have a frenulum.
  • Butterfly antennae usually end in a club and are straight, whereas moth antennae are usually filamentous, feathered or curved. Many butterfly antennae are curved (e.g. skippers). Some butterflies have un-clubbed antennae and many moths have clubbed antennae.

As can be seen above, the above are general guides to separating butterflies from moths but there are many exceptions. Next month, we will explore butterflies in more detail.
References: Field Guide to Butterflies of SA Steve Woodhall.

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